Is “The Last Airbender” just another racebender?

Paramount’s live-action adaptation of “Avatar”: a case of whitewashing

by casey tran

“I have nothing to do with the casting whatsoever for the feature film,” said Bryan Konietzko, co-creator of the popular Nickelodeon cartoon series “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” on his MySpace page. It is no surprise that Konietzko wishes to disassociate himself from Paramount Pictures’ casting in the live-action film adaptation of his cartoon series. “Avatar: The Last Airbender” is explicitly set in a world rooted in Asian aesthetics and culture, yet Paramount Pictures has made the decision to cast Caucasian actors to portray the show’s lead characters.

This is yet another blatant case of “whitewashing,” the portrayal of Asian characters by white actors and actresses.

The phenomenon of whitewashing in Hollywood is not new. The 2008 film “21” created controversy when it replaced the story’s Asian characters with a primarily white cast. The film was based on the novel “Bring Down the House” in which the protagonist Kevin Lewis is Asian. In the 2009 live-action American film adaptation of popular anime series “Dragon Ball Z,” the protagonist was played by a white actor despite the distinctly Asian identity of the cartoon character. Just back in December, we saw a case of whitewashing with the release of “Extraordinary Measures.” This movie was based on the real-life story of Dr. Yuan-Tsong Chen developing a cure for Pompe disease at Duke University. Yet there was no Dr. Yuan-Tsong Chen in the movie. Instead, there was Dr. Robert Stonehill played by Harrison Ford – who, of course, is white.

The marginalization of Asian American actors and actresses is a prevalent trend in the mainstream film industry. For some reason, movie studios seem to believe that if they cast non-white actors, the American public will be unable to relate to their characters onscreen. This belief is utter bullshit.

Look around us. Is America 99.9% white? If James Cameron and 20th Century Fox can get away with telling a story about giant blue people, why can’t Paramount make a film with Asian American lead actors? It’s ridiculous that the film industry will produce movies about talking fish, kung-fu fighting pandas, and green ogres, but won’t allow Asian American actors to play Asian characters. If Americans can relate to giant blue people with tails in Cameron’s “Avatar,” then who’s to say they can’t relate to Asian American actors and characters?

There is no legitimate reason for Paramount to cast white actors as the lead characters in this adaptation. “Avatar: The Last Airbender” is strongly influenced by elements of Asian culture. The show’s writers have characterized the setting as an “ancient, fantastical world, primarily Chinese.” Most importantly, the characters themselves are of Asian descent. The protagonist Aang dresses as a Shaolin monk and even writes in traditional Chinese calligraphy. The characters Katara and Sokka wear traditional Inuit clothing and use Inuit tools. Now, why shouldn’t actors and actresses of Asian descent portray these characters?

Instead, Paramount has decided to cast Caucasian actors for the roles of all three. However, it’s interesting that the antagonist Zuko’s character will be portrayed by Dev Patel of “Slumdog Millionaire” fame. Patel, who is of South Asian descent, and the other actors playing villains from the Fire Nation are all distinctly dark-skinned, while the actors cast as the heroes are light-skinned. Paramount’s color-coded casting perpetuates the notion that people of color are always the bad guys, while the ones that save the day are white.

If the skin-color distinction between the heroes and villains were not racist enough, the casting call for extras goes even further. Paramount called for people of “Near Eastern, Middle Eastern, Far Eastern, Asian, Mediterranean, and Latino” descent to play the negligible background characters. This casting call plainly marginalizes people of color as secondary characters while excluding them from leading roles.

Paramount’s casting call also encouraged prospective extras to audition in “traditional ethnic attire.” But, when asked whether they would be disadvantaged if they did not dress in “ethnic” clothing, casting director Deedee Ricketts said, “It doesn’t mean you’re at a disadvantage if you didn’t come in a big African thing. But guys, even if you came with a scarf today, put it over your head so you’ll look like a Ukrainian villager or whatever.”

Big African thing? Ukrainian villager or whatever? Can Paramount sound any more ignorant? Even worse, Ricketts’ statements reinforce the idea that people of color are foreign and not “American.”

The American film industry has excluded Asian actors from principal roles throughout history: recall the castings of Caucasians Warner Oland as the iconic Dr. Fu Manchu and Audrey Hepburn as Jade Tan in the 1940s film “Dragon Seed.” In the past century, America has experienced a civil rights movement and the election of its first biracial president, but the film industry cannot seem to overcome its racist attitudes and allow Asian actors and actresses to get their foot through the door into Hollywood.

After over a century since its rise, the American film industry still has not reformed its discriminatory casting policies. This means that today, we as viewers and consumers need to be the ones to initiate an overhaul of the system from the outside. As movie-goers, we have the power to boycott a movie. If the sole goal of movie studios is to bring in the big bucks, then we have the power to say, “No.” No, we’re not going to pay to see a movie that blatantly marginalizes not just one group of people, but a multitude of different ethnic groups.

The cartoon “Avatar: The Last Airbender” is unique in that its creators were American. It was not imported from Japan like “Pokemon” or “Dragon Ball Z.” The creators of the show set out to create an engaging world of Asian culture with Asian characters. If children can relate to the Asian culture and characters of the show, why can’t the rest of America? The live-action film not only discriminates against Asian actors and actresses, it also disregards the integrity of the show as envisioned by its creators. The live-action film fails to capture the key message of the cartoon series: that we as Americans should embrace and appreciate the different cultures of the world.