Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality
On July 1st, Racebending.com, the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium, the Korean Resource Center, Avatar: The Last Airbender fans and other concerned members of the public gathered to protest the discriminatory casting of The Last Airbender in front of theaters in Seattle, Wash. and Hollywood, Calif.
Photos by Jason Lopez, Marissa Lee, and Camilla Pohle-Anderson
The Media Action Network for Asian Americans and Racebending.com, a grassroots organization comprised of fans of the franchise, contended that Paramount’s production of the “Airbender” film adaptation discriminated by selecting white actors to play the Asian and Inuit characters from the Avatar: The Last Airbender series. Only white actors were cast in the film’s lead protagonist roles, a decision the protesters alleged was rooted in Hollywood’s historical bias against casting actors of color in lead roles.
Since December 2008, thousands of outraged members of the Avatar fan community have mobilized online to protest through letter writing, petitions, and live protests. Demonstrations that started in pockets on the East Coast at early 2009 casting calls in Philadelphia and New York City culminated in protests on the day of the film’s release on the West Coast in Seattle and in the heart of Hollywood.
Over the past year and a half, fan protesters and the Asian American community have argued that actors of color are not represented equally in “Airbender”. The three lead heroes are white, while the villain and background roles are largely played by actors of color–included only after the initial public outcry against the casting of the lead roles. Actors of color play the film’s antagonists, and have been repeatedly described in marketing materials as “evil.”
The protesters confirmed their concerns about unequal representation in the The Last Airbender on Monday, June 28th, when they were given a belated screening of the film at the Paramount Studios lot a day before the red carpet premiere.
“It was even worse than we’d expected,” Guy Aoki, founding President of MANAA, said. “Except for a few lines from some victimized Asian villagers, every Asian or minority character with a speaking role is a bad guy, and every white character with a speaking role is good!”
In Los Angeles, Racebending.com volunteers, Avatar fans and Asian American organizations and actors demonstrated in front of the marquee of the historic Arclight Cinerama Dome, the largest Hollywood theater showing The Last Airbender. A group that began building at 5pm quickly swelled up to over 100 protesters at it’s peak, drawing honking horns and cheering from the cars driving down Sunset Boulevard during rush hour.
“It was really important for us to stage a demonstration in the heart of Hollywood,” Marissa Lee, co-founder of Racebending.com, said. “So many big entertainment industry decisions are made here. Los Angeles is one of the most diverse cities in the entire world; now Hollywood knows we’re not afraid to call them out.”
Two of the Asian American organizations, the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium and the Korean Resource Center, said that they were moved to protest by a young Korean American from the community center, an eleven-year old girl who had brought the casting controversy to their attention.
“Young Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders do not need to grow up discouraged and feel like they need to seek other avenues to feel proud and confident of their identity and race,” NAKASEC wrote. “This is our America that we helped build and an America we are continuing to make vibrant and dynamic. America is changing and the youth of today will not support continued whitewashing of their history, culture and community.”
Employees at the Arclight Cinerama Dome were supportive of our cause, and allowed us to peacefully protest in front of the theater with minimal interference. One employee told Racebending.com that during the midnight screening for the Airbender movie the night before, the theater had only filled 40 of it’s 800 seats.
Members of East West Players, an Asian American acting troupe founded by late Avatar voice actor and fan favorite Mako Iwamatsu, came out as individual citizens to show their support. Actors Jodi Long, Tzi Ma, Elizabeth Sung, Chris Tashima, and director Gene Cajayon also attended the protest.
In Washington state, where there has been considerably less publicity about the controversy than in Hollywood, supporters set out to educate the public. In addition to protesting on the film’s Thursday opening day, July 1st, the group also came out on the holiday weekend. A group of demonstrators assembled displays in front of the Regal Thornton Place Stadium 14 & IMAX in north Seattle and handed out literature, including over 150 fliers fliers and 70 full-color brochures.
“We stood on opposite sides of the main street and shouted our slogans at each other and the cars that would pass between us,” Catherine Bugayong, Racebending.com’s Seattle Street Team Coordinator, said. “The noise would attract people’s interest, and we had a few posters and people nearby who would help explain the issues. We had more fun than we thought possible.”
The demonstrators professionally answered many passer-byers’ frequently asked questions, including what the original casting calls looked like, whether or not there are Inuit or Asian American actors, and how media can affect children’s self esteem.
“Many people stopped to talk to us and listen to what we had to say,” demonstrator Camilla Pohle-Anderson said. “We had a little bit of negative attention–the worst moment was when a guy shouted across the street, ‘If you want Asians in movies, just leave the US!’ — but most people we talked to were very respectful and even quite interested.”
“It was a very positive experience to meet fellow fans who had enjoyed this show as much as I did, and felt just as strongly as I did about equal opportunities and better media representation for people of color,” Bugayong said. “To do a protest for hours is hard work, but they made it so much fun– we wouldn’t have made as strong a statement in Seattle without everyone’s passionate participation!”
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