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Journalists and Critics Tackle the Casting Controversy in ‘The Last Airbender’

August 12, 2010



The Last Airbender took a critical drubbing and is currently ranked 7% at RottenTomatoes.com. In part due to the awareness Racebending.com readers and other supporters were able to bring to the casting issue through our mid-June letter writing campaign, nearly every single article on or review of The Last Airbender that came out around July 1st, 2010 mentioned the casting controversy and/or even Racebending.com. Below are some of the numerous articles that mention the casting controversy.

Acknowledgement of Fan Outcry Stemming from Racebending.com

In an interview with M. Night Shyamalan, Washington Post reporter Jen Chaney commented directly on the number of emails sent to journalists by Racebending.com readers concerned about discrimination in the movie.

I’m sure other members of the press have told you this, too – I’ve been getting a lot of e-mails from the members of the Racebending group, especially in the days leading up to the release of this film. And again, they’re expressing their concerns about the lack of Asian or Asian-American actors cast in the film.”

In part due to the public outcry over the movie, CNN explored the casting controversy in it’s article: Did the ‘Airbender’ adaptation ever have a chance?

“Some fans of the show said they boycotted the movie because the three lead actors are Caucasian. Blogs like “Angry Asian Man” and sites like Racebending.net [sic] attacked Shyamalan and the film’s parent company, Paramount, for white-washing a franchise that was overtly Asian in appearance and sensitivity.”

NPR mentions the fan outcry via Racebending.com through it’s coverage of the casting controversy on Tell Me More: National Public Radio: Tell Me More – The Whitewashing of a Nickelodeon Hit.

“At Racebending.com, a network of disappointed fans has organized a campaign to boycott the film, and call for more opportunities for Asian-American performers in Hollywood.”

Fan’s grievances were also tackled by Public Radio International and the Boston Globe, and ABC, Fox, the Los Angeles Times, and USC all covered the Hollywood protest.

Film Critics Validate Concerns About Casting

Public outcry was also reflected in film reviews of the movie itself. Many film critics reviewing the film noted that public concerns about the casting of the film were “deserved” and “valid.”

“This fiasco has deservedly generated advance criticism for hiring Caucasian actors to play leads that were portrayed as Asians in the TV show and pitting them against darker-skinned bad guys.” [New York Post]

“The Nickelodeon series, created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, is wholly and inarguably centered on Asian (and Inuit) culture. But Shyamalan, a South Indian, for whatever reason — you supply the motive — chose to cast mostly white actors. Two fellow Indians, “Slumdog Millionaire’s” Dev Patel and veteran Indian-American Aasif Mandvi, play different kinds of villains, but otherwise this fantasy world is pretty white until you get to the extras.” [Hollywood Reporter]

“After the miscalculation of making the movie as live action, there remained the challenge of casting it. Shyamalan has failed. His first inexplicable mistake was to change the races of the leading characters; on television Aang was clearly Asian, and so were Katara and Sokka, with perhaps Mongolian and Inuit genes. Here they’re all whites. This casting makes no sense.[Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times]

“The four elemental nations represent centuries of culture, with unique garments, architecture and fighting styles to distinguish them (there also seems to be some sort of impenetrable logic about their ethnicities, with people of color filling nearly all the secondary roles).” [Variety]

“The casting is peculiar: Already the subject of some Asian-American protests, the movie has made the good-guy Water Nation folks largely (and dully) Anglo, with Mediterranean and Indian and other swarthy-type performers portraying the bad-guy Fire Folk.” [Chicago Tribune]

“Even the glassy-eyed idealism has already been compromised: the film has been widely condemned for recasting the good characters as white, with south Asians only allowed to play the villains. It features the British star Dev Patel, from Slumdog Millionaire, a bright young player who deserves better than this.” [UK Guardian]

One argument that was constantly brought up in defense of racebending allegations was that the leads were chosen for their talent — but we see little of that from Ringer, Peltz, and Rathbone. Meanwhile, in scenes featuring the Fire Nation army, it’s hard not to notice that all of the villains in the film are distinctly darker in skin tone than our heroes. [Slashfilm]

“More questions: why ethnically cleanse the Asian characters of the original series (but use Slumdog Millionaire ’s Dev Patel and The Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi as baddies)?” [UK Telegraph]

The producers have been widely criticized for failing to cast the Asian characters of the original with Asian actors, and the criticism is valid, notwithstanding the presence of Asians in minor roles. Like the hero, Aang, the lead characters of the brave sister and brother, Katara and Sokka, are played by young and conspicuously Caucasian American actors.” [Wall Street Journal]

More damning is the apparently casual racism of the casting, which caused outrage among US filmgoers. Shyamalan has changed the Asian/ Mongolian/Eskimo main characters into slow-talking white Yanks – but for some reason he’s cast mostly Asians to play the horrible Firebender characters. Shyamalan was born in Pondicherry, India, and raised in Philadelphia. What was he thinking?[UK Independent]

“Then came the news that the young lead characters would be ethnically cleansed of their all-important Asian origins, and played by [white] American actors instead. This particular move made about as much sense as having the lead roles in Cats and Dogs 2 played by sharks and hamsters.” [Australia Herald Sun]

Shyamalan has gotten a lot of well-deserved grief for his casting choices—The Last Airbender takes place in an explicitly Asian-inspired universe, but Shyamalan went ahead and cast white actors in all the lead roles (I’m sure he has some bullshit justification involving the phrase “postracial society”). The people of the noble, peaceful water nation are lily-white hippies. The people of the dirty earth nation are exotically grubby Chinese peasants. The people of the villainous, imperialistic, world-ruining fire nation are dark-skinned Indian jerks. The people of the air nation are extinct, so whatever. It’s so transparent you can see all the way to China.” [The Stranger]

“The movie arrives chased by controversy — protests by fans that the story has been figuratively whitewashed. Although several characters like Katara and Sokka were dark-skinned in the cartoon, here they’re played by Caucasians…Race is a factor here. Caucasian actors in the movie tend to get lines; non-Caucasian actors tend to be used as background. The movie’s Fire Nation tribe has Indian and Maori stars — but they’re the swarthy villains. For a director who is himself Indian-American, it’s a pretty thoughtless approach at best.”[New Jersey Star Ledger]

“The decision to cast white actors to play Asian characters is just nuts. Even more so, considering none of them are actually any good.”[News of the World]

“Considering all of the (understandable) outrage that came from casting four Caucasians in lead roles that were Asian in the original animated series, it is almost offensive that the lead actors are blank slates from beginning to end. This is clearly not a case of Shyamalan sacrificing the racial balance of his story for the sake of casting an irreplaceable young actor (there is no Haley Joel Osment-like discovery in the mix here). Frankly, the casting has an accidental (?) racial undertone, as the good guys of the Water Nation are all white and/or British while the villainous Fire Nation people generally all portrayed by Indian or Middle Eastern actors.[Huffington Post]

Reviews Take Notice of Casting Controversy

Even film critics who had bigger issues with the film’s other flaws paid notice to the casting controversy…

“The film has come under fire from some Asian-American groups for not using more Asian stars. Ringer is white, while the cartoon characters were Asian. Airbender’s problem, though, is not in race. It’s in the script, written by Shyamalan…” [USA Today]

“Based on a Asian-ish cartoon series called “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” the movie has been criticized for racially inappropriate casting, but that’s the least of its problems.” [St. Louis Post-Dispatch]

I’ve been getting e-mails for weeks complaining about the casting of ‘The Last Airbender,’ director M. Night Shyamalan’s live-action adaptation of the Nickelodeon cartoon ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender.’ The writers are upset that most of the actors, with the exception of British-born Indian actor Dev Patel, who plays bad guy Zuko, are white. They should be upset with the casting, but not for the reason they think.” [Washington Post]

“The movie’s casting of mostly Anglo actors to play the Asian airbending kids has stirred up controversy, but that’s the least of this short, disastrous film’s problems.” [Orlando Sentinel]

“The Last Airbender’’ has had more bad karma than almost any movie deserves…The core fan base has been up in arms over the casting of white actors to play characters that on the show are anime-Asian.” [Boston Globe]

“The dearth of racially appropriate casting in the U.S. simply means that fewer Asians were humiliated by appearing in what is surely the worst botch of a fantasy epic since Ralph Bakshi’s animated desecration of The Lord of the Rings back in 1978. The actors who didn’t get to be in The Last Airbender are like the passengers who arrived too late to catch the final flight of the Hindenburg.[TIME Magazine]

“I think everybody who has criticized Shyamalan for casting white actors as Asian characters in this film should admit they were wrong. Clearly, Shyamalan tried to cast Asians, but he just couldn’t find any whose performances were lifeless enough.[io9]

A big thank you to all of our supporters who took the time to write and spread the word!

Categories: Featured, In The News, Press, The Last Airbender
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About the Author

Marissa Lee is one of the co-founders of Racebending.com

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