M. Night Shyamalan's movie version Avatar: The Last Airbender is apparently in danger already, as fans of the original animated series protest seemingly racist casting decisions. Is there nothing the director can do right anymore?
There's no way of getting around it; the announcement last week of the actors chosen to play the lead roles in the adaptation of the Nickelodeon animated series was... well, much more controversial than the filmmakers had undoubtedly intended. After all, who could find anything offensive about Twilight's Jackson Rathbone, Deck The Halls' Nicola Peltz or teen pop idol Jesse McCartney?
Let's ask some of the fans, shall we? Ahem:
They're all caucasian. Every. Single. One. Of. Them.
Now that I have avoided destroying my keyboard like that famous kid on youtube, or damaging anything in my vicinities (except my blood pressure is spiking…), let's consider this.
This is made of FAIL. EPIC FAIL. Inserting white characters, which you can see in nearly all of the show in the important and admirable roles, into a series that had a diverse cast that was incredibly admirable, and would provide a GREAT way of having minority kids in the states identify with them, is made of PHAIL. Paramount Pictures, you need to kick yourself. M. Shyamalan, please tell me, what. the. fuck? I'll admit to knowing next to nothing of when I fuck up race-wise, (which is probably often) but I do my best to apologize and own up when it comes around. But even I would NEVER think of your mess up. I mean. Seriously.
Yes, the fact that a cartoon that is clearly filled with non-caucasian characters and based on Asian culture finds itself being... well, whitewashed when it comes to casting has definitely got people talking about the movie. Sadly, they're saying things like this:
What does this casting choice say to me, the angry Asian man? It says that every time somebody speaks more slowly and loudly to me because they assume that English isn't my first tongue, they're right to do so, because I'm not normal. It says that when my freshman year roommate thought that the delivery guy calling with my order was my dad, I shouldn't have been offended, because the guy sounded Chinese on the phone, so how was he supposed to know, right? It says that every time somebody asks me to translate a random set of pictographic characters for them, they're right to do so, because I know ancient Asian secrets. It says that when Rosie O'Donnell said that Asian people talk in alternating tones of ching chong ching chong, she wasn't being offensive, because we really do all sound like that. It says that even though Konietzko and DiMartino took pains to articulate themes of diversity and multiculturalism, all their work was for naught, because people don't really want to look at people who look like me. It says that every time somebody thinks of me as the other, they're right, because I am.
So thanks, Paramount and M. Night Shyamalan. Thanks for telling me exactly where me and mine belong in the grand scheme of things. Stupid of me to think that it could ever be anything but.
Don't even tell me they couldn't "find" enough English-speaking Asian teenage actors to play four measly character leads in the first movie. They recruited their Zuko from a band for heaven's sake (and seriously, picked the two whitest—and I'm talking about pigment here—teens I've ever seen to play the two darkest lead characters.) It follows that if they got Asian leads, they'd have to have Asian supporters since the respective nations were pretty homogenous, but you know what? Mel Gibson rounded up enough people of color to play an ancient civilization in Apocalypto; the BBC and HBO just collaborated on House of Saddam; Heroes wrangled up enough people of color to populate an Indian city and ancient Japan; even a mid-budget New Zealand production like Xena managed to film a handful of episodes set in fake!China and fake!Japan without resorting to, "here's some Caucasian people; pretend they're Asian plz"—DO NOT tell me there ain't a comparable amount of English-speaking Asians out there who'd be happy to traipse about in costume for a picture that would be the coolest thing Hollywood has ever done re: Asian culture since.. ever.
Oh, and this:
For me, as you have just read, Avatar casting is just another in a long line of disappointments I have learnt to identify, to articulate and to ultimately accept. It wasn't easy to learn to do that, to talk about my own powerlessness against racism. Avatar, now, is just another example I can bring up in a conversation about racism, cultural appropriation, whitewashing and white privilege. For my wee nephews, though, this is one of the first in a long line of explicit and unequivocal cultural cues regarding identity and race that will shape their view of the world and their place in it.
This is the manifestation of white privilege, white supremacy ideology and culture that many white people blithely continue to deny exists. White people can so blind to this privilege, it's so much the norm that they really do believe it really is only another movie, another book, another policy completely unrelated to each other. That it just so happens that the privileging of whiteness and white culture happens and ensures white cultural dominance and there are no repercussions.
My nephews will either have to succumb to it or untangle it later in life but they are already being cued to believe, to *know* that non-white people/PoC have no place as active protagonists in mainstream culture, cutural content or society. They are being taught that culture, society and the audience really means white culture, white society and white audience. The default is white and the desires and goals of mainstream white society and their identification with a product or a policy is the most important and most privileged.
My favorite response came from Glockgal; this is only a small excerpt of a much longer post:
Acting ability aside, no it is NOT RIGHT. The Avatar animated series is mired with and 100% composed of Asian influences. The world, the cultures, the people, the costumes, the script, the belief systems, the references, the mythology - everything is Asian-or-Inuit based. Casting all-white actors to play roles that should go to fully capable Asian/PoC actors is insulting and discriminatory.
As for acting ability: I refuse - refuse - to believe that there are ZERO Asian and/or PoC and/or mixed-race actors to play these parts. It's a pathetic idea that only white kids were capable of acting and looking like all four main roles... I'm glad you think it's just a movie. Must be really nice to have such a life where you don't feel discrimination, and therefore cannot possibly conceive how it must feel to have something that clearly celebrates multiculturalism taken away from you. Great! Just don't tell me to 'chill out' because I'm angry. I can make my voice heard and I want to entreat others as well. So let us cute widdle PoCs make our cute little grr!fight and you can run along pretending racism is over, okay?
As a result, a letter-writing campaign is already underway to try and get studio executives to voice complaint about the decisions, but you do have to wonder why the decision was made in the first place - Were the filmmakers just unaware of how their core audience would respond, or hoping to spark a (controllable) controversy to get people talking about the movie?