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question of the day: Should white actors play Asian and Inuit characters?

Fans of the anime series Avatar: The Last Airbender are up in arms over the casting of the live-action movie adaptation, being directed by M. Night Shyamalan and scheduled for release in 2010: not one member of the cast is Asian or Inuit, as the setting and ethos of the original series suggests they should be.

Should white actors play Asian and Inuit characters?

I am not familiar with The Last Airbender and I have no emotional investment in it or in this movie, but this still seems outrageous to me. It’s hard to imagine what excuse Shyamalan, Paramount, or anyone else involved in this production could offer for this. There can often be many good reasons to cast across ethnic lines — for effect, to make meta statements about race and racism — but none of those appear to be at work here. It does seem to be just another instance of Hollywood assuming that “white” is the default human setting, and that the trappings of non-European ethnicity may be demanded of some stories, but not nonwhite people.
(Read graphic artist Derek Kirk Kim’s in-depth article about the issues involved, if you want more info.)

It looks like Anglo-Indian actor Dev Patel (from Slumdog Millionaire) has just been cast in the film, but that’s hardly an improvement. The Brits may call people from India “Asian,” and they are, geographically speaking, but they’re not ethnically Asian: they’re Caucasian. Certainly, Dev Patel looks neither Chinese, Japanese, or Korean, nor does he look Inuit. In fact, if Patel’s casting is a response to the fan outrage, it’s almost more insulting than if the producers had left well enough alone: the problem wasn’t that there were no actors without pale pinkish-yellow skin among the cast, it’s that there weren’t any Asian or Inuit actors. Throwing in one brown face suggests that the producers have no inkling of what the problem is. (None of which is any criticism of Patel as an actor: he’s wonderful. And he deserves better than to be used as a token.)

(This question was prompted by reader Jason. If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me.)


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  • bitchen frizzy

    I’m not familiar with the “Avatar” story, so I need to ask, is it essential to the story that the characters be Asian?

    I don’t get upset when the actors in a “Romeo and Juliet” production aren’t Italians, since it doesn’t matter to the story.

  • PaulW

    I have watched, and I am a fan of, the Avatar series.

    The animated series used white actors across the board even though the characters themselves were Asian (Chinese for the Fire, Air and Earth nations) and Inuit (Water tribes). They had Clancy freakin Brown as the evil Earth Nation bureaucrat! The only main character voiced by a real Asian was Uncle Iroh, by the late Mako. So I have to ask, where was the outrage then?

  • PaulW

    I have another question: in films made in China, India and other nations when they cast roles meant to be Americans or Europeans, do they fill those roles with Chinese and Indians? Or do they make the extra effort to bring in Americans/Europeans to fill those spots? I know Japan tries sometimes (they had Nick Adams in a Godzilla movie!)…

  • bitchen frizzy

    “The animated series used white actors across the board even though the characters themselves were Asian (Chinese for the Fire, Air and Earth nations) and Inuit (Water tribes).”

    I want to be corrected if I’m wrong, but it sounds like the story has fictional characters representing semi-fictional nations that are pattern on real nations. If that’s the case, I don’t understand the big deal.

    A story like “The Princess Bride” is based in a nominally European fictional country, and is inspired by Western fairy tales, but it could translate well and it shouldn’t be a problem if a Chinese or Japanese film company remade it with Asian actors.

    OTOH, a movie like “Glory” is firmy grounded in historical specifics. It would be peculiar to portray the African-American soldiers with actors of another ethnicity, and outrageous to portray Confederate soldiers with African-American actors.

    Where does “Avatar” land on this spectrum?

  • Jurgan

    I’m a huge Avatar fan, but I’m not sure if I should be up in arms over this. I guess I’d prefer Asian casting, but it won’t kill the movie for me. They’re not really “Asian,” after all- they’re in a fictional world based on Asian countries. Lord of the Rings was sort-of based on England, but I don’t recall many English actors in it (I’m not sure if that’s the best metaphor, as I’m not deeply knowledgeable of Tolkien). An Indian would be appropriate, though, depending on which ethnicity in the show he represents. Paul, the non-water nations are not all Chinese. Roughly, it’s Water is Inuit or Siberian (arctic and antarctic climates, fishermen), Earth is Chinese (massive country full of peasant farmers and a few big cities), Fire is Japan (technologically-advanced, militaristic nation based on an archipelago), and Air is Tibet (ascetic monks living in temples in the high mountains). Also, there is a “guru” who represents a bridge between the nations, and he’s clearly Indian-based.

    Anyway, it doesn’t really matter to the story one way or the other, but it might be nice if they tried a little harder.

  • amanohyo

    I think the people with creative control have the right to change the ethnicity/nationality of characters in an adapted screenplay to whatever combination they believe will make the producers the most money.

    On the rare occasions when I am forced to watched dubbed anime, the relationship between the ethnicity/nationality of the character and the ethnicity/nationality of the voice actor doesn’t come into play at all. In fact, when Japanese voice actors pretend to be white Americans, the results are often hilarious.

    But, to answer the original question, no they shouldn’t because it usually makes the final product less interesting. But obviously they have the right to do whatever they want.

  • Jurgan

    Oh, and by the way, Avatar is not “anime.” It’s an American series, although it’s influenced by anime, and the animation studio is Korean. Not that there’s anything wrong with anime, but I think the distinction should be preserved.

  • Hasimir Fenring

    in films made in China, India and other nations when they cast roles meant to be Americans or Europeans, do they fill those roles with Chinese and Indians?

    As far as Chinese films I’ve seen, such roles are invariably filled by whites, usually speaking their own languages and dubbed into Chinese. (The exceedingly few Korean films that include American characters (I’ve seen three) simply have them speaking English subtitled in Korean.) I’ve never seen or heard of any Chinese or Korean film that has a character identified as American or European yet played by an Asian, unless it’s a plot point (that the character is, say, a Korean-American). This also includes other Asians; I’ve seen a few ‘Chinese kungfu heroes fight the Japanese’ films, and the primary Japanese villain has been played by a Japanese. (The last one a damn handsome and charismatic one, too, who blew the hero off the film of the screen.)

  • Grant

    @PaulW: Why, oh why, did you have to play the “Where’s the outrage?” card?

    I think part of the reason would be that in an animated prduction, it hardly matters. Consider “Mulan”. That film employed asians Ming-na Wen, B.D. Wong, George Takei, Pat Morita, and James Hong, among others. I would say that only Pat Morita and James Hong sounded anywhere remotely “Asian”. Of course, Morita was born in California, while Fong is a native Minnesotan, fer crying out loud! So I suspect both use exagerrated, “stereotypically Asian” accents they are both (perhaps unfortunetly) know for. Meanwhile, the cast also includes Eddie Murphy and Harvey Firestien!
    My point? Even if they used asian actors, could you tell?

  • Katie Dvorak

    It makes no sense, in this “day and age”, with the wealth of talented actors across all races and ethnicitys that a film cannot have as diverse a cast a possible. Especially when the source material it is working from is diverse.

  • bitchen frizzy

    Since Shyamalan et. al. are not raving lunatics, yet do not hire as diverse a cast as possible, it clearly does “make sense” from some points of view.

    As I understand it, the complaints arise because “Avatar” is apparently not diverse source material.

  • bitchen frizzy

    Actually, if Jurgan is correct about “Avatar” being an American series, then the people complaining about Shaymalan not hiring Asian actors are morons.

    In that case, their complaints really are as silly and groundless as someone complaining about “Romeo and Juliet” not being cast with Italians, or “The Mikado” not being cast with Japanese.

  • Alli

    I think the outrage is more about fans wanting the movie characters to resemble the TV characters. For instance, Sokka has dark skin in the TV series. I think a lot of people want to know why they decided to hire a white actor for that part. Now, the easiest argument is to suggest skin color isn’t important in this day and age, but it would be a bit naive to pretend people won’t point it out.

    Consider, for instance, the outrage other fandoms have had about the way their beloved characters looked: every time early production photos for the next Harry Potter film come out, there are always fans picking apart Emma Watson’s and Dan Radcliffe’s hair. Can you imagine the outrage if they had made Dean Thomas white? Now imagine the entire cast of potter as white (which shouldn’t be hard…), and Voldemort as black. That’s basically what Airbender fans are arguing here: you finally hire someone with brown skin, and you make him the villian. Interesting…

    Now, whether or not these characters should be played by Asians is an interesting question. As people have pointed out, this show is an American show, and it takes place in a fantasy world. The world is, however, based on Asians countries (aka Asian stereotypes). You throw martial arts in there, and suddenly the characters who look very European magically become Asian (which is a bit prejudiced in itself).

    Now, I don’t think M. Night or the production company is racist. I’m hoping they simply picked the best actors that tried out. But I don’t blame Airbender fans for being turned off by this.

  • bitchen frizzy

    Okay, not “morons” then.

    “Fanboys” is more accurate.

    I have to admit I’m sometimes guilty of that. I still don’t like LOTR’s casting of Liv Tyler.

    But then it’s not really a societal issue that matters beyond the fan base.

    So I’m a moron for making a tempest out of a teacup.

  • Spencer

    An awful lot like yesterday’s question, this.

    Personally, I am generallly in favor of the best, most qualified person for the job receiving said job regardless of racial identity or ethnicity (movies a la Glory, et. al. being obvious exceptions). So, if there was a genuine attempt to spread as wide of a casting net as was financially possible, and if the best actors for the part got the job, then I’m fine with it (assuming, as seems to be the case, that the source material is not intrinsically ethnic).

    As for those who are absolutely baffled that “in this day and age” there does not exist some person of Asian descent who fits a given part, consider some practical limitations. There are budgetary concerns for casting, there are laguage barrier issues, there are scheduling conflicts, etc. etc. So, the lack of an Asian person in an Asian role does not necessarily entail any particular conclusion– positive or negative.

  • Jurgan

    I’m pretty sure fans would have been satisfied with “Asian-American” actors, not necessarily actual Asians. So “budgetary concerns for casting, laguage barrier issues, scheduling conflicts” are no more a concern than with any other American actors.

  • http://www.funwithheadlines.net FunWithHeadlines

    In a sense, all actors are not like their roles. Do we cast serial killers to play serial killer parts? No, we cast an actor to pretend. So we clearly have no problem with an actor portraying something or someone he or she is not.

    Where do we cross the line between that being fine and that being an outrage?

    Is it only skin color or outward appearance that does it? I saw You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown on Broadway with a black actor playing Schroeder. Made not the slightest difference to me. Despite the obvious physical appearance difference, he acted well enough to convince me I was watching Schroeder.

    So it is only when white actors play minority parts that we get outraged, but if a minority actor plays a white role it’s fine?

    Where is that line between fine and outrage?

  • Femto

    PaulW, your question would only make sense if all American actors were white. There are not as many white actors in Japan and China as there are Asian actors in the US. And yes, white actors are cast in white roles in Japan and China.

    bitchen frizzy: Avatar is a fantasy setting rather than a realistic depiction of Asia, true, but the characters are clearly not white. Imagine if Asian actors were cast in all of the speaking roles for hobbits in the Lord of the Rings movies. I don’t think their race was even explicitly mentioned in the books, but even without a description of race to go on, the English influence on the fantasy setting of The Shire would make such a casting choice disconcerting. Add to that the embarrassing history of yellowface in American cinema and theater, and the insulting implication that white audiences won’t see a movie with a nonwhite lead, and you get the casting of Avatar.

  • bitchen frizzy

    –”Imagine if Asian actors were cast in all of the speaking roles for hobbits in the Lord of the Rings movies.”

    It’s a U.S. studio making the “Avatar” movie. If an Asian studio did a remake of LOTR and used Asian actors, who would care (especially since hobbits aren’t human, much less any specific race of humans)?

    –”…the English influence on the fantasy setting of The Shire would make such a casting choice disconcerting.”

    Disconcerting to whom?

    –”…the insulting implication that white audiences won’t see a movie with a nonwhite lead…”

    Where are you getting this from? Has Shyamalan said anything to imply this is his rationale, or is this an assumption on your part?

  • Newbia

    The actual skin color of the characters does not matter, since it is not relevant to the plot. What matters is that it belies a certain racism in Hollywood: only pretty white people (and Will Smith) are allowed to be cast in main roles. Say that you are a little Asian kid who wants to become an actor. If you notice that only white people were cast in the role, even when there is a CLEAR opportunity to have a diverse cast, wouldn’t you be discouraged? You would think that Asians must have a much harder time getting roles in Hollywood. Think of the last time that you saw an Asian person star in a typical Hollywood blockbuster. I can’t think of a single one.

    There was a very similar problem when Ursula K. LeGuin’s “Earthsea Chronicles” were made into a movie. They made Ged white. LeGuin was outraged, but the producers didn’t listen to her. I remember how one black person wrote that she was really happy when she was a child and read the Earthsea Chronicles, because it was the first time that a non-white character starred in a fantasy novel. Imagine how she felt when she saw that the main character was white.

    It sent the message that, again, only pretty white people and Will Smith get leading roles. (Unless race is significant to the movie’s plot or setting, of course.) How many non-white actors got nominated for an Oscars? TWO. And both actors (Dev Patel and Taraji P. Henson) were playing characters in which it would make no sense if they were white.

    quote Now imagine the entire cast of potter as white (which shouldn’t be hard…), and Voldemort as black. That’s basically what Airbender fans are arguing here: you finally hire someone with brown skin, and you make him the villian. unquote [SPOILER.] Zuko isn’t exactly a villain. He was the bad guy at first, but then he has a change of heart and joins the side of good.

  • Femto

    bitchen frizzy: Surely you know about Asian-American actors, mixed-race actors, Hawaiian actors, and so on, bitchen frizzy. It’s a U.S. studio, and the U.S. isn’t uniformly white.

    - Disconcerting to me. I can imagine an ethnically diverse cast of hobbits fitting into the movie smoothly, but I can imagine an all-Asian hobbit cast would be disconcerting to a good deal of the audience. I’m talking about a production of the Lord of the Rings that was made by a U.S. studio and filmed in New Zealand, not an Asian remake, by the way. I see the article MaryAnn linked explains this better; I just read it and would suggest you do too.

    - The implication is not in what the studio or Shyamalan has said, but in their actions. It is an assumption on my part, yes. You are free to make your own conclusions about what this casting means, if anything. I have not made a formal study of the ethnic diversity of American lead movie role casting, but my general sense is that it is disparate from the actual diversity of the U.S. as a whole (leaning more white and more male). It also seems to me like the average budget and production quality is significantly higher in movies with white leads than ones with non-white leads (I’m still talking about American movies here). The casting of the Avatar movie is one of the most glaring of examples of this phenomenon.

    My assumption that this is because the studios think the white audience won’t see it otherwise is based on both “common knowledge” that I have heard people say IRL and online, and on the history of racism in the U.S. I am offended because I am white, and feel the studios are underestimating me and other white people, and because I, along with the people of color in the audience, am being told yet again that a white male is the default human condition, and only point of view worth telling a story from.

    Other people have written a great deal about this, more clearly than myself, and again I suggest you read the linked article to further understand some of the reasoning behind this assumption.

  • Vina

    It does matter.

    “Airbender” was conceived as an homage to Asian culture from its very conception. Everything about that universe from the names and settings and costumes and “bending” powers based on martial arts evokes some Asian or indigenous culture. And the creators went to the trouble of putting in lots and lots of specific, real-world details – all the writing is in Chinese, the kids eat with chopsticks, and the Avatar concept itself is Hindu.

    In light of this, the trouble with casting Caucasian actors in the film version is twofold. First, it’s blatant cultural appropriation. Shyamalan doesn’t appear to be changing the basic concepts or the character names or straying too far from the original story, so we’re still dealing with a predominantly Asian and Inuit fantasy universe, but the heroes are now Caucasian – see the problem? The *culture* is good enough to be seen onscreen, but now the *people* have been displaced, consigned to the background roles again.

    Which leads to problem number two, which is that this is reinforcing that insidious unspoken message that the minority kids aren’t good enough to be the headliners. If you think I’m exaggerating, take a look at some of the arguments that have been going on at various blogs and message boards on this topic. I’ve seen people argue in all seriousness that yellowface is an acceptable solution, that surely there aren’t enough Asian and Native American actors who can speak English well, or that white actors really should be the default ethnicity because the United States still a Caucasian majority nation.

    This is not acceptable. Especially when “Airbender” presented such a great opportunity to add some color to the lily-white world of kids’ fantasy films. Even if you still think that world had no ties to any real-world cultures, the story was still about kids from four different peoples coming together to save the world. If they didn’t want to use Asian and Inuit, how about Black, Latino, Middle Eastern, Near Eastern, Polynesian, of anything else?

    Oh, and PaulW, you missed a big one. Zuko’s voiced by Filipino actor Dante Basco. Not that it really matters with voice actors – Samurai Jack is African American actor Phil Lamarr, and Bart Simpson is a middle-aged woman.

  • Alli

    The actual skin color of the characters does not matter, since it is not relevant to the plot. What matters is that it belies a certain racism in Hollywood: only pretty white people (and Will Smith) are allowed to be cast in main roles.

    I agree with you about racism in Hollywood. However, in this situation we have to wonder whether or not anyone would have noticed if some of the TV characters weren’t inuits with dark skin. If Airbender was another one of M. Night’s scripts, would anyone have noticed an all white cast? To me, that makes it more depressing. As questionable as the casting is, I’m almost glad this discussion has come up because of it. At the very least, maybe this discussion will keep people on the look out.

  • Mischief Maker

    “The Conqueror” was a movie with an entirely caucasian cast standing in as asians that was so bad it killed John Wayne. The important lesson I learned in making a white man look mongolian:

    1. Spock Eyebrows.
    2. Fu Manchi moustache.
    3. Lots of greasepaint on the face.

    For white actresses with auburn hair, step 1 is sufficient.

    If you’re wondering, yes John Wayne was in the title role playing Ghengis Khan. Complete with his “saddle up, pilgrim” drawl. It’s hilariously awful.

    And yes, it really did kill him. The desert sets were downwind of the fallout from the Yucca Flats nuclear tests and most of the cast and crew died of cancer in the following years.

  • http://www.newbspeak.com Newbs

    Counter-Question: Should we give a shit about M. Night’s next cinematic abortion?

  • Vina

    You want to know what’s really scary? The Russian-produced “Mongol” film about Genghis Khan originally had Channing Tatum attached to star. And this was 2006.

  • bitchen frizzy

    —”I agree with you about racism in Hollywood. However, in this situation we have to wonder whether or not anyone would have noticed if some of the TV characters weren’t inuits with dark skin. If Airbender was another one of M. Night’s scripts, would anyone have noticed an all white cast? To me, that makes it more depressing. As questionable as the casting is, I’m almost glad this discussion has come up because of it. At the very least, maybe this discussion will keep people on the look out.”

    I agree with this. Yes, there’s lots of racism in Hollywood casting (and ageism, and all kinds of other -isms). However, correlation is not causation. I don’t know what Shyamalan is thinking (does anyone, anymore?) or what drove his casting decisions.

    As for Vina’s comments about cultural appropriation, I say that cultural appropriation is not a sin. Cultures appropriate each others myths and memes all the time, and that’s a good thing and a natural process. That, in itself, no more obligates Shyamalan to hire Asian actors than a Chinese restaurant owner is obligated to hire a Chinese chef.

  • amanohyo

    Some of these answers are in reference to yellowface, some are in reference to voice acting for an animated character. These issues should be isolated to fully answer the question and avoid confusion.

    Here’s my perspective as an asian, in order of most offensive to least offensive. I don’t pretend to speak for anyone but myself:

    1) A nonasian actor playing an asian character in a live action movie – Yellowface, hilarious as it might seem in retrospect, is almost always offensive and inappropriate. As a special side-note, making random sounds or sounds that approximate English slange (some long wang, etc.) and pretending that you are speaking an asian language is almost always offensive.

    2) A story that is only about asians that has a lone white character inserted as the primary POV character in the live action screenplay – This is insulting and shouldn’t be done under any circumstances.

    3) A story that is primarily about asians that has a lone white character who is then magnified in importance in the screenplay – This is less insulting, but not a huge deal as long as the character isn’t automatically treated as some kind of God for no apparent reason.

    4) A nonasian actor providing the voice for an asian animated character – This already happens in Avatar, and it doesn’t bother me. Even if they add an insulting accent, it’s usually the character design that’s offensive, not the fact that the voice actor isn’t asian. Dubbed anime offends me because the quality of most English voice acting is still so God awful (although it is improving slightly).

    5) An animated show with only asian characters that has its characters changed into nonasians in the live action screenplay – It’s strange, but somehow this is not that offensive to me. It seems similar to (2) above, but the fact that it’s a live action adaptation of an animated show somehow makes me feel like they are more separate projects. Also, it seems like you aren’t actually inserting a foreign element, you’re just changing what’s already there. I’d probably feel differently if I was fan of Avatar or if Avatar was originally written, produced, and voice acted in an asian country. Avatar has always like a skewed, oversimplified (even for a kids’ cartoon) American perspective of asian culture, kinds like the Kill Bills.

  • Bluejay

    I agree with Newbia and Vina.

    Think of it this way. Why is everyone making a big deal over the election of Barack Obama? After all, you could argue that skin color is irrelevant to the job. But the fact remains that all previous 43 presidents had been white – the “default setting” – and Obama’s ascendancy is considered special not just because he’s smart, competent, and departs from the philosophy of his predecessor, but because his physical appearance (along with its cultural and historical connotations) finally reflects a segment of America that has been underrepresented in the halls of power. His election says – to blacks, to minorities, to everyone – that people who look like Barack Obama are as American as anyone else, and as capable of taking center stage as anyone else.

    Similarly, you could argue that in this supposedly “post-racial” society, an actor’s ethnicity shouldn’t matter if it’s not relevant to the plot. Fine and good. But the fact remains that mostly white people have populated American movie screens for decades, with large portions of the American community going unrepresented or relegated to minor roles. “Airbender” might have been an opportunity to help remedy this, but – whatever Shyamalan’s motivations were – the fact is that the movie has defaulted to the “mostly white” standard. As Vina says, the message (intended or not) is that minority folks – I would say Asian-looking folks in particular – aren’t good enough to be the headliners.

    Asian Americans are just as much a part of America as any other group, and I think we’re hungry to see ourselves represented better onscreen. It’s a shame that this movie seems to have passed up the opportunity to do that.

    As for cultural appropriation being good or not: that’s a thorny issue. Is it good in all cases? Is it equivalent in all cases?

    Remember the brouhaha over Paul Simon’s “Graceland”? I happen to love that album, but I also recall many critics crying “appropriation.” Which perhaps it was, but Simon also made sure that actual African musicians played on the album; he didn’t bring in non-African session players to “sound African.” But that’s probably opening up another can of worms.

  • bitchen frizzy

    So I guess there’s two issues here: the appropriation issue and the issue of increased representation of Asians onscreen.

    Appropriation happens. When one culture encounters another, it borrows the things it likes. It is far better to allow this process than to actively prevent it.

    I guess it bears repeating: Avatar is not Asian, it’s Asian-inspired. It is inherently appropriated and derivative. It’s impossible to “dis-appropriate” it by casting Asian actors. You can’t make chop suey or California rolls into authentic Asian dishes by using Asian ingredients.

    As for the Obama analogy, Obama was elected because most Americans wanted him as president, skin color notwithstanding. His ascendence to the presidency is profoundly meaningful for the reasons Bluejay iterated.

    Hollywood is profoundly racist and elitist, and is also very good at faking sincerity in progressive or liberal causes. If Shyamalan decided to fill the screen with Asian actors in response to pressure from fans, that wouldn’t really mean anything had changed. Maybe that’s considered progress, though.

  • Bluejay

    “I guess it bears repeating: Avatar is not Asian, it’s Asian-inspired. It is inherently appropriated and derivative. It’s impossible to “dis-appropriate” it by casting Asian actors. You can’t make chop suey or California rolls into authentic Asian dishes by using Asian ingredients.”

    Hmm. But why not try using Asian ingredients anyway? (It might taste better!) And why *not* cast Asian actors in an Asian-inspired, and admittedly derivative, movie? Why not appropriate the people along with the culture?

    I suppose I’m not really arguing against cultural appropriation per se. As you say, it’s what happens when cultures collide – Group A borrows an idea from Group B, but puts a Group A-type face on it to make it more accessible to the local audience. But in this case, the “borrower” group is America – you know, the cultural hodgepodge, the melting pot, E Pluribus Unum, all the usual metaphors. With so many possible American faces to put on an appropriated concept, why does the default still seem to be *white* faces?

    “As for the Obama analogy, Obama was elected because most Americans wanted him as president, skin color notwithstanding.”

    Agreed. And we rightly celebrate the fact that his skin color was not a negative factor for most voters. My point was that most Americans seem to have passed a threshold with Obama, where they’re comfortable with someone who looks like him having such a prominent position in our collective consciousness. I don’t think we’ve passed that threshold yet for Asian Americans in the popular culture.

    “If Shyamalan decided to fill the screen with Asian actors in response to pressure from fans, that wouldn’t really mean anything had changed.”

    At the very least, it would prove that grassroots pressure works, and that institutions respond to pressure from below (as we’ve recently seen in politics). To me that *would* mean real change.

  • bitchen frizzy

    –”And why *not* cast Asian actors in an Asian-inspired, and admittedly derivative, movie?”

    There’s no reason why not, IMO. I’m just saying that – IMO – there’s no compelling reason why that’s specific to this particular movie.

    –”I don’t think we’ve passed that threshold yet for Asian Americans in the popular culture.”

    I’m not so sure that Hollywood isn’t actually lagging the popular culture.

  • Alli

    Okay here’s another movie to discuss as well: Dragon Ball Evolution. This one looks horrible, but I actually watched the English dubbed animation version (DBZ) when it was on Cartoon Network, so I kind of care how it does. Anyway, Dragon Ball is a very popular Japanese manga. They’ve had several TV shows, animated films, etc.

    Well Fox is now making their own movie (Dragon Ball Evolution), and of course they’ve made the lead a skinny white guy (Justin Chatwin). Now Dragon Ball is kind of confusing about where it takes place (sometimes there on different planets, etc), but again it is very Japanese. So once again, did Fox really feel like they needed to make the lead character white so that Americans would go see it? And what does that say about us? Or Fox.

    Personally, I don’t think anyone is in the US will see it anyways except for the DBZ fans.

  • bitchen frizzy

    My five minutes of research reveal that Justin Chatwin will be playing Goku, who is an extraterrestrial. His appearance varies somewhat over the many years of the Dragonball franchise, the canonical constants being only a monkeylike tail and dark hair. Justin Chatwin fits the latter requirement. I am unable to determine if he has a monkey tail or not.

    According to IMDB, the rest of the cast of Db:E is replete with persons of Asian descent, albeit of various regions and nationalities.

    Conjecture on my part: it is a distinct possibility that the choice of a non-Asian for the role of Goku is a deliberate emphasis of his alien origin, by contrast to the Asians playing the other main characters.

  • Paul

    Reading these comments, I kept thinking about a movie that I haven’t seen in so long, something close to “Tea House under an August Moon” but I’m not sure. It is set in Okinawa, and the Americans have just taken it over from the Japanese. They hired lots of Asian actors, but gave the lead Asian role to a white guy in yellow face. He is a translator manipulating the dumb white Americans (played by at the time well known white comic actors) into doing what the Okinawans want (build a tea house) instead of following the Army’s reconstruction plan. So on the one hand, there is implicate racism in the yellow face and accents, but the movie as a whole seems intended to make fun of white people instead. Once I was old enough to see subtext, it always left me with mixed feelings.

  • bitchen frizzy

    The movie is “The Tea House of the August Moon.” The “white guy in yellowface” is Marlon Brando.

    Producers often insist on a big-name star being added to the cast of a movie as a condition of funding, if they think the project will require star-power to succeed. (That explains what the hell Liv Tyler is doing in elf getup in LOTR.) As it happens, in the 1950′s, the big-name stars in Hollywood were almost exclusively white.

  • SmokeyJoe

    The Italians-playing-Jews/Jews-playing-Italians analogy is not remotely the same thing. Disparate cultural & ethnic backgrounds, yes – but we’re still talking about the same race. As a Chinese-American I would love for Hollywood to cast all Chinese characters with Chinese actors, but I understand that it’s often more practical to cast a Japanese or Hawaiian or Korean-British actor. I had no problem with Kelly Hu playing a Japanese assassin in ‘X-Men’. I would take exception to Chow Yun Fat in the role of Theoden in ‘The Lord of Rings’ trilogy, as fine an actor as he is, when the fictional world of Middle Earth is clearly based on Medieval Europe. I can suspend disbelief if you substitute bass in a trout dish, but don’t give me a fish and tell me it’s a carrot.

    Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Yojimbo’, set in feudal Japan, is one of my all-time favorite films. Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Western ‘A Fistful of Dollars’, with its Caucasian cast was not an offense to Japanese (offensive to so many others in so many other ways, but that’s an whole other debate) because of the change in context in the retelling of the story. Kurosawa made a version of ‘Macbeth’ with a Japanese cast that worked because it was set in Japan and used Japanese analogies. On the other hand, Takashi Miike’s ‘Sukiyaki Western Django’, with its almost entirely Japanese cast was a little offensive to me as an American, but moreover it was so ridiculous as to be almost unwatchable.

    I mean, they could still carry on with the current casting if they completely changed the setting and storyline – but then what would be the point? They really need to make some serious changes to the cast and crew. I must admit there have been many times I’ve watched a movie and thought, “You know, this could’ve been salvaged to a halfway decent movie if only M. Night Shyamalan weren’t involved.” Maybe his surprise twist is that it’s all just a fantasy of a xenophobic receptionist at Nickelodeon.

    And let’s be clear about one thing: chop suey & California rolls were not created to mimic authentic Asian dishes or because they would yield great results with the ingredients at hand. They were created to give White America the false sense of exploring Asian culture without offending their taste buds by featuring actual Asian ingredients.

  • Paul

    Liv Tyler had star power before the Lord of the Rings? I’d never even heard of her before that movie came out.

    I thought it was Marlon Brando, but he looked so different when was young, I talked myself out of it.

  • Pat Mustard

    I’ve no problem with films which take the basic storyline/plot/characters of a story originating from another culture/ethnic background – Seven Samurai to Magnificent Seven, MacBeth to Throne of Blood, Infernal Affairs to The Departed etc – and casting actors of the adaptation’s ethnic background..

    However, from what I can tell The Avatar doesn’t fall into this category – they’re filming it as a straight animation to live action with no pretence of it being ‘adapted from’ or ‘based upon’; and that I do have a problem with. If good actors of the right ethnic background are available, why not use them? Save on makeup costs too..

    It may hurt the film on a practical level also, simply because most fans have a particular image of particular characters in their heads. They may not be prepared to suspend their disbelief to the extent this production asks them to & will stay away.

    Mind you, Shyamalan’s being so far up himself for so long, he’s probably not being deliberately offensive – probably just hasn’t noticed/didn’t realise/it hasn’t penetrated..

  • bitchen frizzy

    –”Liv Tyler had star power before the Lord of the Rings?”

    At the time she was a rising star with all the buzz – she was going to be the next Blanchett or Hepburn or whatever.

    –”…Chow Yun Fat in the role of Theoden…”

    Damn, that would have been cool! And I say that as a Tolkien geek. Besides, in medieval Europe, there were a lot of Asian horsemen kicking around and settling down – Mongols and Magyars and the like. In fact, they might well have been Tolkien’s inspiration.

    –”And let’s be clear about one thing: chop suey & California rolls were not created to mimic authentic Asian dishes or because they would yield great results with the ingredients at hand.”

    I need to be clear? What part of “derivative” and “inspired by” don’t you understand?

    –”They were created to give White America the false sense of exploring Asian culture…”

    Kinda like Avatar, eh? As was the point of my analogy.

  • Lucy Gillam

    When I can think of more than a scant handful of cases where the “best actor for the job” of playing a white book/comic/other existing character is a person of color, when I can think of more than a handful of genre shows or movies with people of color as leads, when Hollywood is not so far up the ass of the white default male that it will not only cheerfully rewrite the gender of fictional characters but cheerfully rewrite the ethnicity of real people to ensure white male leads, then I’ll buy all this BS about colorblind casting. Meanwhile, I’d love for y’all to tell the Asian kid who wants to know if this means he can’t be Aang anymore when his friends play Avatar that race doesn’t matter. Or just go read Derek Kirk Kim’s post, and tell him it doesn’t.

  • Bluejay

    bitchen frizzy said:

    –”And why *not* cast Asian actors in an Asian-inspired, and admittedly derivative, movie?”
    There’s no reason why not, IMO. I’m just saying that – IMO – there’s no compelling reason why that’s specific to this particular movie.

    That speaks to a larger issue, I think. Why does there *need* to be a “compelling reason” for an American filmmaker to cast an Asian American actor in a lead role in *anything*, provided it’s not historically or geographically inaccurate? Again – and as Lucy points out – the default seems to be white, absent any “compelling reason” to cast otherwise.

    (One exception: I love that Sharon from “Battlestar Galactica” looks Asian for no “compelling reason” whatsoever [at least as far as I know; I'm a little behind in my viewing]. She just is, it’s unremarked on in the story, and that’s great. I’m sure there are other exceptions I’m not familiar with.)

    Another insidious aspect to this is that, as media consumers, I suspect *we’re* guilty of this kind of mental casting too. At least I know I am. Think of the last novel or short story you’ve read; if the characters’ ethnicity wasn’t directly stated or made obvious, what skin color did you assume they had?

    It’s been mentioned on this thread before, but Ursula K. Le Guin wrote an article on Slate.com about how the Sci Fi channel mangled her “Earthsea” stories by turning her dark-skinned characters white. It’s not the exact equivalent of what’s happening on “Avatar,” but it speaks to the larger issue of the white default that happens in Hollywood, in fantasy novels, and in people’s heads. I can’t seem to put up links here, but if you google “le guin slate earthsea” you’ll find it. I recommend it, and Derek Kirk Kim’s post as well.

  • Bluejay

    I’d also like to add that, in my opinion, a reason folks like me seem riled up about this film in particular is that, in spite of its inauthenticity (per bitchen frizzy’s analysis), it was one of those rare opportunities when casting Asians or Asian Americans in the lead roles would have made perfect visual sense, no questions asked. And because it was so rare, a lot of people hoping for better Asian representation onscreen probably hung their hopes on it more than they would have if Asian casting were commonplace.

  • bitchen frizzy

    –”Why does there *need* to be a “compelling reason” for an American filmmaker to cast an Asian American actor in a lead role in *anything*, provided it’s not historically or geographically inaccurate?”

    Because studios won’t do it otherwise, or can’t be counted on to do it. Like you say, the default is white.

    (Another exception: Felix Leiter in the Bond movies. Sometimes he’s white, sometimes he’s black. Makes no difference to the story, IMO, and it makes no difference to me.)

    About the LeGuin bit, Hollywood can be an equal-opportunity offender of races, ethnicities and creeds in this regard. I just read a bit about Madeleine L’engle’s disgust at the de-Christianization of her “Wrinkle in Time” novel in its movie adaptation. The moviemakers felt that the Christian memes just had to be excoriated. Like taking out the ethnic details of LeGuin’s characters – why? Why take the flavor and color out of a story? Do they trust audiences so little? I don’t know.

    –”And because it was so rare, a lot of people hoping for better Asian representation onscreen probably hung their hopes on it more than they would have if Asian casting were commonplace.”

    Understood.

  • bitchen frizzy

    Though, of course, Felix Leiter’s not a main character, so its “safer”.

  • Lucy Gillam

    bitchen frizzy, I’m as down with the complaints about the Wrinkle movie as the next fan, but saying they’re “equal opportunity offenders” because one source had its Christian themes stripped out is, IMHO, really misleading. There is no overall underrepresentation of white, straight, able-bodied Christian men, for one thing, but more pointedly, one case, or even a handful of cases, doesn’t begin to stack up against decades of whitewashing, yellowface, and dead lesbians.

  • bitchen frizzy

    It’s a figure of speech.

    I brought up the L’engle example because it occurred to me because I happened to read something about it just yesterday. Sort of a conversational “Oh, BTW” thing.

    Actually, there’s lots of examples of Hollywood’s watering-down of religion in adaptations of novels, but that’s really another subject. I’d argue that it’s related, but not in this thread.

  • joey

    Well, as (apparently) one of the only Avatar fans on this site, I have to say that I do have a problem with it, because would I expect the characters to look a certain way. It’s not so much the casting itself that bothers me as the fact that it seems symptomatic of what seems likely to be a massive adaptation derailment.

    Oh well, as long as it’s better than the first two Harry Potter movies or the Star Wars prequels, I probably won’t hate it THAT much.

  • Sojoo

    I think the point is that many of the fans of Avatar get the feel of Asian culture and in their mind’s eye, the characters themselves are Asian. I had the opportunity to play the Avatar game for the Wii, and one of the mini-games in it was to draw out kanji characters. Most people’s assumptions of kanji? These characters are in an Asian land since the written language is Asian one as well. Given, this was a decision by the game developers to include that, and I have no proof that this was in the cartoon itself, but even the game developers stayed true to people’s perception of what this land is like. (As an aside, the game play was awful, but I felt the game developer stayed true to the feel of the Avatar world.)

    Will the casting decision affect people who have not really paid attention to the Avatar cartoon?
    Probably not.

    Isn’t it ultimately up to the studio/director/casting director to choose actors who they think will be able to fit their vision?
    Absolutely.

    With that said, I doubt the casting of these actors into these roles will change any fan’s mind while watching the movie that these are the same characters as they fell in love with in the cartoon. Personally, if I already have a preconceived notion as to ethnicity of a character from a book, it makes it hard to enjoy the movie. I most likely won’t be watching this movie until DVD.

  • drew ryce

    Just a passing note. Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Yojimbo’, the basis for ‘A Fistful of Dollars’, is itself taken from a Dashiel Hammett detective novel (The Continental Op series) called “Red Harvest”.

    Interesting to watch the original adapted by Japan, then Italy and finally (“Last Man Standing”) brought back to it’s original time and country.

    My two cents on the race/actor issue:

    1. unimportant where the character is unimportant (Felix Leiter);
    2. unimportant where the character is race neutral i.e. “Man on Fire” or “Taken” could be Denzel, could also be Liam Neeson;
    3. absolutely essential where race is a centrael issue to the film i.e. “Raisin in the Sun” or “Do The Right Thing”;
    4. almost always essential where the character is biographic and famous i.e. Rueben Carter or Malcom X must be a Black actor;
    5. Lastly, there is a case by case catagory for deliberate cross expectations casting. I am game for John Lone as an Asian Sherlock Holmes and I think that Idris Alba would make a kick-ass James Bond.

  • SmokeyJoe

    bitchen frizzy –

    You’ve conveniently ignored the last part of my sentence and missed my point.

    What I said was:
    “[chop suey & California rolls] were created to give White America the false sense of exploring Asian culture without offending their taste buds by featuring actual Asian ingredients.”

    The point is that they, like ‘The Last Airbender’ & ‘Kung Fu’, are NOT JUST simply derivative or inspired by or appropriated because of the Asian trappings. The elements that were removed are gone specifically because someone thought they might put off White America.

    The point is that, like these movies, someone producing these dishes decided that there was only one way to sell the product. The creators believed these things could only be made palatable to the target demographic by removing the Asian elements that the majority of Americans might think to be too foreign & weird to stomach.

  • Bluejay

    If anyone here is interested, you can follow more discussions about ongoing “Avatar” developments at Kim’s blog, derekkirkkim dot blogspot dot com. The recent post “Advice Wanted” has some interesting observations and reader comments. Apparently Dev Patel’s character will play a villain, or at least a semi-villain, opposite the “band of white heroes.” Makes things worse? What do the Avatar fans here think?

  • Lucy Gillam

    Bluejay, what I’ll say is this: between the particulars of Patel’s casting and the call for extras that asked for people to come in traditional ethnic costumes (suggesting that Koreans wear kimonos), I have frequently found myself telling the universe that, “Could they fail any harder?” was not meant as a challenge.

  • JoshDM

    I think only CGI lions should play Aslan characters.

    Oh wait…

  • bitchen frizzy

    –”You’ve conveniently ignored the last part of my sentence and missed my point.”

    I didn’t ignore it or miss it. I disagree with you. I don’t impute sinister motives to chefs of hybrid cuisines. Sorry, not that paranoid.

    I don’t know the history of California rolls, but I do know that today they are served alongside sushi and seaweed dishes, and consumed by people who eat both. An American willing to eat raw fish, tofu, and seaweed is unlikely to be put off by exotic ingredients. As for chop suey, well, I guess maybe Americans would be put off by entrails, so maybe there’s something to what you said in that case, but I still don’t believe that chop suey appeals to Americans who would eat only that and steer clear of all else Chinese.

    But basically, you’re just nitpicking my examples. Choose another Asian-inspired dish for my analogy, if you like. Unless you have a problem with appropriation of Asian cuisine in general.

    –”The elements that were removed are gone specifically because someone thought they might put off White America.”

    Maybe, and assuming the worst about Shyamalan’s motives, and ignoring the fact that Avatar isn’t authentically Asian to begin with.

    You perceive a deliberate slight against Asians, where I perceive nothing worse than insensitivity to core fans, if even that. That’s where we disagree.

  • Bluejay

    bitchen frizzy wrote:
    –”The elements that were removed are gone specifically because someone thought they might put off White America.”
    Maybe, and assuming the worst about Shyamalan’s motives, and ignoring the fact that Avatar isn’t authentically Asian to begin with.
    You perceive a deliberate slight against Asians, where I perceive nothing worse than insensitivity to core fans, if even that. That’s where we disagree.

    bitchen frizzy – To bring in yet another perspective on this, graphic artist Gene Yang has written about the whole authenticity issue and how, for him, Avatar’s derivative nature doesn’t excuse the filmmakers from the sin of yellowface. He poses an interesting hypothetical scenario in which Hollywood adapts the superhero Black Panther – created by white writers, with an African-inspired (but not real African) culture – but casts a Caucasian actor in the role, to reach a wider audience; and he wonders what the public reaction would be then. You can read the whole piece at geneyang dot com slash blog.

    What are your thoughts (or anyone’s thoughts) on this?

  • Hasimir Fenring

    One exception: I love that Sharon from “Battlestar Galactica” looks Asian for no “compelling reason” whatsoever [at least as far as I know; I'm a little behind in my viewing].

    As far as I know, the compelling reason that Sharon is Asian is that Grace Park auditioned for the role of Starbuck and impressed the producers. (Being from Vancouver might’ve helped, but I doubt it.) The producers felt (rightly, I think) that Katee Sackhoff was a more appropriate choice for Starbuck, but they liked Park’s performance so much that they cast her as Sharon.

  • Jen

    I would argue that white actors doing voice acting is far different from white actors playing Asian/Inuit characters on screen. A voice is a voice. The characters still have their own physical character design which is made for a reason.

    I never saw the lighter skinned characters as white here. Since the setting is based on Asian culture, I assumed Asian type characters. If this was set in an European setting then I may have assumed white.

    Many Asians are very fair skinned like Caucasians and I find it odd that many people seem to assume that’s not true. Not all Asians have a deeper skin tone. And as far as large eyes go, that’s standard in anime/manga character design. Its a sign of youth and if you look at the adults, they have more Asian features.

    I think the casting here was very poorly done. You can’t just get someone white and make them someone who’s not. The actor who’s apparently playing Sokka just said he had to get a tan. To me, that’s almost as bad as a white actor saying he just has to slap on some blackface. ‘Tropic Thunder’ was done in parody, this is not.

  • Kenny

    The point about ‘Tropic Thunder’ is interesting. It was done in parody… but movie makers already go to sometimes extreme lengths to make the actor look the part, Charlize Theron in ‘Monster’ for example, or indeed, Robert Downey Jr in ‘Tropic Thunder’, (haha, or any of a thousand actors playing aliens in any number of science fiction movies). (And before you say it, we’re not talking about Team America style transmographication.)
    I’m not saying efforts will be made to do that here… but if these really were the best actors personality wise… then they could be made up to look the part ethnically.
    If that’s the case.. then protests over the selection of a white actor to fill an asian role could be construed as racist.

  • Lucy Gillam

    Fun update: David Henrie has been cast as Tommy Zhou in a movie of The Weapon. Tommy Zhou is Chinese-American. It is an integral part of his character and the milieu of the story. David Henrie is Caucasian.