Sunday, September 5, 2010

Avatar: Last of the Airbenders

Oh, how I loved watching the "Avatar: The Last Airbender" anime series created and produced by full blown Nippon-philes, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. I actually watched all three seasons in three days straight, an act I reserve for the most worthy Korean melodramas. So, you could only imagine my glee when I learned it was being make into a 3D movie directed by "Sixth Sense" fame director, M. Night Shymalan. Only other pimple faced Nickelodeon devotees and equally pimple faced, mid-life geeks could have been more excited. Watching the teaser from last year, I thought this reported trilogy could possibly trump my much beloved, "Lord of the Rings."

What the teaser didn't let up was that the main characters of the all-Asian cast in the anime would be replaced by nearly all non-Asians in the movie. In fact, during the casting for the four leading roles of Aang, Katara, Sokka and Zuku, producers specifically asked for "Caucasian or any other ethnicity". They succeeded in casting them all white before the Zuku character was changed from Jesse McCartney to Dev Patel due to scheduling conflicts. Inversely, casting for extras called for interested individuals to "come to our OPEN CASTING CALL, dress casually, OR in the traditional costume of your family's ethnic background."

Producers did all this because they knew they could get away with it. What they did was equivalent to casting the main characters of the 1977 television mini-series, "Roots", all white! They didn't do it then and they don't do that now because there's a fear to screw over black people. There's strong political groups like the NAACP that would make noise. There's no such fear against the Asian Americans.

But, this time was different. The outcry was heard internationally. First off, Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) quickly contacted Paramount to discuss the casting discrepancies. Paramount systematically dismissed accusations of racial discrimination and more importantly, made no changes to the cast. Fans worldwide were outraged and individuals formed advocacy groups to bring light to the issues, notably, Their investigation into the matter helped reveal racial discrimination in Hollywood. I even complied with's call to boycott the movie. So, for the first time in history, I am critiquing a movie without seeing it. 7% rating on and being considered one of the worst movies of all times did not hurt my decision either.

Some may argue that the film's producers practiced color blind casting. That's a great concept only if you naively believe we live in a post-racial America and there's racial equality in Hollywood. For instance, you rarely see an actor of color play a typically white role– say, as some of the main characters or even extras of "Braveheart." Inversely, white Hollywood still employs the "yellow face" to play non-white roles. It's so blatant but nothing has changed for decades. So, of course I am outraged that in 2010 we still have the same kind of "yellow face" casting that existed in movies like "The Good Earth" back in 1937. It is equivalent to the justification of colonialism as, "the natives cannot possibly take care of themselves so we need to show them how by taking over their lands and subjugating their people." Asians simply cannot be trusted to play themselves. They are not capable of being heroes and saving the world.

How could this have happened with an Indian born director at the helms? My best speculation is that Shymalan never fully understood the series or cared for it much, but thought he could pitch a trilogy to make some money. The producers insisted on a white cast with promise of more casting autonomy in future projects. Since Shymalan could give a flying rat's ass about "Airbender," thought to himself, "yeah, I'll cast
it white, no one will notice." Or, "non-whites don't watch movies anyway."

Yes, I'm flippant, but it's because I am genuinely saddened by the lack of heart and care taken to render the truly awesome anime series into a film. Shymalan was reported to have learned about "Airbender" from his daughter. I wonder if she has disowned him. Because she, like so many "Airbender" fans, could see how Shymalan lacked passion and love for the story and what makes it so beautiful.

At the core of the "Airbender" anime is not only the Asian faces but the diverse Asian and Inuit cultural references. The nations representing the elements: air, fire, earth and water, is decisively East Asian. The Buddhist ideals of reincarnation and mindfulness found in the Air Nation stems from South Asian beliefs. The list goes on.

Hence, the "Airbender" movie is about culture appropriation as well as "racebending". These acts have ruined what is great about the anime series and I refuse to watch any of
Shymalan's interpretations. Shame on him for not giving face and voice to Asian Americans. Shame on Hollywood for their racist casting and cultural appropriation. Shame on anyone who would not think critically on this matter.

Below illustrates some of my sadness about the whole thing.


Que said...
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Que said...

Terrific article!, truth be told. Makes you wonder what one thinks about when developing a film. Especially when the story whose main characters are non-white are depicted. With that said, I could hardly believe that in 2010, a movie such as the avatar would actually have the "balls" to white-wash the cast as they did. Lets face people, racism is alive amd well and the election of Obama as the first "colored" president has not changed anything. Some ignorantly proclaimed the end of racism in this country and actually believed the sentiment. Last time I looked, M Night Shyamalan is of indian decent. Has he conveniently forgotten his color?, he to is considered a minority? Did he take the money and flatly did not give a damn? or know anything of the animated series?... Ah yes!, i have the answer...
He believed, along with the studio, that Asians the world over would simply accept and agree without so much as a word of protest regarding character changes in ethnicity. Well, the Media Action Network for Asian Americans shocked there asses and shook the world simply saying: "BULLSHIT!"..., I'm sure "the man" didn't expect that "jack move". What was expected, Asians would remain passive and just accept what's is done is done! Its about time incorrect mindset has bitten the correct people in the ASS! The Last Airbender has become a commercial and critical flop considered one of the worst movies of all time and deservedly so. The movie did manage to do one thing correct though... and that was to piss-off fans from the airbender animated series world wide!

Gosh... another well though, well executed plan from hollywood or hollyweird for lack of a better term...