The story got its start over a year ago, before M. Night Shyamalan's The Last Airbender had even started filming, shortly after the lead roles had been offered to Noah Ringer, Jackson Rathbone, Nicola Peltz and Jesse McCartney. The complaint: characters who, in the anime source material, were pretty clearly Asian, and who populated a universe heavily influenced by Asian culture and mythology, were to be played by conspicuously Caucasian actors. A couple months later, McCartney dropped out, reportedly due to scheduling issues, and was replaced by Slumdog Millionaire's Dev Patel (who, like Noah Ringer, also happened to have the martial arts training the role required). This arguably made things worse: now, white people were occupying all the major roles... except the villain.
The story seemed to die down later in 2009, before resurfacing again recently with a flurry of stories leading to responses from producer Frank Marshall and from Shyamalan himself. As skeptical as I am about this entire thing, Shyamalan's response strikes me as stunningly lame, amounting to a weird non sequitur: "Since viewers of anime see themselves in the characters, making all of them white was totally cool."
There are obviously scores of people who care passionately about this; one of them even started an irritating protest website dedicated to a boycott of Airbender and a broader push for giving minorities a fair shake in Hollywood casting. (With all respect, read the self-righteous and deluded about page, which comes complete with exemplary photos of successful celebrities of color, and tell me these people are not hurting their own cause.) But I don't have a very good sense of how people in the broader cinephile community (i.e. folks who are neither activists nor die-hard Airbender fans clamoring for a faithful adaptation) feel about this issue. Does Paramount's approach to casting The Last Airbender bug you? Do you sympathize with the calls for a boycott? Will you participate?
Me, I don't really care. Certainly Paramount's approach was cynical, short-sighted and tacky. That's clear, and the point has been made. On the other hand, I think protesting the race of characters in a fantasy world reveals a single-minded focus on skin color that isn't productive. More than anything, though, I try not to let politics or personal issues having little to do with the quality of what's on the screen affect my choice of what movies to see. I don't boycott Roman Polanski's movies for his crimes, or John Travolta's, or Tom Cruise's for their participation in a cult whose practices I find morally objectionable. So too with The Last Airbender. I just hope it's good.