- The Last Airbender: A Story of Asian & Inuit Culture
- Live Action Film Casting: “Caucasian or Any Other Ethnicity”
- Film Extras Wanted: “Middle Eastern, Asian, and Latino”
- The Show Creators Respond: Modeled on Real Asian Americans
- Public Outcry and Boycott: Advocating Fairness
- Learn More: Details of the Movement and What You Can Do
- About Racebending.com
- Frequently Asked Questions
- How You Can Help
- Timeline of the Movement and the Film
- Details on the Casting Calls
- History of Yellowface (Visual Essay)
An American Cartoon Series
In 2005, Mike DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko created Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender. The show became a huge success and went on for three seasons.
The show is advertised by Nickelodeon as “set in a fantastical Asian world” and is described by the writers themselves as taking place in “an ancient, fantastical Asian environment, primarily Chinese.” The show features heroes of color:
Katara and Sokka feature a clearly dark complexion. They use Inuit clothing, tools, housing – even their hairstyle reflects Inuit traditions.
Katara and Sokka are companions of Aang, the titular Last Airbender. Aang and his tribe dress as Shaolin monks, practice ba gua kung fu, eat Asian food, and write with traditional Chinese calligraphy (as required in the original show bible).
For American children of color, Avatar represents a rare chance to see heroes like themselves on television.
For Caucasian American children, the series is a chance to learn about, appreciate, and respect people of different cultures.
Paramount Seeks “Caucasian or Any Other Ethnicity”
In 2007, Paramount announced a live-action film based on the cartoon. The film is slated for release in July, 2010.
Paramount’s official casting call for the heroic characters solicited applicants who were “Caucasian or any other ethnicity.” This led to the four principal actors being Caucasian.
However, the original Caucasian actor for the film’s main antagonist dropped out due to “scheduling” – and was replaced by Dev Patel, a South Asian actor.
The main cast now features three Caucasian champions and one dark complexioned antagonist.
Extras Wanted: Any Other Ethnicity
For the inconsequential background actors, Paramount’s casting call requested “Near Eastern, Middle Eastern, Far Eastern, Asian, Mediterranean, and Latino.”
Paramount encouraged actors to audition in traditional ethnic attire.
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.”
-Deedee Ricketts, Casting Director for The Last Airbender
Caucasian applicants were not mentioned in the first extras casting calls; they were requested later, in the months following Deedee Ricketts’ initial cast calls.
Supporting roles for the Fire Nation, which wiped out Aang’s tribe in an act of genocide and now seeks world domination, have been cast with actors of color:
The Water Tribe has since been cast using extras from Greenland, a nation whose population is nearly 90% of Inuit heritage.
The result is reminiscent of the casting of Charlie Chan and his family during the 1930s – when productions demanded the headlining performers be Caucasian actors in yellowface, while Americans of Asian descent were relegated to secondary and background roles.
The Creators Respond
After Paramount cast the live-action film, series co-creator Brian Konietzko drew the following poster of Aang:
Aang (the last Airbender) as depicted by co-creator Bryan Konietzko in 2009, after the casting was announced
“I have NOTHING TO DO WITH THE CASTING WHATSOEVER for the feature film.”
-Bryan Konietzko, co-creator of Avatar: The Last Airbender
Although limited by nondisclosure agreements, the creators and staff have issued a number of statements that strongly emphasize the show’s Asian/Inuit origin.
They note that many of the characters – including Aang – were modeled on real-life Asian Americans (including the staff and their families).
The Richness of America
Professionals, Asian American organizations, and fans have been requesting a dialogue with Paramount since the original casting was announced in 2008.
Paramount has responded with form letters and a defense stating that its film is more diverse than the original series.
Our response: just and equal casting is not about restricting Americans of color to villains and extras.
There are many talented actors of color and they deserve a fair chance – especially when the rare opportunity comes along to share their piece of America’s unique cultural landscape.
It’s unfortunate, but an open dialogue with Paramount Pictures has yet to occur.
With your help, we can make a difference. Paramount has not fared well in the recession and are counting on the revenue from The Last Airbender film. Join the boycott and voice your support.
This is a pivotal moment. We can help Hollywood see that Americans care about treating everyone fairly – and about showing our children that prejudice shouldn’t profit.