On July 2nd, 2010, Racebending.com was featured on The Takeaway, a show by Public Radio International with half a million listeners: Race and Identity in ‘The Last Airbender’. Racebending.com spokesperson Michael Le interviewed with PRI at 3:30am in the morning, only 5 hours after getting home from the Los Angeles protest.
The audio recording of the interview is available on PRI’s website.
A transcript of the interview is included below for people who are listening impaired or do not have audio capability. Thank you to racebending.com volunteer opal_skies fr the transcript!
Race and Identity in ‘The Last Airbender’
Friday, July 02, 2010
â€śThe Last Airbenderâ€ť is the live-action feature film based on the highly successful animated series on Nickelodeon. Itâ€™s also the center of a growing controversy about casting and race. The series features Asian settings, costumes, architecture, and character and location names that incorporate Chinese, Japanese and Southeast Asian phonemes â€” such as â€śAang,â€ť â€śFongâ€ť and â€śSing.â€ť And yet, when casting the motion picture, the studio chose four white actors to play the leads. When one of the actors dropped out, he was replaced by Dev Patel of â€śSlumdog Millionaireâ€ť fame, but itâ€™s still the case that three of the four leading actors are white.
Mike Le, whose organization, racebending.com has been leading a boycott of the film since 2008, explains why race is not incidental in the film. And Jeff Yang, whoâ€™s been writing about â€śAirbenderâ€ť for several months for the San Francisco Chronicle, explains the complications of race in a movie whose characters were originally animated and created by two white men.
Is casting white actors for non-white rolesoffensive or just colorblind casting?
Comments from Facebook:
“It would arguably be color blind if an ethnic actor was hired to play a role that traditionally goes to a white actor. I think casting white actors in ‘Prince of Persia’ and ‘The Last Airbender’ may be an attempt to pander to the presumed mainsteam audience that will see it, which is strange considering how much negative attention a fanbase can generate nowadays and how succesful movies like ‘Lord of the Rings’ or various comic book movies have been when they placate fans.” â€”Mark Hershberger
“I find it annoying on one hand as you have black and ethnic actors/actresses who are worthy of the role, fit the part (in terms of genuine looks) and DESERVE the opportunity. On the other hand, a good test of an actor’s/actresses ability to morph into character and act any part (a la ‘Soul Man’ and ‘Tropic Thunder’). So I’m a bit conflicted on the issue.” â€”Tyrone Thorpe
“I wonder why this even matters. As long as one can play the part well it really does not bother me who is in the role.” â€”Carrie Perez
“I think when it really come down to it, if we are going to get upset about a white actor playing a non-white role, we need to get upset about a Japanese actor playing Chinese, or an Arab actor playing Persian, or a Mexican actor playing Colombian. As hokey as it sounds, true art transcends ethnicity, and if a white actor can portray a non-white character, getting upset about it is myopic. I agree that Downey Jr.’s role in Tropic Thunder actually went pretty far in bringing this topic to a mainstream conversation. Which we’re obviously still having.” â€”David Ring
We tackled movies on Friday and today we’re talking about a movie that has some people outraged.
[Airbender audio clip]
â€śYou are the only one who can control all the elements and bring peace to our world.â€ť
â€śI will stop them.â€ť
â€śIt may already be too late.â€ť
That is from The Last Airbender and it hits theaters today, originally called Avatar, but obviously they had to change the title of it. Many people are angry and in fact theyâ€™ve been calling for a boycott of the movie since last year. Theyâ€™re angry because of the casting and weâ€™re gonna discuss why.
With us is Jeff Yang, whoâ€™ve been following this issue with the San Francisco Chronicle, and Mike Le, spokesperson for Racebending.com, heâ€™s been leading the boycott of the film since 2008 actually.
Jeff, let me start with you, and tell us really quickly what this controversy is about.
Yeah thanks Celeste, so Airbender is this live feature adaptation of this tremendously successful animated series from Nickelodeon. Nineteen million people saw the series two-hour finale, which made it the #1 telecast of any kind the week it aired. Now to put that in context, the finale of Lost only got about 14 million viewers â€“
– so the success of this led Nickelodeon to refer to Airbender as their Harry Potter, so to speak, and thatâ€™s a pretty good metaphor because Harry Potter and Airbender both draw their appeal from these immersive incredibly well-realized fantasy worlds, except that the Harry Potter world is shaped by British influences and ideas, and the Airbender world is really largely drawn from Asian influences, from the costumes to the belief systems to the architecture to the names.
And as a result it was kind of weird that in casting this $150 million live action adaptation that the filmâ€™s director, M. Night Shyamalan â€“ who is, of course, himself Indian American â€“ chose to cast white actors for all the major roles.
And he only recast one, the filmâ€™s antagonist villain Zuko, with British Indian Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire, aftger the original actor, Jesse McCartney, dropped out.
So you can kind of imagine if youâ€™d cast Harry Potter with Miley Cyrus and two Jonas brothers thatâ€™s the kind of horror that fans of the original series felt when they saw about this announcement.
Or perhaps even more fitting if they had cast it with a couple African actors instead. Mike Le, you started this boycott in 2008, you know we got a response from one of our listeners, Katie Perez:
â€śI wonder why this really matters, as long as the actor can play the part well, it doesnâ€™t bother me whoâ€™s in the role.â€ť
And thatâ€™s the argument M. Night Shymalan is makingâ€”
– he simply cast the people who were best for the role. Do you buy that?
No, I donâ€™t, and I think itâ€™s a little disingenuous to say that â€“ even in 2010 â€“ as far as weâ€™ve come with a biracial African American president, with a Muslim Miss USA to think that weâ€™re postracial itâ€™s a little bit naĂŻve.
When you look at, for example, or even to say, well itâ€™s all about talent â€“ well, I think any time soon weâ€™ll be seeing an actress portray Superman on screen. So clearly thereâ€™s a limit to what audiences will accept, to this suspension of disbelief.
And especially when roles have been so rigged against Asian American actors, to the point where we canâ€™t even represent ourselves, such as in 21, as in Dragonball, as all these dozens of dozens of other examples in the last hundred years of Hollywood discrimination, I think itâ€™s really disingenuous to say â€śwell, itâ€™s all about talentâ€ť â€“ and that thereâ€™s no bias against Asian American actors, against minority actors.â€ť
Although this movie itself is helping with your boycott, itâ€™s got the worst notices I think Iâ€™ve seen in decadesâ€”
Absolutely and I donâ€™t think those things are disconnected. People seem to think that the race issue is completely separate from the fidelity of the film to the source material, which as Jeff Yang said, is– was incredibly successful.
So if youâ€™d imagine a director walking into Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings and saying, â€śWell, Iâ€™m a huge fan of the series, but I always envisioned Harry as black, or I always envisioned Frodo as being Latino. So Iâ€™m going to recast and make all the hobbits Latino.
And I can just imagine the fan uproar from this, and it would be incredibly obvious that the director had no respect for the source material or the fans, and the film would flop. And I think thatâ€™s what weâ€™re seeing hereâ€”
Well, Romeo and Juliet was recast with Latinos in West Side Story.
Thatâ€™s true and I think that those are the kind of thing that are exceptions that prove the rule. Where you look at and say â€śWell, everythingâ€™s okay,â€ť but when you look at overall statistics, such as Paramount statistics, where 83% of their planned films feature a white male lead, 94% feature a male lead, despite the fact that 55% of American ticket-buyers are womenâ€”
–so I think it shows how far behind the film industry in catching up to 2010 demographics.
Okay, but Jeff, how do we know for sure that these main characters in Airbender were supposed to be Asian?
You know itâ€™s a good point because obviously itâ€™s a fantasy worldâ€”
Right, itâ€™s not a country that exists.
At the same time, when you actually look at the original source material, and even talk to the creators of the original animated series â€“ and it was created by two white Americans, you know, Bryan Konietzko and Mike DiMartinoâ€”
The people who voiced the characters on the Nickelodeon series were white.
Yeah well you know theyâ€™ve actually publicly said that theyâ€™ve intended for the series to be kind of this celebration of an Asia that never was, so you kind of have to think that they at least thought of these characters as being Asian, I mean theyâ€™ve said as much, essentially.
And I do think that there is a sense in which the original program would not have been the success that it was, in this generation, in this era, if it had not drawn from such an Asian-centered point of view. And you know, I totally agree with Mike there. Weâ€™re growing into a generation thatâ€™s, you know, all about Pokemon and Nintendo and manga. And theyâ€™re very comfortable with Asian ideas and Asian people.
Okay, but Mike, let me just ask you, this is a movie that as John mentioned, this is a movie thatâ€™s gotten really abysmal reviews, I would imagine that a lot of people who are boycotting the film with your boycott, wouldnâ€™t see the film anyway. Is this the most effective way to protest this kind of casting?
I think that number one you want to boycott, number two you want to raise awareness, you want to go out and talk, thatâ€™s why weâ€™ve been speaking on public campuses â€“ MIT, UCLA, USC â€“ thatâ€™s why weâ€™ve been posting our information on the internet, so people will hear about this issue.
And despite the fact that the film is tanking, itâ€™s still a big news item, obviously, and so people hear about the casting controversy, they might read a review that might offhandedly mention the racism, and theyâ€™ll go out and theyâ€™ll learn more about it.
And we have the information out there so that people understand, itâ€™s not an isolated issue, itâ€™s not something thatâ€™s reverse racism, quote/unquote, and there are legitimate concerns here.
Right, okay that is Mike Le, Los Angeles organizer for Racebending.com, thatâ€™s organizing the boycott of The Last Airbender. And Jeff Yang, columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Weâ€™re interested in what you think about this, give us a call at 877-8MY-TAKE or post a comment to TheTakeaway.org.