MANAA Responds to Frank Marshall’s UGO.com Comments

The Media Action Network for Asian Americans would like to respond to Frank Marshall’s comments that “Paramount has since been in regular dialogue with Asian American advocacy groups including the Japanese American Citizens League and the Media Action Network for Asian Americans to ensure that such a mistake does not happen in the future.” Although we are pleased to see that Marshall admit that their use of third-party casting agents resulted in casting language that was “poorly worded and offensive,” their dialogue with Asian American advocacy groups on the issue of discriminatory casting in The Last Airbender have been far from productive.

MANAA, Asian American advocacy groups, and members of the Asian American community contacted the producers of The Last Airbender in early 2009. In the letters, voicemails, and emails, producers were made aware that the casting language “Caucasian or any other ethnicity” was discriminatory, and that this language had clearly affected the initial cast of lead actors. After over a year of ignoring public concerns over this casting language as well as the production’s cultural competency as a whole, it is disingenuous for Frank Marshall to trot out his iteration of the casting language to excuse the production’s repeated gaffes. The phrase “Caucasian or any other ethnicity”—language that would be unacceptable for any job posting that was truly open to all races—was used on every major casting website and document, including Paramount’s own. The resultant casting reinforces a double standard and glass ceiling where it is acceptable for a white actor to portray any ethnicity, but Asian American actors cannot even portray characters of their own ethnicity. M. Night Shyamalan’s recent dismissive comments to UGO.com that the casting is “more than [fans] could have expected” in terms of diversity are indicative of the production’s failure to recognize the true discriminatory impact of their casting decisions.

In early 2009, MANAA and other Asian American advocacy groups repeatedly asked for a meeting to discuss the casting and depiction of cultures in the movie. The only response MANAA and other groups received was a letter from the production anonymously signed “The Producers.” We have received no indication that “these mistakes will not occur in the future” because the production has never spoken with us. The production was not willing to meet with concerned Asian American advocacy groups, even though they were willing to fly Airbender fans to New York City for a catered breakfast with Shyamalan and lodging at a luxury hotel.

The “regular dialogue” Marshall mentions was actually the result of a protest over racial humor, hate crime jokes, and the use of the word “Jap” in another Paramount Pictures film, The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard. Due to outrage over this other Paramount production, we have been able to discuss the casting situation of The Last Airbender with the newly-promoted Paramount executives. In November 2009, Paramount promised MANAA diversity statistics and a pre-screening of The Last Airbender to assuage our concerns about the film’s diverse depictions. Despite the fact that The Last Airbender has been prescreened to at least two groups, we have been repeatedly rebuffed in our requests to see the version shown to these groups. Although it has been five months since that November meeting, we hope Paramount still plans to live up to its promises.

M. Night Shyamalan Misses the Point

m night

 

For those of us waiting for M. Night Shyamalan to address our concerns about the discriminatory casting in The Last Airbender, this latest article on ugo.com reveals some of his thinking on the matter. Unfortunately, it seems he really doesn’t understand why everyone’s so upset.
 
One good thing is that he admits that he’s heard about the protest. But to respond to our calls for people of color as heroes, he simply points to the racial indeterminacy of anime — as if that justifies the casting of only “European”-featured heroes. He completely neglects to mention that they specifically cast for white actors, instead implying that they were really trying to populate their world with a mix of races. Which would be hard to do with the casting announcement for “Caucasian or any other ethnicity.”
 
He also states, “Maybe they didn’t see the faces that they wanted to see but, overall, it is more than they could have expected. We’re in the tent and it looks like the U.N. in there.” False. We expected to see people of color as the heroes, rather than as the background actors and the villains, so we are not getting even close to these expectations. Also, if he were true to his metaphor of the U.N., he would have sat people of color at the table next to white people, as equals.
 
Finally, when prodded about how “the only characters of color are baddies,” he responds “It’s called irony.” It’s hard to read this remark since it doesn’t make any sense, but the most disappointing thing is that he truly doesn’t seem to take this critique seriously.
 
Kudos to Jordan Hoffman for getting responses to these “touchy” questions (except for the conspiracy theorist comment…), and a big thumbs down to M. Night Shyamalan for failing to respond appropriately.

PARAMOUNT DISCRIMINATES AGAINST ASIAN AMERICAN ACTORS FOR MOVIE ADAPTATION OF ASIAN-BASED TV SERIES

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.”

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