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.
April 9, 2009
Dear Producers of The Last Airbender,
Thank you for your letter. Because it raises important questions regarding your perceptions of diversity, we are again requesting a meeting to discuss the casting and depiction of cultures in the movie (and your future projects) so this film can truly be the success we all want. We are interested, for instance, in how your ideal of including people from “all corners of the globe” correlates with your casting policies. Specifically seeking out white actors and casting four white leads for what M. Night Shymalan admitted was an “Asian fantasy world” does not celebrate ethnic diversity. Re-casting the sole villainous lead with an actor of color is a concession that results in three heroic nations going to war against an evil nation of color.
After dealing with Hollywood studios for the past 17 years, we are more than familiar with the justifications used to cast white actors instead of actors of color. Other film productions have previously used the same pretexts, touting diversity through the casting of supporting roles–but only after first discriminating in casting the lead roles. These are the points MANAA and others—including East West Players and a petition of industry professionals— listed as specific concerns:
· The outdated and discriminatory practice of casting white actors to depict Asian characters. · Casting calls indicating a preference for white actors for leads; people of color for extras.
· Culturally ignorant language used by members of the production (e.g. DeeDee Rickets: “If you’re a Korean, wear a kimono” to the casting call).
· The implications of featuring a villainous nation with dark-skinned, partly South Asian actors and a heroic nation led by white heroes who liberate the “Asian and African” nation.
· Cultural appropriation of Pacific Rim cultures and the franchise’s core Asian concepts, despite a glass ceiling blocking off Asian American actors from playing lead protagonists.
March 25, 2009
Dear Mr. Aoki,
Thank you for your letter and interest in our film. As devoted fans of the original series, our goal is to create a film that will not only live up to the expectations of the television series’ fan base, but also expand it to a world-wide audience in ways that only a full-length motion picture can offer. From the outset of the creative process, the Producers and the Director have envisioned embodying the Airbender universe with a large and ethnically diverse cast that represents many different heritages and cultures from all corners of the globe. The Director’s vision for this film is one of world, influenced and inspired by the Asian undertones of the series, and that is both diverse and inclusive in the make up of the four nations represented in the film’s cinematic world.
Early casting includes an Indian actor, born in Mumbai and raised in the UK and the US; a Persian actor born in Tehran and raised in the UK, Switzerland and the US; a Maori actor born and raised in New Zealand; a Korean-American actor, born and raised in Chicago; an American actress of Italian, French and Mexican heritage; among several others of varied nationalities from around the world. The four nations represented in the film reflect not one community, but the world’s citizens. These societies will be cast from a diversity of all races and cultures. In particular, the Earth Kingdom will be cast with Asian, East Asian and Africans.
With this global perspective in mind, we believe we can best honor the true themes, ethos and fantastical nature of the Airbender stories and best capture the spirit and scale of the series to appeal to its worldwide fans. Our challenge and commitment to our film audience is to harness all the elements that have made the series the incredible phenomenon it is. We look forward to introducing you to THE LAST AIRBENDER next summer.