Does it matter when a white actor plays an Asian role? M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender is a case study of the polarizing battle between colorblindness and race consciousness in Hollywood.
The buzz surrounding the recently released film The Last Airbender has been fueled, in part, by controversy surrounding the ethnic makeup of its cast. Based on a popular animated series from Nickelodeon, this live-action adaptation, directed by M. Night Shyamalan, has been slammed by fans and critics for its casting of white actors in roles originally written for Asians.
The original Nickelodeon series, Avatar: The Last Airbender, was intentionally and respectfully rooted in Asian and Inuit culture, according to Michael Le, a representative for the website Racebending.com, which has been tracking the controversy and trying to raise awareness surrounding race issues in casting. So concerned were fans of the series after the casting announcement, that series co-creator Bryan Konietzko was compelled to state, via his MySpace page, that “I have nothing to do with the casting whatsoever for the feature film.”
According to Le and other jilted fans, the casting of white actors as main characters like Aang and Katara indicates not only a lack of respect for the source material, but more importantly, a slap in the face to actors of Asian descent who might have given great portrayals, but who apparently never even had a fair shot at auditioning for the roles.
The smoking gun in this whole affair is the original casting call, which allegedly included the parenthetical phrase, “Caucasian or any other ethnicity” next to each of the lead roles. According to detractors, this clause indicates at least a clear bias against Asians, if not a sign of institutional racism. The flames of controversy leapt even higher when white actor Jesse McCartney bowed out of the project due to scheduling conflicts, and was replaced by Slumdog Millionaire actor Dev Patel. While this meant there finally would be one actor of color in a lead role, that role happened to be the character of Prince Zuko — the villain.
The racism charge has been flatly denied by producer Frank Marshall, who claimed that the language in the casting call was written by a third party. This explanation was refuted by Le, who, upon hearing Marshall’s statement, provided evidence to the contrary.
The accusations of racism appear to have especially stung director Shyamalan, given his Indian background. In a recent interview, he responded:
I’m always surprised at the level of misunderstanding, the sensitivities that exist. As an Asian American, it bothers me when people take all of their passion and rightful indignation about the subject and then misplace it. … The irony is that I’m playing on the exact prejudices that the people who are claiming I’m racist are doing. They immediately assume that everyone with dark skin is a villain. That was an incredibly racist assumption, which as it turns out, is completely incorrect.
Supporters of the Racebending site have an ally in legendary film critic Roger Ebert, who not only denounced the original casting decision last December, but panned The Last Airbender as a whole, ending his review with the following bon mot: “I close with the hope that the title proves prophetic.”
Colorblindness, or Just Plain Blind?
After filtering through all of the discussion and controversy, it seems as though there are two schools of thought regarding the issue.
On one side, you have many casual fans asking, “What’s the big deal?” According to this thinking, Shyamalan has a right to cast anyone he wants, and since Airbender is part of a fictional universe, race shouldn’t enter into the conversation. Many of these people regard the accusation of racism as political correctness run amok. A few of them might even suggest that the Racebending argument is, itself, racist. Why should these roles be set aside for Asians only, they ask. Isn’t it about finding the best actor for the role?
On the other side, you have many passionate fans of the original who find it ludicrous that a movie adaptation of a fictional series based on Asian and Inuit culture features few, if any, people of color in the lead role. This casting omission is made all the more egregious and glaring considering 1) the dearth of lead roles in American feature films for Asian actors, and 2) the obvious bias in the language of the casting call, which appeared to reveal a preference for white actors. Add it up, and it looks like a textbook case of institutional racism driving the Hollywood profit machine.
Central in this ideological divide are the following questions:
What constitutes racism in America today? Is it more racist to ignore racial differences, or to point out racial differences and act upon them?
There are elements of truth in each argument.
I think M. Night Shyamalan has a right to be indignant. It’s his movie, so I must take his comments at face value and believe that he honestly picked the actors that best fit his vision for the film. And I do think, in a perfect world, that race-neutral casting is a standard worth striving for. And since biracial and multiracial entertainers, athletes, and politicians are becoming more and more prominent (see: Paula Abdul, Vin Diesel, Tiger Woods, Barack Obama, etc.) it’s becoming harder and harder to keep score across racial lines.
But, alas, we don’t live in a perfect world.
And the history of Hollywood mirrors the rest of American society with a pattern of pervasive and systemic racism that has consistently and disproportionately benefited white people at the expense of people of color.
I am thankful that this trend is, slowly but surely, turning.
But I am saddened that, being an ethnic minority in an industry dominated by white people in the highest levels of film production, management, and oversight, Shyamalan has chosen to lash out, rather than to acknowledge at least the appearance of impropriety. Maybe deep in his heart he knows he acted without malice and resents anyone implying otherwise.
Or maybe, just maybe, he hadn’t thought much about it until the casting decisions were made and the backlash had started.
Peggy McIntosh, in her influential essay, “Unpacking The Invisible Knapsack,” unloads an informal list of all of aspects of white privilege that she has observed firsthand. One of those aspects can be paraphrased as the ability to choose whether or not race enters into any particular discussion as a relevant issue.
I see this privilege at play every time I see a white person claiming an ethic of colorblindness in defending against attacks of racism. When it comes to the “faces on the stage” (be it a conference, concert, play, film or whatever) it’s easy to say that the colors of the faces don’t matter — as long as the faces look like yours.
That’s the real crux of the issue.
I believe the casting calls said “Caucasian or any other ethnicity” not because the casting agents had an active dislike of other ethnicities, but rather because white is their default option. And whether it was because of overt prejudice, marketing considerations, or the actual skill of all the actors considered, that default option became reality.
When Asians Don’t Exist
I’m sure that the Asian Americans behind Racebending.com would be just fine with white people in Asian roles if it were commonplace to find Asians in otherwise white roles. If Asian actors were regularly cast as the iconic Lukes and Leias of the film world, or cast in the Westley and Buttercup roles, or the Neo and Trinity roles, then maybe things would be different.
But generally speaking, they aren’t. The numbers don’t lie.
And yes, for those of you who like to nitpick, I should state for the record that Keanu Reeves is actually multiracial — his father was Hawaiian and Chinese, and his mother was English.
But if anything, Reeves is the exception that proves the rule. He might have slipped under my actors-of-color radar entirely, except for the fact that his name is “Keanu,” which is Hawaiian for “cool mountain breeze.” If he changed his name like James Roday (of USA Network’s Psych, born James David Rodriguez) or countless other entertainers who ditched their ethnic-sounding family names for stage names, I’d have just assumed he was white and been done with it.
Because in Hollywood, white is the default standard, black is the trendy alternative, Latinos are stereotypes, and Asians might as well not even exist.
If this Airbender flap has proven nothing else, it shows that even in a tailor-made franchise with a successful director of color at the helm, sometimes Asians don’t even get to play Asians.
It may not be racism, but Michael Le and his associates certainly coined the right term. It’s racebending, and in our enlightened, 21st century, “post-racial” America, it shouldn’t be the standard anymore.
Fantastic article. 🙂
Thanks for such a great summary of the issue and a well-thought out and two-sided discussion. Your conclusion shows just how many other issues are involved here, clearly and concisely. Keep up the excellent work!
Thanks for writing this. You pretty much summed up the whole issue in your article.
This is one of the best articles I’ve read on this subject. Succinct! Nice work 🙂
wow. this is the most informed, balanced and succinct article i’ve read on the racebending problem.
Fantastic article, Jelani! I agree with all of your points wholeheartedly. I find it really unfair that the characters who were Asian in the show were replaced by Caucasians, and the people of color represented the villain(s). M Night, a person of color himself, was well aware of this. Here is an interview with him regarding race in the movie: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A5iwrY4xps4&playnext_from=TL&videos=GqPszrP5gW4
Fastforward to 4:45 onward where he claims that the movie’s cast is “culturally diverse,” claims that he himself (and Dev Patel also) is an “an appropriate Asian,” then concludes that “it saddens me that there has to be a tiny group of people […] that have an agenda.”
For some reason I believe his remarks are directed towards people like us and I really pity him for it. His defensive argument claiming that both he and Dev are “Asian” is true yes, but still absurd in that he fails to see the real point of it all.
Anyway, excellent article!
Great post. As someone whose not into movies and had heard mention of the issues but not the details in this one, I found it engaging and concise in the specific details. Thanks.
P.S. It was fun to get to the end and recognize the name. Your father just came to serve as interim pastor at our church (Sanctuary Covenant in Minneapolis). Small world.