Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality
Racebending.com was excited to be contacted for an interview with The Guardian about Andrea Arnold’s new version of Wuthering Heights, which features an actor of color in the role of Heathcliff. See “How Heathcliff got a racelift” for full coverage.
It was only when the movies started messing with works of pure fiction, however, that the public really got upset. The highest-profile case was in 2010′s fantasy action flop The Last Airbender, directed by M Night Shyamalan. It was based on a popular TV cartoon series blending Asian, Inuit and Native American philosophy, history and martial arts and predominantly featuring dark-skinned characters. When it came to the film version, however, the four principal characters were all cast as light-skinned, blue-eyed American actors.
This was too much for the fans. Their rage on internet forums coalesced into a dedicated pressure group, calling themselves Racebending. “We grew to an organised website, a Facebook page, we got volunteers, and we spent time reaching out to press and TV, we got a lot of coverage. It became a national and international issue,” says Michael Le, one of Racebending’s team of volunteers.
M Night Shyamalan, who is of Indian descent and has regularly cast Asian actors in his previous films, defended the casting in the name of “diversity” (the creators of the cartoon series, by the way, were two white Americans). In response to the negative publicity, though, the film-makers replaced one of the white actors with an Asian one – Dev Patel, of Slumdog Millionaire fame. But the move did little to defuse the situation, especially since Patel’s character was the story’s villain, and a “Boycott The Last Airbender” campaign was launched.
“We don’t take credit for The Last Airbender’s failure,” says Le. “The movie being terrible was the main factor in that. But what we were successful at was changing the context of the conversations about the movie. It was very difficult to write a review or an article about the movie that did not mention the casting controversy, and M Night himself was forced to respond to the question several times, much to his frustration. So maybe they’ll think twice next time.”
Or maybe not. Racebending, whose adopted term is synonymous with “race-lifting”, still has its work cut out. Asian-generated fantasy and science-fiction stories are particularly susceptible to race-lifting/bending. It also happened with 2009′s Dragonball Evolution, the live-action Hollywood adaptation of one of Japan’s most popular anime series. Again, the lead actors were played by Caucasian actors. And it is about to happen again with a new version of legendary manga Akira. The cast announced so far is led by Garret Hedlund, hero of the recent Tron Legacy, and includes Gary Oldman and Helena Bonham Carter. The entire story of Akira has been race-lifted from the original’s Neo-Tokyo, to “Neo-Manhattan”.
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