Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality
Update: On June 30th, Ebert issued his most damning missive against The Last Airbender yet on twitter.com, flat out calling the film’s casting practices “racist.”
Ebert linked an article written by Vietnamese American blogger Q. Le, “Facepainting”, to his 170,000 followers. This message was retweeted by over 100 people and became the top search result on twitter when people searched for Last Airbender.
In his June 9th, 2010 Answer Man Column, American film critic Roger Ebert answered another fan question about the casting of The Last Airbender and the practice of “racebending” and “whitewashing” in general.
Ebert had previously answered a question about The Last Airbender in December 2009, where he called the casting decisions “wrong.”
From the June 9th column:
Q. A friend and I got in a discussion over whether it is racist to have race be a criteria while casting a role. My friend was of the opinion that the best actor should get the role. I felt that if the part was written for, say, a young African-American male, the audition pool should be limited to young African-American males. This discussion specifically focused on the movie “The Last Airbender,” which is based on an American-made animated show called “Avatar: The Last Airbender.”
Two of the characters in the show were not white, yet their movie counterparts will be white. I felt that the movie casting choice was not true to the source material while my friend thought the casting choice (from a racial perspective) was irrelevant. Is casting white actors into non-white roles a form of racism/whitewashing? Would the opposite also be racist? Or should the best actor, regardless of race or any other physical consideration, be chosen?
Colleen Stone, Woodbury, Minn.
A. It was racist in the days when minority actors just plain couldn’t get work in anything but stereotyped roles. The situation has improved. If I’d been making “The Last Airbender,” I would probably have decided the story was so well- known to my core audience that it would be a distraction to cast those roles with white actors. I’m guessing, but I suspect the American group most under-represented in modern Hollywood is young Asian-American males.
In October 2009, while Paramount was casting The Last Airbender, the Screen Actor’s Guild released statistics showing that only 3.8% of film and television roles went to actors of Asian Pacific descent, and only 0.3% to actors of Native American descent.
And when actors of Asian Pacific and Amerindian are cast in film and television, they are rarely the first-billed lead or central character. UCLA Law Professor Russell Robinson found that only 1.8% of lead roles are cast with an actor of Asian Pacific descent, and less than 1% of lead roles are cast with an actor of Native American descent.
Harold and Kumar is possibly the only recent mainstream film franchise to feature Asian American actors, playing Asian American characters, in lead roles.
These statistics also don’t differentiate between Asians from abroad and Asian Americans. When the opportunity arises for a studio to cast a character of Asian Pacific descent, the studio often selects an actor from overseas–such as the casting of Jay Chou as Kato in The Green Hornet–limiting Asian American actors’ opportunities further. The most famous actors of Asian descent–like Jackie Chan and Jet Li–continue to be from abroad while Asian American actors struggle to find any work at home. And aside from the Avatar: The Last Airbender animated series, very few mainstream movies and television series have featured circumpolar indigenous people like the Inuit.
The “racebending” of The Last Airbender was a missed opportunity for Americans of Asian Pacific, Amerindian, and Circumpolar Indigenous descent to star in a tentpole summer film. But more than simply a “missed opportunity,” the production’s decisions also had a discriminatory impact, reinforcing that in Hollywood, people of color can play secondary roles in films – but white actors are preferred for heroic leads, even if the characters were created to be ethnically Asian and Inuit in a fantasy world representative of the cultures of the Pacific Rim.