The Last Airbender is The Last Straw

I am never surprised when Hollywood takes a story with Asian characters and casts white people instead of Asians. This is so typical and happens with such frequency! I always thought that in order to make our presence known in entertainment, we should be writing, bringing our dreams and realities to the cinema, but now even telling our own stories isn’t even enough.

Why is it better to have white actors play the roles of Asians? I don’t understand. Because it sells more tickets? I am not white and I have had no trouble selling tickets. Maybe the powers that be should ask me what to do.  I would tell them. “The Last Airbender” is the last straw to a lot of people:

—— Forwarded Message
From: Boone Adkins
Date: Tue, 14 Apr 2009 13:51:36 -0400
To: margaretcho
Subject: Racism Against Asians in the casting of The Last Airbender: Would you help us?

Dear Margaret,

I love your standup! Your comedy is as deep as it is hilarious, and touches on a lot of issues I feel strongly about. I’m a college student who is Asian American (I’m half-Thai) and who is involved with the LGBT community as an ally, so I feel I can relate to you from two angles. I’m emailing you to inform you of a controversy that you may not be aware of, and to get your support.

It boils down to this: The hugely popular Asian-themed (as opposed to European-themed) fantasy Avatar: the Last Airbender is being adapted from animated TV to a live action movie by Paramount Pictures. The fantasy world of the original series is very well researched and very ASIAN – kung fu throws fireballs, people wear kimonos and hanboks, the art style is influenced by traditional Chinese painting and anime, and everybody eats with chopsticks and writes in Chinese. There is also a heavy Inuit influence in the design and culture of the Water Tribe.

And yet the producers of this movie thought it would be best to forgo talented Asian kids and cast three WHITE actors in the leading roles! Even with Asian actors in supporting roles and as extras, it sends the message that ‘Only white people can be heroes. Asian people can’t save themselves – they need white heroes to save them.’ There are stories about Asian kids who auditioned who now think their race isn’t okay, that they have to be white to get a role. Possibly to try to soothe angry fans, Paramount recast the main villain with an Indian actor and several supporting villains with other dark-skinned actors. So the message is still that ‘Only white people can be heroes,’ but it adds another message that ‘The evil Fire Nation are dark skinned, so dark skinned people are obviously evil.’ It’s offensive to Asian Americans like myself, damaging to our children, and hurtful to fans of the original series.

I beg you to lend a hand. There’s a small grassroots movement protesting Paramount’s casting decisions. Just a few words would do so much! But don’t take my word for it – more information can be found at www.racebending.com (especially http://racebending.com/youcanhelp.php) and http://aang-aint-white.livejournal.com/.

Sincerely,
Boone Jaisard Adkins

———————————————
From: Crystal Knoll
Date: Fri, 27 Mar 2009 02:02:20 -0700
To: margaretcho
Subject: the last airbender

Hi Margaret!

I’m a big admirer of yours and a longtime fan.

I was wondering if you had heard about the new M Night Shyamalan film, The Last Airbender. It’s based on a recent Nickelodeon children’s cartoon, Avatar: The Last Airbender, which was an amazing series set in a feudal fantasy world of magic – but unlike most fantasies that are based on European legends and culture, it was based on a variety of Asian cultures and ideas. All the characters in the series were Asian or Northwestern Aboriginal/Inuit inspired, as well as all the architecture, clothing, a lot of the plot structure, etc.

The movie adaptation has started filming, and originally cast all four lead characters (three heroes and one villain) with white actors. The white actor playing the villain (Jesse McCartney!) dropped out and was replaced by Dev Patel, so now we have three white heroes and one brown villain. Did I mention the villain came from a nation of genocidal tyrants? Yeah.

Anyways, you blogged once about 21, and how that was white-washed. Maybe that was worse because it was based on real events, but since this movie is aimed at kids there’s a lot of us that think this is pretty egregious too.

If you want to know more there is a great website set up at http://www.racebending.com/

http://aang-aint-white.livejournal.com also has great posts about it,
and is the home of a letter-writing campaign. I understand you’re on tour just now and probably very busy, but we’d love to hear what you have to say about it!

Lots of love,

-Tally Knoll

———————————————

From: Min Yang
Date: Thu, 12 Feb 2009 23:10:43 -0800
To: margaretcho
Subject: We Need Your Help! The Last Airbender Racist Casting

Hi Margaret, First of all I would like to say I am a big fan of you. I think you are a great role model for Asian-Americans and I am so impressed by what you have accomplished. I am not sure if you have heard about this controversy over the casting of the Avatar: Last Airbender movie.

I am not sure if you have ever seen this Nickelodean cartoon, but it is mega popular cartoon that features a world that is heavenly inspired by Asian cultures. The main characters practice martial arts that give them the ability to control four different elements: air, water, fire and earth.

M Night Shyamalan is directing the live action movie and they recently cast the four main characters of the show. In the cartoon, the four main character are clearly Asian and Intuit/Native American, but for the movie… they cast 3 White actors to play the parts.

http://www.slashfilm.com/2008/12/10/first-look-the-cast-of-the-last-airbender/

I am part of a large and dedicated group of fans who are trying to raise awareness for this clear case of discrimination. We are wondering if there is anyway you can mention this issue in your next video and please help us spread the word on this injustice!

You can read about all the issues and the letter writing campaign and demonstrations at the following sites:

1) Letter Writing Campaign
http://aang-aint-white.livejournal.com/

2) Blog by award winning Asian-American graphic novelist who is rallying industry professionals and other blogs
http://derekkirkkim.blogspot.com/2009/01/new-day-in-politics-same-old-racist.html
http://glockgal.livejournal.com/375625.html
http://ciderpress.livejournal.com/209919.html

3) San Francisco Chronicle Column on the subject
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/g/a/2009/01/28/apop012809.DTL

4) Heated debates on the IMDB.com column… the amount of ignorant and racist comments you see here are shocking
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0938283/board/threads/

5) Facebook group
http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=54866461619&ref=mf

I appreciate anything you can do!
Thank you so much,
Min

68 Comments. Add To The Mix…

  1. Wowww, blkbandit, let’s leave the anti-Semitism out of this, shall we? There’s enough discrimination going on here already, thanks.

  2. Im sorry i just have to say this im sick of people complaining Avatar: The last Airbender is not set in Asia the Charcters are not asian sure the sure the diffrent forms of bending are Inspired by Asian Matrial Arts but thats it.

  3. dave: Have you ever actually, I don’t know, watched this show?

    1. All writing in the show is in Chinese characters.
    2. The wheel of incarnation (from Hindu, Taoist, Buddhist philosphy). Aka: the whole Avatar thing.
    3. Their clothing
    4. Their names (Aang, Sokka, Katara, Zuko, Toph Bei Fong)
    5. The architecture of the Earth Kingdom, Fire Nation, Northern Water Tribe and Air Nomads (The Southern Water Tribe has to be excluded because it’s obvious they are modeled after Inuit/Siberian Yupik and live in igloos/tents)
    6. Aang lived in a Tibetan-style temple and quotes the monks’ teachings on several occasions.

    So in conclusion, you’ve never payed attention to this show (or you’ve never ever seen Asian culture in the real world, in which case you’d have to be excused).

    If they cast Toph Bei Fong as a white girl in the second movie, I think I may die laughing. Better yet, she should be black (Paramount apparently cast some Earth Kingdom extras as black after fans’ outcry. How ironic of them).

  4. I know this post is a bit old (more than a month!) but I thought I’d leave a comment, since I know there will be people here after this, reading the comments.

    To the person who said that humanity is one race… perhaps technically you’re right. But even if we were viewing ourselves as one race, without the cultural stigma attached to characteristics like skin tone, the film should STILL be cast with people native to the Asian regions. Why, you ask? Because the world of the story is based on ASIAN cultures and ASIAN writing and religion and architecture and fashion, etc. An area of the world, where humans have certain physical characteristics. It wouldn’t be LOGICAL to populate a country based heavily on Korean culture and so forth with people from Africa, because they aren’t the proper CULTURE. It might seem like a different word for the same thing, but… even if we don’t DISCRIMINATE and SEPARATE based on ancestry, if a story is based in the history of a certain area, even if it’s a fictional world heavily based on the history of a certain area, it should also be cast with people who could, appearance-wise, BE from that area. If we were “race blind”, as it were, this would be common sense (I’d hope). So either way you turn it, it comes out the same: The Last Airbender’s cast should be ASIAN.

    And to the people who are saying that we shouldn’t be so “shocked” and “surprised” and so forth, because this is what Hollywood does? I just say that I think everyone’s mostly surprised that they cast white kids in what has repeatedly been called an ASIAN world. It was always a fear, but with how popular the original series was, and how often and openly it had been described as an ASIAN world, we thought that maybe Hollywood would get the hint. We had our hopes dashed, and we’re angry about that as well as the casting. I think a lot of people would LIKE to have some faith in Hollywood again, and every once in a while, something happens that gets our hopes up, and then they do something like THIS and we get pessimistic again.

    And for anyone who thinks it doesn’t matter? These characters are heroes for COUNTLESS children of Asian descent. Paramount’s casting is a slap in the face to them, telling them that even if they can get cartoons about kids like them, they’re not good enough to be in the movies. It’s telling them that white kids are better than them, more popular than them, more talented than them, and better loved than them, and THAT is unacceptable.

  5. You for a guy (Shamaylan) who casts at least one member of his race (indian) randomly in everyone of his movies you would think he would be a little more sensitive to the issue. It’s really fucking stupid the way this film has been cast. It’s an asian anime for christ sake! There’s no excuse for it. But then again this is Hollywood and there are usually only about three gross misrepresentations of people of each nationality of the world allowed to represent and I guess all of the actors from crouching tiger hidden dragon and Jackie Chan were busy.

  6. They’re ‘clearly Asian’? because they dress in Asian-style clothing and know martial arts? Sorry, but I could walk around in a kimono, learn judo/kung fu/whatever, cover my floor with tatami, flood my existence with asian culture, but my eyes will stay round and blue. Rather than the surroundings, the cast should match the look of the characters.

    These characters happen to not be Asian or Caucasian. Avatar is set in, as someone else said, a fantasy world slightly resembling our own. Races as we know them are features of people of Earth, and if you watch the opening sequence you can clearly see that the world portrayed is not Earth (if the flying bison and people who can manipulate elements with their bare ands didn’t clue you in).

    For example, Katara has a very Indian look to her but her eyes are blue. So for her they should cast an Indian or Indian-looking girl and give her blue contacts. The fire nation looks closer to Asian, and Aang looks more white. They should have been cast accordingly, and they weren’t, but to think that they are Asians when there isn’t even an Asia in this world, is rediculous. The Asian influence is just that: influence.

    Oh, and Bettycastle, it’s not an \Asian anime\. It’s American. Your idiocy is even more amusing by the fact that you made this an exclamation.

    Margaret, I love you, and I do wish there were more Asians in the media, but on this you’re way off.

  7. Kristie, you’re an idiot.

    You’re right in that there is no Asia in the Avatar world, but you’re incredibly foolish to say race doesn’t matter in a fantasy world. Any good fantasy writer will create a world that is based on the real world (if it’s not explicitly mentioned that it is the real world like in Harry Potter), and this includes having race in mind when creating characters. Even the blue aliens in James’s Avatar are based on some native people.

    Ursula Le Guin is a prime example of why race matters in fantasy. She wrote the Earthsea fantasy series with a brown skinned lead character, but when the SciFi channel made a movie based on her books, they turned the lead into a Caucasian person, and Ursula was pissed:

    slate[dot]com/id/2111107/

    The article also reveals possible clues to Michael and Bryan’s situation with The Last Airbender and why they can’t publicly speak out about the movie. They can only say good things, which they haven’t even really done besides saying the teaser trailer looked good and they’re excited to see the final movie (as opposed to praising the actors’ portrayals of their characters). Even though they’ve remained mostly silent, Bryan did draw this poster for ComiCon that features an Asian Aang:

    flickr[dot]com/photos/overweightglobgrease/3774982297/in/photostream/

    You can’t POSSIBLY say he looks Caucasian. And remember, it’s the creator’s word against yours.

    And sure, you can do all of those Asian things and not be Asian. Do you know why? Because this is MODERN TIMES. You’d have access to any culture and can learn from and embrace it. Avatar is based on ANCIENT TIMES (with bits of steam punk thrown in) where non-Asian people wouldn’t interact much, if at all, with Asian people!

    It is clear to anyone with eyes and a brain that the characters were meant to be Asian and Inuit, and nothing else. They don’t “look it” because the style is based on Japanese cartoons, which use large expressive eyes, and the Japanese know their cartoon characters are meant to be Japanese unless otherwise stated. Large eyes are also used for young characters while older characters have smaller eyes. Compare Zuko’s eyes at 15 years old to his eyes in his flashbacks when he was younger. Compare Toph’s eyes to her parents. Aang has large eyes as a young child, but when he becomes older, he’ll have smaller eyes like the OTHER Airbenders, like Avatar Yangchen, who certainly DOESN’T LOOK CAUCASIAN.

    And their eye color means nothing in terms of people being Caucasian or not. In the Avatar world, eye color corresponds to the nation and element from where a person hails. Katara is based on the Inuit, but has blue eyes because of her WATER ELEMENT. So many people think she’s Caucasian because of her eyes! So I guess Toph BEI FONG is Caucasian or non-East Asian because of her green eyes, huh, as well as her mother?

    Just look at early sketches before, and hell even artwork after, the series aired. There is an Art of the Animated Series coming out, and you can preview the pages at Amazon:

    amazon[dot]com/Avatar-Last-Airbender-Art-Animated/dp/1595825045/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1271710037&sr=8-1

    Depending on your computer, you’ll either have to click the “Surprise Me!” link continuously to see extra pages, or your browser will alread include the extra pages as you flip through them. There are sketches of Aang and friends drawn in the western style that actually depicts racial markers for those brain-dead slobs who wouldn’t be able to tell otherwise a character’s ethnicities (see: any person who sees most Japanese cartoon characters as white).

    Is that Asian enough for you?

  8. I am asking Asians to deface any and all Avatar posters by spray painting RACISTS on them. Also, I heard they are makig a Genghis Kahn movie starring Mickey Rourke. Jews in Hollywood and the media have always been racist towards Asians. Unless Asian Americans take a stand and stomp these assholes out in their tracks, they’re going to keep on commiting to their divisive and racist policies against Asians. All it does is minimize Asian Americans who have been in this country for the last 150 years. These racist Hollywood Assholes don’t want Asian Americans to be Americanized. It’s always been about divide and conquer with them. There are enough starving actors looking for work. Stuff like this is racist and these idiots will keep on doing it unless Asian Americans come togther as a group and threaten them with either physical, fininacial or social consequences. This country has a problem with selective racism. Apparently, it’s only racist if something negative is done to blacks, Hispanics, gays or Jews. With Asians, they just don’t care.

  9. I’m so glad that a Hollywood comedian like you is talking about this issue. It feels like no one is willing to admit when racism occurs in the entertainment industry, especially in a movie like The Last Airbender.

    Being an Indian-American, I grew up with watching Indians often portrayed as something that wasn’t even familiar or identifiable as genuinely Indian. On many occasions I evem watched them portrayed by actors of other ethnicities. Fortunately, I had the chance to grow up with Malayalam cinema, a film industry that’s has nothing to do with Bollywood, to show me portrayals of Indians as actual people. It’s a shame that Hollywood rarely does the same.

    I don’t like characters because they look like me, which is what Hollywood seems to think that people want. On one of my favorite shows Lost, my favorite couple was the Koreans Jin and Sun. It never occurred to me that I shouldn’t relate or enjoy their story, even if they came from a different culture or spoke a different language.

    Thank you for introducing the first and second Asian family to television. It’s people like you who make a true difference in Hollywood.

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