Complicating the accusations of racial insensitivity over the casting is the fact that those casting decisions were made by director M. Night Shyamalan, who is of Asian descent himself. In fact, Shyamalan bristles at the accusations and insists that, not only is his cast as multicultural as possible, but also that it's his critics who are the real racists. Some viewers heads are spinning over the look of 'The Last Airbender,' which opens July 1. Not over the fantasy-action 3-D special effects, but over the faces of the main characters, which are largely white in the movie but Asian and Inuit in the popular Nickelodeon cartoon that inspired the film.
Complicating the accusations of racial insensitivity over the casting is the fact that those casting decisions were made by director M. Night Shyamalan, who is of Asian descent himself. In fact, Shyamalan bristles at the accusations and insists that, not only is his cast as multicultural as possible, but also that it's his critics who are the real racists.
The characters in the TV series 'Avatar: The Last Airbender,' created by Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino, are clearly drawn from Asian and Inuit cultures, from their names to their costumes to their martial arts styles. The hero, Aang, is inspired by Tibetan Buddhist monks. His friends, Katara and Sokka, live in a realm of anoraks and igloos. Antagonist Zuko and his tribe appear as classical Chinese warriors.
In the movie, all four characters were initially cast as Caucasian actors: Noah Ringer (Aang), Nicola Peltz (Katara), Jackson Rathbone (Sokka), and Jesse McCartney (Zuko). Before shooting began, however, McCartney was replaced by Dev Patel, of 'Slumdog Millionaire' fame. That change did not appease the project's critics, who noted that the heroes were still all white Westerners, while the only Asian in the principal cast was the villain.
The clearinghouse for the protests has been the website Racebending, which is calling for a boycott of the film. "American actors of color rarely get to play the hero, if ever," said Marissa Lee, one of Racebending's co-founders, in a statement. "We're really disappointed. Paramount felt that white actors were better suited to play heroes of color than hardworking, underrepresented actors who are actually of Asian or Inuit descent."
Shyamalan has insisted he had no intention of whitewashing the characters. In a recent interview with Indie Movies Online, he went into great detail about the casting choices, which he said were entirely his and not Paramount's. He argued that the complaints didn't look beyond the principal players to note the entire cast, which consists of actors from multiple cultures and racial backgrounds playing the 'Airbender' world's four tribes. Of the protest, he said, "The irony of this statement enrages me to the point of ... not even the accusation, but the misplacement of it. You're coming at me, the one Asian filmmaker who has the right to cast anybody I want, and I'm casting this entire movie in this color blind way where everyone is represented. I even had one section of the Earth kingdom as African American, which obviously isn't in the show, but I wanted to represent them, too!"
Why, then, did he cast white actors in the leads? "Noah Ringer walked in the door -- and there was no other human being on the planet that could play Aang except for this kid," the director said. "To me, he felt mixed race with an Asian quality to him. I made all the Air nomads mixed race – some of them are Hispanic, some of them are Korean." Patel's people had to look like him, too, which is the reason the members of the hot-tempered Fire tribe are all played by darker-hued actors.
With three of the tribes played by non-Caucasian actors, Shyamalan said he felt the fourth group, Katara and Sokka's Water tribe, could be played by white actors. "If you don't have an edict of "don't put white people in the movie" then the Water tribe can be European/Caucasian," he said. So, by his logic, casting white actors as Katara and Sokka was actually an act of inclusion, not exclusion. (It's worth noting here, as Shyamalan has, that the cartoon's adherence to the visual conventions of Japanese anime, including round eyes and light skin, have added to the racial confusion. If the characters are drawn with racially indeterminate features, why shouldn't his casting follow suit?)
In fact, Shyamalan claims it's his critics who are racist for assuming that the dark-skinned Patel is, in fact, the villain. (Over the course of the cartoon series, Zuko evolves into a more heroic character; Shyamalan is hoping to make two sequels which would explore his character arc.) "Dev Patel is the actual hero of the series, and he's Indian, okay? The whole point of the movie is that there isn't any bad or good. The irony is that I'm playing on the exact prejudices that the people who are claiming I'm racist are doing. They immediately assume that everyone with dark skin is a villain. That was an incredibly racist assumption which, as it turns out, is completely incorrect."
Shyamalan isn't the only one who says Racebending is itself guilty of racial insensitivity. Gwen Florio, who writes for Native American news blog The Buffalo Post, says Racebending is correct to note the apparent slight of Asian actors but pays insufficient attention to the short shrift given to Inuit actors as well. "Racebending's extensive website has only the most cursory references to Katara and Sokka being drawn from Inuit culture," she wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Let's just take a moment to appreciate the insult-to-injury fact that a protest of tone-deaf miscasting nearly completely ignores an entire facet of that miscasting."
Is Florio being fair? A quick round of Google keyword searching turns up at least 45 instances of the word "Inuit" at racebending.com, compared to 133 instances of the word "Asian." It's not clear how many more times the word "Inuit" would have to appear to placate Florio, but then, no one ever claims to want quotas, just fairness.
Similarly, are Shyamalan's critics being fair? After all, the 'Airbender' characters are just fictional creations in a fantasy world; why can't they be whatever color he chooses? Did anyone complain when African-American Will Smith played James West, a character who was originally white, in his adaptation of the TV series 'Wild Wild West'? Did anyone complain when Michael Clarke Duncan played Kingpin in 'Daredevil,' or when Samuel L. Jackson plays 'Iron Man' character Nick Fury -- both characters who originally appeared as white in the pages of Marvel Comics?
Well, context matters. All of those characters are relative ciphers, people who don't have much backstory, and what little backstory they do have isn't especially tied to their race or culture, the way it is for the main characters in 'Airbender.' Also, white people don't have a long history of being underrepresented in Hollywood films, or of being reduced to racial caricatures, or of only getting to play villains.
That's why Racebending's agenda is bigger than just this film. The protesters there would like to see more opportunities for Asian actors across the board. At the very least, the site argues, there's something wrong when Asian actors are overlooked for characters conceived as Asians (like Jake Gyllenhaal's character in 'Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time'), or who are of Asian descent in real life, like the MIT students rewritten as white characters in the 2008 movie '21.'
The standard Hollywood argument used to be that Asian lead actors (like other actors of color) weren't dependable draws at the box office. This argument hardly seems viable anymore at a time when overseas receipts make up a larger-than-ever portion of a Hollywood movie's revenue stream, or when Will Smith and Jackie Chan are two of the most popular stars both inside and outside of America. Certainly, the relatively unknown stars of 'Airbender' weren't chosen for their proven box office strength; the biggest name in the cast is Patel. Rather, the movie's selling point is its recreation of the fantasy world of the cartoon, a world that had already proved its ability to generate fan excitement.
Shyamalan should have trusted that world to tell the story it was designed to tell, and he should have trusted viewers to follow along.
•Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.