Shame on Shyamalan!
Hollywood's most successful director of color embarrasses us all with some lame-ass excuse-making about the whitewashed cast of his new Airbender movie.
A recap: It all started with a little TV show called Avatar: The Last Airbender, a manga-style anime series made in the U.S. by two white guys at Nickelodeon. The creators wanted something a little more interesting than the usual European-based fantasy worlds, so they did their homework and created the world of Avatar: The Last Airbender, a pan-Asian-cultured world with northern Inuit-cultured tribes.
In this world there were no non-Asian/non-Inuit cultures or people, anywhere, and the main characters are generally brown or tan-skinned and dark haired (eye color has to do with elements, so there are blue, and green, and grey eyes as well as brown.) Basically, the characters are supposed to read as Asian-y and Inuit-y. The series ran for three seasons, then, as might be expected from a very popular children's cartoon, it was set to be remade as a live-action film trilogy.
But here's where the story gets weird. The engine driving the live-action remake was actually M. Night Shyamalan. According to him, his kids turned him on to the series, and he was the one who actually got the ball rolling on it. He has been very open about being a fan of the series himself and wanting to make it for his kids and other kids like them.
So then why, oh why, did the casting calls for the main characters go out primarily for Caucasians? Why, oh why, did they cast white actors for all the lead roles, characters from Inuit, Tibetan, and Japanese-influenced cultures? Why, when a controversy heated up over this casting, did they change one of the lead actors to Indian Brit Dev Patel ... but only the main villain character?
(Go to Race Bending to read more about this whole debacle.)
The usual excuse-making has been spouted: they only chose the best actors for the roles (meaning that there are no truly good Asian/Inuit actors,) anime is racially ambiguous so the characters weren't any race, Shyamalan wanted to reconstitute the different elemental tribes so they were each a different race (but then, why are all the leads white?) etc. You can see the problem in the trailer below, especially in the twilight frame with a bunch of Inuit-looking people in Inuit-looking costume, fronted by two white teenagers in Inuit-looking costume.
Anyway, the irony has been lost on no one, that the "good" version was made by white producers, while the whitewashed version is being made by Shyamalan. But no one ever said successful Hollywood directors of color are necessarily self aware or enlightened. Shyamalan has certainly done little enough in his career to promote Asian actors, or depict Asian cultures, in film. But that's a whole other ball of wax than actively whitewashing an Asian cast.
Inquiring minds have been wondering for a while what Shyamalan has to say for himself. He recently gave a series of interviews on just this topic, and the results were eye-stabbingly-scalp-grabbingly horrific disappointing to say the least. In this one from io9, he says:
The great thing about anime is that it's ambiguous. The features of the characters are an intentional mix of all features. It's intended to be ambiguous. That is completely its point. So when we watch Katara, my oldest daughter is literally a photo double of Katara in the cartoon. So that means that Katara is Indian, correct? No that's just in our house. And her friends who watch it, they see themselves in it. And that's what's so beautiful about anime.
When we were casting, I was like, "I don't care who walks through my door, whoever is best for the part. I'm going to figure it out like a chessgame." Ideally we separate the nations ethnically — ideally. I didn't know how or what it was going to be. And it was so fluid.
... I was without an agenda, and just letting it come to the table. Noah is a photo double from the cartoon. He is spot on. I didn't know their backgrounds, and to me Noah had a slightly mixed quality to him. So I cast the Airbenders as all mixed-race. So when you see the monks, they are all mixed. And it kind of goes with the nomadic culture and the idea that over the years, all nationalities came together.
...Dev ended up being my choice for Zuko, and I looked for an Uncle that could be in that realm, for a moment I thought about Ben Kingsley. But Shaun Toub, I just loved him in Iron Man. I thought this takes us into a Mediterranean kind of Arab and Indian world, and I can go as far as that, that will be the breadth of the Fire Nation, that kind of look.
... And there's a section of the Earth Kingdom that's African American. Because it's such a big country and land I thought you could have some diversity in there as they travel through the cities. So more so than the show, it will have a much more diverse ethnic backgrounds to it. It's not an agenda for me, but it's something I'm super proud of. That when my kids or any kids look at it they will see themselves.
Wow, he hit nearly all the bullshit points Airbender defenders have been hitting all along. It's almost like he read them off a talking points memo. Dude, anime isn't intentionally racially mixed. Have you seen Japanese people? They do actually dye their hair crazy colors and wear those clothes! Just because your Americanized ass thinks that Japanese kids all must have straight black hair and slanty eyes to be Japanese, doesn't mean that they do.
And seriously? Your daughter is "literally" a "photo double" of a cartoon character? Does she have, like, three lines on her face and no shadows? Do you even know what "literally" and "photo double" mean? And Noah Ringer kinda looks mixed race to you? How about David Carradine? If we paint his eyelid corners with some loop-de-loops, does he kinda look mixed race to you?
Plus, you just happened to make the villain nation "a Mediterranean kind of Arab and Indian world?" When you last visited Pondicherry, did you sail there via the Mediterranean? Or did you just buy a ticket to The Orient and trust you'd land somewhere recognizable? Or did you just not go in the first place, not trusting yourself not to blow up the plane with, like, a nail clipper or someshit?
Oh, and is that section of the Earth Kingdom "African American" (like, do they dance the Lindy Hop or go to historically black colleges) or "African-influenced" or just containing black people? 'Cause, dude, it would be really weird to import "Americans" into this secondary fantasy world. Or are you among the intelligentsia who think that all black people are politicallycorrectly called "African American" whether they've ever been to the U.S. or not?
There's more idiocy there, like stuff about how he almostkindasorta cast a brown dude as the lead in The Sixth Sense, but didn't, 'cause ... Haley Joel Osment! Q.E.D. Mofos! There's a reason, you see, why all the leads -- in fact, the vast majority of speaking characters -- in all of his films are white. And that reason is happenstance ... coupled, of course, with overwhelming talent. Not racism at all.
*Second deep breath*
Anyhoo. I think I've made my point. I'm hoping to see The Last Airbender for free when my friends get press passes. If I do, I'll bag it right here in Hyphen blog for y'all. If I don't get press passes, though, I'm not seeing it. They'll get not one yellow cent of my good-enough-to-bleed-but-not-good-enough-to-cast money.
The previous issue of Hyphen is available in its entirety for your perusing pleasure. Almost as good as having it right in your hands!