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.