April 29, 2009 Asian American Advocacy Groups, Fans Condemn Racial Bias in M. Night Shyamalan’s “Whitewashed” Casting of “The Last Airbender”
Los Angeles–Thousands of fans and two prominent Asian American advocacy groups are protesting Paramount Pictures’ upcoming “The Last Airbender,” accusing the production of racial bias in selecting white actors to portray ethnically Asian characters. The movie-a live action adaptation of the hit animated television series “Avatar: The Last Airbender”-is part of a franchise widely advertised by Nickelodeon as set in a “fantastical Asian world” and is set for release in July of 2010. Even though all of the series’ characters were ethnically Asian or Inuit/Yupik, casting sheets for the leads indicated a preference for white actors-and ultimately, they were chosen for the top four starring roles. The part of the villainous Prince Zuko went to Jesse McCartney. After dropping out, he was replaced by “Slumdog Millionaire’s” Dev Patel. Consequently, in a Eurocentric twist, actors of color have been relegated to villain, supporting, and background roles.
Immediately after the initial casting announcement in December, thousands of outraged fans mobilized to protest through a letter writing campaign, petition, and website, www.racebending.com. Fan protest efforts were featured in the SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE and THE WASHINGTON POST. “We’re mortified that the film is turning this story we loved and respected into just another symbol of Hollywood discrimination,” Marissa Lee, one of the fans protesting the casting, said. “That’s why we decided to speak out and fight back. These ignorant casting decisions have compromised the integrity of the original series.”
On February 11, The Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA), the only organization solely dedicated to monitoring the media and its depiction and coverage of Asian Americans, sent a letter to Paramount President John Lesher, executive producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, director M. Night Shyamalan, and producer Sam Mercer, requesting a meeting to discuss the casting controversy before filming began in early March. On March 25-over a month and a half later-and after shooting commenced, MANAA received a letter signed by “the producers,” attempting to justify the selection of white actors to portray characters of color. The letter claimed that the film has “a large and ethnically diverse cast that represents many different heritages and cultures from all corners of the globe.” Although they claim the setting will be diverse, the producers ignored concerns regarding a glass ceiling reserving the three primary heroic roles for white actors.
Paramount’s letter, available on MANAA’s website, www.manaa.org, fails to answer the organization’s charges of discrimination, racial bias, cultural appropriation, imperialism, and the production’s use of culturally ignorant language to justify the film’s casting practices. Guy Aoki, founding President of MANAA, says, “It’s outrageous that the producers are using their supposed concern for ‘diversity’ as an excuse to make an Asian story more white. Conversely, does this mean that in the future, the producers will take a story featuring only white people and make a movie with the top four stars all initially being persons of color?” “Like other studios, Paramount erroneously believes that white audiences won’t pay money to see a film that’s ‘too Asian.’ Unfortunately, we saw this happen last year with “21” and recently with “Dragonball: Evolution.” The different cultures of the four Asian nations were unique enough in the original “Avatar” series. Fans expected to see Asian actors play those parts in the movie. Ironically, most of the outraged fans threatening to boycott the film are white, black, and Latino.
In February, East West Players, the longest-running Asian American theatre organization in the country, founded by late “Avatar” actor Makoto “Mako” Iwamatsu, also wrote a letter expressing its concerns. When graphic novelist Derek Kirk Kim sent the producers a petition from industry professionals, signatories included one of the “Avatar” series’ award-winning directors, Giancarlo Volpe. Korean American comedian Margaret Cho lashed out at the decision on her blog. “Why is it better to have white actors play the roles of Asians?” Cho wrote. “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. On his Twitter, producer Frank Marshall continues to deny the production has discriminated by giving opportunities for actors of color to white performers. After a series of twitters back and forth between angry fans and himself, Marshall made his final comment on the subject last week saying, “The casting is complete and we did not discriminate against anyone,” defensively adding, “I am done talking about it.”