Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality
original research by Michelle I., revised and formatted for Racebending.com
Imagine you are the casting director for a movie.
Assume that you want agents submitting for every appropriate, available actor. You want every actor of every ethnicity to feel welcome submitting a headshot and a portfolio of work. You want the best possible actor for this role.
How would you word your casting call?
1. Wanted: All ethnicities.
2. Wanted: Caucasian or any other ethnicity.
Do these phrases mean the same thing?
Do these phrases imply the same thing?
How is one different from the other?
What impression does each one give you about the role being cast?
What impression does each one give you about the intended, or resultant, applicants?
First, we examine what official casting calls look like, for both roles of specified and unspecified ethnicities:
NBC’S HEROES: Volume 4
[ AGENT 1 & 2 ]
28 – 45. PLEASE SUBMIT MEN AND WOMEN OF ALL ETHNICITIES. MUST BE IN GREAT PHYSICAL SHAPE. EXPERIENCE HANDLING WEAPONS A PLUS. These men/women are FBI agents taking part in a top-secret military operation…CO-STAR / POSSIBLE RECUR [Source]
[ JAPANESE DRIVER ]
30 – 45. JAPANESE. A funny, amiable guy from Texas, this truck driver’s voice is 100% pure Texan twang…CO-STAR / POSSIBLE 1 DAY GUEST STAR [Source]
[ WAITRESS ]
28 – 50. HISPANIC. A nice waitress who works in a small diner in Arizona. CO-STAR [Source]
[ MR. SHAW ]
Late 30’s. CAUCASIAN. Dark Hair / Brown or Blue eyes. Mr. Shaw is a devoted father trying to protect his daughters. CO-STAR [Source]
[ 1960'S MOM ]
Mid 20’s – Early 30’s. PLEASE SUBMIT ALL ETHNICITIES. This cheerful young mother is seen in a flashback to the 1960’s. CO-STAR [Source]
These cast calls are straightforward and unambiguous. Applicants understand what the role entails and if a specific ethnicity is being sought to meet the demands of the story.
Next, let’s look at the official casting call for the four young leads for Paramount’s The Last Airbender. Remember that these characters canonically hail from the equivalent of Inuit and pan-Asian cultures:
[ AANG ]
12-15 years-old, Male, Caucasian or any other ethnicity. We are looking for a young man to play the lead role in a motion picture franchise. He must be athletic and graceful with an ability in Martial Arts (not necessarily extensive experience) [...] He is a young adventurer and should seem like the type of young man who will grow up to be heroic.
[ KATARA ]
14-17 years-old, Female, Caucasian or any other ethnicity. She is Sokka’s younger sister. [...] She believes in herself and feels that she can play on the same team as the boys. She is beautiful, intelligent, passionate, feisty, and has a real sense of adventure.
[ SOKKA ]
16-20 years-old, Male, Caucasian or any other ethnicity. He is Katara’s older brother. He is intelligent but awkward, and very funny [...] He aspires to greatness, but he tends to doubt himself.
[ ZUKO ]
16-20 years-old, Male, Caucasian or any other ethnicity. He is a brooding, intense young man who wrestles – not always successfully – with being good. Regaining his honor is a driving impetus for him. He is extremely handsome and is the type of dangerous boy every girl falls in love with. Athletic and/or martial arts experience is a plus.
This casting call was distributed widely, including on the thelastairbendercasting.com website (owned by Paramount) and to Breakdown Services and Actors Access. Here is a copy of the Breakdown Services version. Please note this call was released through Gail Levin’s office. In summer 2008, Levin was Paramount Pictures’ casting chief. This is contrary to Airbender producer Frank Marshall’s April 2010 claim that Paramount had nothing to do with the casting call.
The initial casting for the film had Caucasian actors for all four lead roles. Following public outcry, the role of Zuko was re-cast to Dev Patel, a South Asian actor. Zuko, as a member of the genocidal Fire Nation, is expected to be the main antagonist throughout the events of the first film.
It’s worth noting that – even after the “diversifying” re-cast – the only major role given to a person of color was that of the enemy.
Finally, after seeing how Paramount preferred to handle the casting for the lead roles, we examine how they made their casting call for The Last Airbender extras – people without dialogue or scripted interaction, intended only to walk the background and fill space.
In short, what follows are Paramount’s statements on casting actors who are seen but not heard.
We first examine a sheet for a casting call held in Philadelphia.
[ EXTRAS ]
Physically fit MEN & WOMEN 18-85 yr. Old – Boys & Girls 6-16 yr Old.
NEAR EASTERN, MIDDLE EASTERN, FAR EASTERN, ASIAN, MEDITERRANEAN & LATINO ETHNIC GROUPS….
No experience necessary – Martial Arts & Military Training a PLUS!
Come to our OPEN CASTING CALL, dress casually, OR in the traditional costume of your family’s ethnic background. We’ll take your photo and information –
[official casting call: Philadelphia, February 7, 2009 - source]
Suddenly we find that for extras, Paramount is effectively seeking any ethnicity except Caucasian. Here the emphasis is on any other.
This is more evident when we examine the language used by the Paramount casting director.
“We want you to dress in traditional cultural ethnic attire,” [Deedee Ricketts, the casting director for the film] said. “If you’re Korean, wear a kimono. If you’re from Belgium, wear lederhosen.” [source]
For the sake of clarity, we note that kimonos are a type of Japanese clothing and lederhosen are, in fact, German.
One middle-aged black woman, clad in a denim jacket and black slacks, raised her hand. “Are you at a disadvantage if you didn’t wear a costume?” she asked, evidently concerned about her “non-ethnic” outfit.
“Absolutely not!” Ricketts reassured her. “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.” [source]
The research speaks for itself. The evidence is pulled directly from documents officially released and endorsed by Paramount – or spoken by one of the film’s casting directors.
Decisions were made within Paramount’s leadership to systematically exclude faces of color from the forefront of The Last Airbender. When pressured to introduce diversity into the cast, Paramount carefully selected roles that were either antagonistic or inconsequential.
The wording of the casting calls, the offhand remarks of the casting director, and the overall attitude of Paramount’s search for actors reflect both implicit and explicit bias against Americans of color.
Categories: History and Concepts, The Last Airbender
Tags: american indian, asian, asian american, avatar the last airbender, boycott, controversy, film, inuit, m night shyamalan, movie, native american, nickelodeon, paramount pictures, protest, the last airbender, whitewashing, yellowface