Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality


Video Series: The Last Airbender Film: Why Are People Upset About Airbender?

January 23, 2010

A new video series on how to talk about Racebending.

Having trouble explaining to people why you feel so passionately about The Last Airbender film?

Frustrated by the people you meet who mean well but don’t understand?

Watch this series – it’s less than five minutes altogether. We hope it helps!

(Now with subtitle/transcripts provided by Racebending.com volunteer Maddy!)

Introduction: What We’re Talking About

Talking about the Last Airbender Casting can be tough. Folks are passionate on both sides. Fans excited for the film can’t wait to see their beloved series on the big screen. For these fans, race doesn’t seem like a big deal. It’s… just a movie!

So how do you talk about to people about Airbender?

First: Stay Calm. If you can’t be reasonable, the discussion is pointless. Don’t attack people. Implying someone is racist, isn’t going to help anybody.

Second: Know When to Walk Away. You run into a guy like this–

[live action video clip of a man outside] “Let me throw that back on you guys then, why are you in the United States?”

–and reasonable discussion is impossible. Drop it and focus on reaching out to open minds. The real goal is to find common ground.

The Racebending.com stance can be summed up in three parts:

    1) The original characters are people of color.
    2) The film production favored Caucasian actors, and
    3) Paramount shouldn’t profit.

Hey, isn’t Aang white?!

So let’s start with the first one: Ethnicity of the original characters. Everyone agrees that the original series was heavily based on Asian and Inuit culture. The creators have repeatedly stated such, and even mandated that all writing on the show be accurately rendered in Chinese.

It’s agreed that Sokka and Katara are people of color. Parents in the Racebending movement have repeatedly told us what a rare and wonderful chance it was for their kids to see heroes of color on television.

Some are confused about Aang. The animé influenced art-style would imply Japanese ethnicity to Japanese viewers, but for many in the US, the style implies white, unless the skin-tone is darkened. It would be totally freaky to see an actual person rendered in animé proportions, so we feel it’s better to look at culture context.

As debate continued, series co-creator Bryan Konietzko, published this official Nickelodeon poster, which helped clarify Aang’s ethnic appearance. Even so, folks don’t have to agree on the race of Aang to agree that Paramount has some messed up casting practices.

Didn’t they choose the most talented actors?

The published cast calls for the main roles, Aang, Katara, Sokka, and Zuko, requested applicants who were “caucasian or any other ethnicity.” This is a matter of public record, and Paramount admits to the language used.

The initial four actors chosen were all white, until the actor playing the antagonist was replaced by Dev Patel. From then on, cast calls for all villainous Fire Nation extras were asked to be Near Eastern, Middle Eastern, Far Eastern, Asian, Mediterranean, and Latino. Effectively, non-white with a dark complexion. Further, every significant Fire Nation role has been given to an actor of colour, except for a previous incarnation of the heroic Avatar, who was cast white.

If race really doesn’t matter, why is it showing up in every major cast call for the film? And who made the decision that heroes, originally steeped in Asian and Inuit culture, should receive predominantly Caucasian applicants, while the villains should be cast with dark complexions?

It’s all business

Paramount doesn’t deserve to profit from these casting practices. Opportunities for Asian American actors are extremely rare, even when a role is based on real-life Asian Americans, such as in 21, Hollywood selects white actors. Even for Dragon Ball’s Goku, the Japanese equivalent of Superman, the American film cast white leads. Hollywood believes Americans can relate to giant transforming robots, kung-fu pandas, and blue aliens, but executives have trouble believing people of colour can carry films.

Fifteen years ago, Samuel L. Jackson remarked that casting black actors was still strange for Hollywood. Today, Will Smith is the number one box office star in the United States. At the same time, actors like Bruce Lee and John Cho are seen as rare anomalies, the exceptions to the rule that Asian faces don’t sell in America.

Hollywood takes a while to figure it out, but they can learn, especially when consumers speak up. In a perfect world, roles would go to the most talented people. But as it stands, Hollywood writes casting calls favouring white actors. From The Last of the Mohicans, to the Prince of Persia, whites are deemed the most capable of portraying stories about people of colour.

Paramount hasn’t faired well in the recession. They’ve invested heavily in The Last Airbender’s profits, especially for the opening weekend. This it the perfect chance to help Hollywood see that Americans care about fair and equal casting.

If you’re having trouble viewing the videos, try the Facebook version:

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