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you’re not helping: ‘Prince of Persia’ and ‘The Last Airbender’ not really whitewashes, Hollywood insists

The Los Angeles Times suddenly notices that two of Hollywood’s would-be blockbusters for Summer 2010 are full of white actors playing nonwhite characters:

So when Disney studios announced plans for a live-action adaptation of Prince, Dar held out hope it would be a “serious story that would dispel a lot of stereotypes and misconceptions.” Then came the bad news regarding “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” (the movie which arrives in theaters on Friday). None of its principle cast members are of Iranian, Middle Eastern or Muslim descent. And playing Dastan, the hero and titular heir to the Persian throne in the $200-million tent-pole film, is none other than Hancock Park’s own Swedish-Jewish-American prince, Jake Gyllenhaal.

“Swedish-Jewish-American prince”? That’s pretty funny.

In addition to Gyllenhaal and British actress Gemma Arterton’s portrayal of Iranian characters in the swords-and-sandals action epic “Prince of Persia,” Paramount has come under attack for its live-action adaptation of the Nickelodeon animated series ” Avatar: The Last Airbender.” Directed by “Sixth Sense” auteur M. Night Shyamalan, “The Last Airbender” (as the movie is called to distinguish it from a certain James Cameron-directed 3-D blockbuster) has enraged some of the show’s aficionados by casting white actors in three of four principal roles — characters that fans of the original property insist are Asian and Native American.

But it’s not anything to get worked up about, unles you’re a fan of the source material, and then you’re only getting worked up because you’ve merely been interpreting characters as nonwhite all along — maybe they’re just stylized white people, okay?

And then the Times goes on to detail all the adorable measures these wacky Airbender fans are taking:

And with just weeks until the movie’s July 2 release — after a year-and-a-half-long letter-writing campaign to the film’s producers and a correspondence with Paramount President Adam Goodman to underscore the importance of casting Asian actors in designated Asian roles — members of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans and an organization called http://www.racebending.com are urging fans to boycott “Airbender.”

The movie’s detractors have spoken against the film at six college campuses, including M.I.T., New York University and UCLA, also setting up booths at events such as San Francisco’s WonderCon pop culture expo to publicize their discontent. At last count, the group’s Facebook group had 7,125 supporters and attracted petitioners against the movie’s casting in 55 countries. The stated goal: to prevent “Airbender” from blooming into a lucrative three-part franchise via negative word of mouth.

See? Hollywood’s whitewashing and racebending isn’t actually a problem: it’s just that a bunch of fans with nothing else better to do have set up a Facebook page and launched a petition and a boycott. They’re just like those people who dress up like Klingons at Star Trek conventions, really. Aren’t they cute, thinking they can change anything? Not that anything needs changing, mind:

Although the studios behind both “Prince of Persia” and “Airbender” have taken costly steps to not seem insensitive toward — or out of touch with — the minority constituencies represented in their respective films

What costly steps? Have you seen any ads for Prince of Persia featuring George W. Bush praising the movie as part of the Axis of Evilly Good Fun? Do you know how much Disney had to pay to get the former President out of that contractually obligated ad campaign?

Actually, Disney insists Prince of Persia isn’t really about “Persia,” anyway:

During “Prince of Persia’s” scripting process, Disney hired BoomGen Studios, a consultation and niche marketing firm specializing in creative content about the Middle East, to help address issues of historical congruity and cultural contexts. Consultants advised the filmmakers to avoid specifically characterizing religion by setting “Prince” in a “mythological time” before the arrival of Islam. As well, the company worked to assure members of the Iranian American community that the film was the antithesis of a recent action-adventure movie felt to vilify the people of Persia.

“We said, ‘This is the anti-’300,’ ” said BoomGen’s co-founder Reza Aslan.

Asked point blank by the Times of London, “Isn’t Gyllenhaal a bit pale to play a Persian?” Bruckheimer delivered this history lecture. “Persians were very light skinned,” he said. “The Turks kind of changed everything. But back in the 6th century, a lot of them were blond and blue-eyed.”

Also: Look! Buff Jake Gyllenhaal! OMG!


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  • http://bluejaysway.wordpress.com/ Bluejay

    “But it’s acting! It’s all dress-up and pretend! A good actor is a good actor, period! Acting is all about pretending to be someone else! It’s perfectly fine for someone who identifies one way to play a character who identifies a different way!”

    …Except when it’s not.

  • Ben

    In both ‘Airbender and the ‘Prince (the Game) the animators and game designers them selves said the characters were Asian and Persian, so that trumps both the fans and your opinion. Imagine the color purple with and all white cast or Lord of the Rings staring only Mexicans.

    3 white kids saving all the other token and background character races from the evil Arab and Indian race… is really racist no matter how you cut it.

    A white central character and his white female companion surrounded by dark skinned people in all the lesser and villainous roles is racist as well, or at the very least is incongruent with the setting.

  • Kat

    Ugh, I had that same conversation about “The Prince of Persia” with one of my friends the other day. “That’s what actors do! They pretend to be people they’re not!”

    I’d like to see how long that argument would hold up if Jet Li played Queen Victoria in a serious historical drama about her life. What? You mean you’re not able to suspend your disbelief while watching an Asian man play a European woman without the movie being a parody? But Jet Li’s an actor! It’s his job to pretend to be someone he’s not! Why are you being so racist/PC/picky/whiny/etc.?

    If such a thing were to happen, it would be treated with all the contempt and ridicule it would deserve.

    Of course, the follow-up argument is: “Well, Queen Victoria was a real person!” Yeah, because Hollywood’s never whitewashed real people. Just ask Genghis Khan (once played by John Wayne and soon to be played by Mickey Rourke) or Alexandre Dumas (soon to be played by Gerard Depardieu). I’m willing to be that these oh-so-tolerant “colorblind” people would pitch a fit if Harry Potter was played by a black British actor. Or if Bruce Wayne became “Bruce Wang.”

    If only the same reaction were universal when it came to whitewashing, yellowface, brownface, and blackface.

  • Funwithheadlines

    What Bluejay said. Guess what folks? Every actor is playing a part that is not them. I saw You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown on Broadway where the actor playing Schroeder was black. He was great — and more importantly, he became Schroeder in my eyes. That’s what acting is about.

    I understand minority actors have traditionally fought to get parts, so when a part that coincides with their ethnic or national background comes along it feels that much more unfair that it goes to the usual blond star. And certainly we can all recall the days of stereotypes on the screen where the Native Americans are saying “ugh” a lot.

    But if you can move beyond stereotypes and treat history with respect and accuracy, you have to let actors be actors. That’s what they do: pretend to be what they are not. If Gemma can pretend to be Persian, and do it in a way that suspends disbelief as my black Schroeder did, more power to her.

    But this principle aside, I’m just guessing that Prince of Persia will be the usual Hollywood stereotypes.

  • JoshB

    Actually, Disney insists Prince of Persia isn’t really about “Persia,” anyway

    I admit to not knowing much about the game, but I had assumed that the story was set pre-Islam, when Zoroastrianism was the dominant religion in the region.

  • marshall

    Even though ’300′ the movie (based on the comic) was stylized and was told as if the story was handed down from generation to generation and embelished by each re-telling, the basic story is still historical – so, jeeze, sorry for letting… you know, HISTORY – get in the way.

  • http://www.dvdtalk.com/reviews/bio.php?ID=262 Tyler Foster

    I think these folks might need to lay off of Airbender a little. It’s not that it’s the actor’s job to “convincingly play Asian”, it’s that they underwent a massive search to find him at all. Yeah, okay, the character may be Asian (and admittedly I know nothing about the series nor have any interest in the movie, making me free of investment in this debate), but when it comes to child actors, I think you have to take what you can get.

    No excuses for Persia, though. Part of the big deal here is that the studio is undoubtedly ignoring unheard of actors to cast stars in these ethnic roles. Since the kid in Airbender is an unknown, I can believe they just cast the best kid for the job; it’s not like they’re favoring some white High School Musical reject over a better actor. I don’t have any problem with Jake Gyllenhaal, but it doesn’t sound like the same story.

  • JT

    @ JoshB: It more based on the Arabian Nights than anything else–at least that’s my interpretation (there’s certainly no overt Muslim imagery, anyway). Not that the story is overly concerned with things like exact dates…

    I do think that the casting of Jake Gyllenhaal is a bit odd. Do they not think they can sell a movie with an obviously middle-eastern protagonist?

  • http://bluejaysway.wordpress.com/ Bluejay

    What Bluejay said.

    Hmmm… Maybe you mean “What Bluejay paraphrased from arguments made by others, and intended ironically.”

    I actually agree with MAJ, and with Kat.

    :-)

  • http://toniokruger.blogspot.com Tonio Kruger

    …Alexandre Dumas (soon to be played by Gerard Depardieu).

    Wait? One of the most famous black writers in European history is being played by a white actor? And no one is raising a fuss about that?

    I can understand how some Hollywood writers may be unacquainted with, say, Alexander Pushkin, James Baldwin or Langston Hughes. But being unacquainted with the guy who wrote The Three Musketeers?

    Then again, any Dumas biopic which is not based on anything as readable as Guy Endore’s novel King of Paris probably isn’t worth watching, anyway…

    However, I somehow doubt we’ll be seeing future projects in which Voltaire and Rousseau just happen to be played by Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington. Or even Eddie Murphy or Will Smith…

  • http://bluejaysway.wordpress.com/ Bluejay

    Wait? One of the most famous black writers in European history is being played by a white actor? And no one is raising a fuss about that?

    Actually, Tonio, they are.

  • Funwithheadlines

    Sorry, Bluejay, my bad for reading your post quickly and missing your point.

    So . . . No one wants to comment on my experience seeing a black actor playing an iconically white role and believing it completely?

    This is an argument that goes back more than a hundred years in the movies. I’d prefer Iranian actors in Prince of Persia (no I wouldn’t, I have no intention of seeing this film anyway, but you get my point), but I’m willing to give any actor a chance. I don’t care about skin color or national origin. Act, and I’ll believe it or not.

  • Dokeo
    … setting “Prince” in a “mythological time” before the arrival of Islam.

    Um, do they mean “mythological times” like, say, anytime before the year 610? I know history isn’t that popular these, days, but is all of “ago” really mythological? (And, yes – for the overly literal, I understand what they think they were saying.)

  • http://bluejaysway.wordpress.com/ Bluejay

    So . . . No one wants to comment on my experience seeing a black actor playing an iconically white role and believing it completely?

    Funwithheadlines, here are some initial thoughts:

    Although Schroeder is “traditionally” white, he isn’t specifically written to be white, and thus it’s conceivable that anyone could play him. (As opposed to, say, Othello, who’s specifically written to be not white, and eyebrows would be raised if a white actor played him.)

    As I understand it, the characters in Prince of Persia are specifically written to be, well, Persian, living in a Persian culture, in Persia. The objection is to Gyllenhaal playing a Persian, which fits into the historical pattern of whites playing non-white or mixed-race characters instead of letting non-whites represent themselves.

    It rarely ever seems to go in the other direction: We may say it’s all about acting, and good actors should get the job regardless of color or nationality, but no one ever seems to propose that James Earl Jones be cast as John Adams, or Morgan Freeman as Abraham Lincoln.

  • funWithHeadlines

    Well, I thank you for the nicely reasoned response. I do disagree about Schroeder however. He is clearly written to be white, for there has always been Franklin in the group.

    I would buy Freeman as Lincoln, absolutely. It’s all in the skill. But I seem to be in the minority here.

  • kitten

    When it comes to actors playing actual historical figure, race totally matters. For example, there is an Australian tv miniseries called Legend of Billy Sing, and it’s about a Chinese Australian, who was a sniper during the Galipoli campaign during World War 1. The casting decision was made to have white actors play Billy Sing and his father, who according to history, is Chinese. The public reaction to the miniseries was negative because Australians, especially the Chinese communities felt like their history was disrespected. So when you guys talk about whitewashing as just mere whining, you better consider how many people’s history and culture are being trampled on, exploited, ignored and uncredited by the entertainment industry, for your ‘enjoyment’ and their (the movie industries) profits.

  • Drave

    From what I remember, the “Prince” from the Prince of Persia is always a visitor from another country. In the first game, if I remember correctly, he gets locked up by the vizier for falling in love with the sultan’s daughter. At the end, he marries her, becoming the Prince of Persia, which is where the title comes from. Not sure about his nationality in the other games, but I am pretty sure he is always a visiting foreigner who falls in love with the Persian princess. I’m not saying the movie isn’t white-washed, but the main character at least should get a pass.

  • Ogami Itto

    I would pay good money to see Morgan Freeman play Abraham Lincoln. Quite honestly, I would pay to see Morgan Freeman play almost any role (or narrate any movie).

    As to this thread’s subject matter, casting white actors in non-white roles is AT BEST racially insensitive, and at worst … well you know.

    I’m not interested in seeing “Prince” or “Airbender” anyway.

  • http://bluejaysway.wordpress.com/ Bluejay

    I would buy Freeman as Lincoln, absolutely. It’s all in the skill. But I seem to be in the minority here.

    I would buy Freeman as Lincoln too. But the only way he’d ever be cast as Lincoln is as a stunt, to make a specific political or cultural statement. He wouldn’t be cast as Lincoln in a straightforward historical film just because he’s one of the best actors around.

    In the opposite direction, Hollywood seems to be respectful enough of the African American community to not just casually cast white actors in black roles. They wouldn’t cast Jake Gyllenhaal and Natalie Portman as the lead black characters in a movie remake of Roots, just because they’d be a box office draw.

    But for some reason Hollywood still feels comfortable putting whites in roles either written for Asians and other (non-black) minorities, or explicitly inspired by those minorities. The reasons seem to range from “We wanted the best actor for the job” to “We wanted a bankable actor” to “The character isn’t really Asian, but is meant to be universal” (which means white, I suppose). In all cases, the default is to hire white actors.

    I’ve posted this link in another thread a while ago, but Derek Kirk Kim discusses the issue eloquently.

  • MaryAnn

    I would buy Freeman as Lincoln, absolutely. It’s all in the skill. But I seem to be in the minority here.

    I think it’s probably safe to say, funWithHeadlines, that many of the regular commenters here would agree with you: that it’s all about the skill.

    But we here are not Hollywood execs. If we were, Hollywood would reflect that. The issue isn’t about talent — whatever anyone thinks about Gyllenhaal’s talent (and I know opinion about him is all over the place), no one is questioning whether he has the talent to play this role. The question is, rather (as a couple of other commenters in this thread have already mentioned), why it never goes in the other direction, why nonwhite actors aren’t seen more often in colorblind roles, or even roles meant to be “white.” If Hollywood believed it was all about talent, we wouldn’t have to ask these questions.

    When it comes to actors playing actual historical figure, race totally matters.

    That may be true, kitten. But if it is, why isn’t Hollywood worried about casting Asian actors in roles that represent actual Asian people alive today? Recent films such as *21* and *Extraordinary Measures* are based on true stories that had Asian-Americans at their centers, but by the time the stories got to film, the central characters had mysteriously been rendered Caucasian.

    Re Othello: I’d love to see a production in which most of the cast is black and Othello is white. (I’d bet that’s already been done.)

  • Nate

    Unless I’m mistaken, the Prince isn’t a native Persian in the game anyway. So I don’t think this should be an issue for that movie.

  • JoshB

    Just thought I’d mention that Denzel Washington plays Don Pedro, brother to Keanu Reeve’s Don John in Much Ado About Nothing.

  • kaithymos

    Re Othello, a few years back there was an all-black cast with the exception of Patrick Stewart as “the Moor”…

  • funWithHeadlines

    Because society is racist with whites at the top. More or less.

    But stepping back from that stark cliff, let me explain why I used to think more like the rest of you and then switched. It happened when opened on Broadway from the London stage and Jonathan Pryce reprised his great role as the Engineer. Lots of articles from Asians saying this was wrong, it should have gone to an asian actor, etc. I thought so too.

    Then I came to my realization that all acting is fake. If you cast an asian as the Engineer, is he the Engineer? No, of course not, it will be Lenny Liu from Queens pretending to be the Engineer in Saigon. Just because he’s asian is no reason to suddenly think all is right in the world again. Unless he’s Vietnamese, from Saigon, having lived the Engineer’s life, it would always be a fake. That’s what acting is, a fake.

    So when Patrick Steward plays the Moor, or Denzel plays Don Pedro, or when Stanley Wayne Mathis (http://www.yalerep.org/on_stage/currentseason/salesman/_images/headshots/mathis_stanley.jpg) as Schroeder on Broadway, it’s all fine by me. Just become the character and I will accept you as that character even if you are really just a dude from New Jersey or whatever in real life.

    Because none of these actors are the real thing in their real life. So if you think it’s OK to accept them if they are ethnically correct, but you ignore everything else about them in real life that is not correct for that character, you are, in a way, engaging in a type of racism.

    I say let humans portray humans. All the rest are details.

  • funWithHeadlines

    Sorry, the system cut out some of my post and now it doesn’t make sense. My first sentence (Because society is racist…) was in answer to MaryAnn’s question why it almost never goes in reverse.

    And my comment about Jonathan Pryce was about the show Miss Saigon.

    The full URL for the Stanley Wayne Mathis headshot is:

    http://www.yalerep.org/on_stage/currentseason/salesman/_images/headshots/mathis_stanley.jpg

  • Ryan H

    On the Othello front, there is a 1981 version of Othello with the moor played by Anthony Hopkins. And it’s exactly as screen-chewing as you would imagine.

    funWithHeadlines, having read your comments I feel that you are somewhat missing the context of the debate. Few people would argue that most fictional characters can ONLY be properly played by a person of race X or Y. The point isn’t necessarily that white actors are unable to play these roles. The trouble that most people see is that white actors are the only ones being considered for these roles.

    In fact one of the Last Airbender casting calls (which the producers have since tried to distance themselves from) specifically requested only Caucasian actors for the leads and ethnic people for the extras. It’s not racism because the studios cast white actors in ‘ethnic’ roles. It’s racism because no one seriously believes that they considered casting anyone other than white actors in ethnic roles.

    From a purely theoretical point of view a good actor can give a credible performance in any role. That’s why its called acting. And you can point to any single example of a white actor playing an ethnic role and say there is nothing wrong with that particular instance. You would even be right.

    However, when white actors are regularly given roles that are historically or thematically associated with a specific ethnicity yet ethnic actors rarely, if ever, play parts that are associated with white culture it becomes racism.

  • MaryAnn

    If Hollywood believed all acting was fake, then we would see lots of Asian actors playing Caucausians, blacks playing whites, and so on… all the time, not just as a rare stunt. But we don’t. Instead we see whites playing almost every role, whether they’re racially appropriate for the part or not. And we’ll never get to a point at which there’s an actor of Persian heritage — even if he’s a 100 percent all-American boy otherwise — who could star in a movie called *Prince of Persia,* because nonwhite actors are never given the opportunity to break out simply because they’re not white.

    And yes, we all understand that Hollywood is racist with whites at the top. But the only way to put a stop to that is to call out Hollywood on its racist bullshit when we can, instead of just shrugging and telling ourselves, “Well, that’s just the way it is.”

  • Ryan H

    Also, an addendum to my post. funWithHeadlines you keep referencing stage plays. While interesting, it’s not particularly relevant to the discussion. Theater is different in many ways from film. Not only does it have a different culture, conventions and style but the method of acting is vastly different. The types of costuming and distance form the actors tends to make body language and voice far more important on the stage. On screen the eyes and facial expression is a more powerful tool than body language and tends to reveal more of the actor.

    So appropriate physical casting matters far more on screen than on stage. For example, I have seen many skinny or older actors play very physical characters on stage to great success. Yet on screen a scrawny 50 year old would have a hard time crafting a believable Conan type character regardless of acting ability.

  • http://bluejaysway.wordpress.com/ Bluejay

    What Ryan H and MaryAnn said.

    Denzel and Stanley Wayne Mathis playing “white” are rare exceptions of deliberate casting against type; they’re not equivalent to the historical injustice of Asian roles overwhelmingly going to white actors. This is the larger situation that the Airbender detractors are protesting against: the fact that the media that surrounds us doesn’t seem to think Asian faces are worth seeing.

    To quote from Derek Kirk Kim’s blog:

    When my brother and I were in high school, our favorite class was Drama. While we were rehearsing for the next day’s class or participating in a school play or dancing it up at the after party, I don’t think there was anything we liked more. During such times, it even surpassed our love of—dare I say it—comics. But we never even entertained the notion of actually pursuing it as a career. Not because we didn’t want to, but because we had too much pride to spend our entire lives pretending to be Long Duk Dong, or a Chinese food delivery boy with one line, or a Kato to some Green Hornet. Or even worse, having our hearts broken over and over going after roles that specifically call for Asian Americans like “Avatar, The Last Airbender” only to see them go to white actors. Back in my Drama days in high school, I used to dream of being white so I could pursue acting.

    With discrimination like this “Avatar” casting continuing to happen uncontested in Hollywood, my future kids will nurse the same pitiful wish.

    And it infuriates me.

    If my future kids feel a passion for acting, I want them to be able to pursue it just like any other American. If they’re forced to give up that passion due to a genuine lack of talent or hard work, fine. But I don’t want their dreams to be clipped at the bud by some unassailable, universally accepted dismissal of their existence on the face this country.

  • GCH

    Economics, kids. Not racist agenda. $200 million budget leaves no room to make social statements and/or be progressive and cast someone no ones ever heard of. Welcome to Hollywood. If u don’t like it, save yourself two hours and 10 bucks.

  • Der Bruno Stroszek

    But The Last Airbender has cast someone no-one’s ever heard of! It’s just a white someone, so that’s a safe investment.

  • Sir Colin

    Wow. Major fail by Bruckheimer. Not only does he insist that they were white in the 6th century but he attributes the Persians’ current “darkness” to “Turks” who are way, way whiter than the folks in Iran. If anything, you’d think that the Turks “changing everything” would have made the Persians lighter/more white. This guy is clueless.

    Oh yeah, another wannabe blockbuster with Gemma Atherton in it. They’re really trying to make her the next Keira Knightly, arent they. She just doesnt cut it for me. Her annoying nasal, british accent in the trailer was enough to turn me away from this movie.

  • JoshB

    Economics, kids. Not racist agenda. $200 million budget leaves no room to make social statements and/or be progressive and cast someone no ones ever heard of

    It’s interesting that you just accept as a given that no one has ever heard of non-white actors.

    Once upon a time no one had heard of Jake Gyllenhaal.

    Logic, kids. Not progressive agenda.

  • Pollas

    Come on. It’s [Prince of Persia] a silly movie based off a video game. Nothing worth getting excited about. If you don’t like the fact that it’s white actors portraying ethnic characters, then just don’t go see it. There are a lot more important things out there that deserve getting upset about.

  • http://bluejaysway.wordpress.com/ Bluejay

    Pollas: I think we’re capable of being upset about more than one thing at a time. We haven’t forgotten about the BP oil spill, I assure you. ;-)

    If you don’t like the fact that it’s white actors portraying ethnic characters, then just don’t go see it.

    That’s exactly what the Airbender protesters will do: boycott the film. But they’re talking loudly about it too, to raise consciousness. If enough people choose not to see it, maybe Hollywood will get the message.

    And it’s not this one “silly” movie per se; it’s the fact that this is just a recent example of an unjust practice that’s been going on for a long time. It matters how the media chooses to reflect society. It matters to ethnic actors who are unjustly being denied opportunities, and it matters to non-white American audiences who are getting the message that they’re not good enough to be shown as main characters in the stories we tell ourselves. That’s a message I’ve personally lived with, and I think it deserves getting upset about.

  • http://bluejaysway.wordpress.com/ Bluejay

    I realize I’m occasionally confusing “Airbender” with “Prince of Persia” — sorry. The issue with both films is the same.

    On a side note, I just noticed this from the LA Times article:

    None of its principle cast members are of Iranian, Middle Eastern or Muslim descent.

    What is “Muslim descent”? Are Cat Stevens’ and Malcolm X’s kids of “Muslim descent”? Are Pat Robertson and Al Sharpton of “Christian descent”? Is my daughter of “atheist descent”? Weird…

  • Newbia

    To the people who say, “But acting is acting!”: that’s not the issue here at all. We’re not discussing whether we can believe Jake Gyllenhal in his role, or whether he will act well. The issue is that non-white actors are often discriminated against in Hollywood and rarely get good roles. Period. When is that going to change?

    For the Prince of Persia, I don’t really care about the race of the main actor. It’s a Hollywood blockbuster based on a video game that places only the scantest of importance on historical accuracy. In this case, it makes sense to cast Gyllenhal in the role because he’s a big movie star and race/ethnicity isn’t *really* important to the story.

    For Avatar, race is a bigger issue. Asian culture was *hugely* influential in the original cartoon. A large part of its appeal was how it blended West and East, and as an American anime, it was really the first of its kind. Plus, all the characters were clearly, undeniably not white. Prince of Persia is just in Persia because “ooh, it’s so cool and foreign and exotic”, but in Avatar the cultural background is quite important. So the controversy there is much more understandable.

  • Josh C.

    Bluejay, perhaps “Muslim descent” is meant in the same way that Jewish descent usually specifically means Ashkenazi or Eastern-European Jewish descent? I do agree, though, that it still wouldn’t be accurate, unless it is supposed to differentiate, say, Bengalis from Hindu Indians.

  • http://toniokruger.blogspot.com Tonio Kruger

    Bluejay, perhaps “Muslim descent” is meant in the same way that Jewish descent usually specifically means Ashkenazi or Eastern-European Jewish descent?

    Actually, I always thought that “Jewism descent” was usually used to just mean someone is Jewish. If people feel the need to differentiate between, say, Ashkenazi and Sephardic people, they usually just say “Ashkenazi” and “Sephardic” people.

    Then again, people do tend to use the word “Americans” all too often to specifically refer to “white Americans”–if not “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Americans.” And not every person of American descent appreciates that.

  • http://toniokruger.blogspot.com Tonio Kruger

    Okay, “appreciates” is too mild a term.

    Not every American necessarily agrees that the only real Americans are white Americans, white Anglo-Saxon Americans, etc.

    Now back to our original topic…

  • Victor Plenty

    Cat Stevens’ and Malcolm X’s kids

    Now THAT would make for a fascinating conspiracy theory…

  • LaSargenta

    And…

    If people feel the need to differentiate between, say, Ashkenazi and Sephardic people, they usually just say “Ashkenazi” and “Sephardic” people.

    Well, it would be even nicer if the rest of the goyim knew that there are more types of jews in the world than Ashkenazi (German, direct translation) and Sephardim (Iberian, which means both Spain and Portugal) jews. Fer instance, my family was Bene Roma…which are distinct from the Roma who aren’t jewish but are Romanay, ‘kay?

    /end off-topic rant. :)

  • http://bluejaysway.wordpress.com/ Bluejay

    Then again, people do tend to use the word “Americans” all too often to specifically refer to “white Americans”–if not “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Americans.”

    Heh. My mom does this all the time. Americans this, Americans that. I’m constantly reminding her, “Mom, you’re American too, you know,” and she waves it away and says, “Oh, you know who I mean…”

  • Dokeo

    @ LaSargenta’s off-topic rant

    LaSargenta, have you ever considered writing a book or a blog about your life? From the various bits of personal history you’ve included in posts here it looks like it would be fascinating. Seriously.

  • CB

    But The Last Airbender has cast someone no-one’s ever heard of! It’s just a white someone, so that’s a safe investment.

    Ssh! You’re throwing off the nice and tidy “It’s not racist, you’re just being naive because it’s all about money” argument. Well, it is about money, but it’s also racist, because they don’t think a non-white actor will sell as well.

    What’s funny is comparing this to a movie like 300. Sure, 300 is history told as a legend, but you can’t deny that it plays up the Persians as the embodiment of evil and the heroic white people as the embodiment of good.

    But the thing is, it never tries to act like it’s saying anything but that in this story, the white guys are the good guys and the Persians are the bad guys. It’s a clash of two cultures, plain and simple.

    I actually find that way less offensive than this Disney bullshit. They act like they’re being all “It’s a Small World After All”, telling a story about a foreign people and saying that look, there’s both good and bad people here! But without fail, it’s only the bad guys who look “ethnic” and the good guys look like white people with a tan.

    I’ll take the honesty of 300 any day over the “Oh yeah, other cultures are great, as long as they look and act like us” bullshit.

  • LaSargenta

    @ Dokeo, tx but I prefer to amuse my friends over beers. Everyone has stories like this. It’s all in how u tell the tale and cherry-pick the details. ;-)

    If you don’t have the stories, then u need to take to heart the line from HSThompson: Buy the ticket, take the ride!

  • Mathias

    I can understand why directors and producers feel the need to have an established star (aka Whitey) to helm their $200 million dollar summer tentpole, but we all know what really draws audiences in is the concept and not the actors.

    Avatar, District 9, Alice in Wonderland, The Hangover, Paranormal Activity and Twilight didn’t need stars to rake in the cash. With the proper concept and decent marketing (Hollywood’s real forte) any film can be profitable,

    The idea that no one will see these films if they don’t have white faces on the posters is just insulting.

  • ratgirlagogo

    What Persian-American actor would you suggest to replace Jake Gylenhaal? The only one I know who’s at all well known is Adrian Pasdar and he’s at least ten years too old.

  • stchivo

    I think that the concept of being racially sensitive to the source material didn’t even cross the minds of the folks doing The Last Airbender, and by the time the fans found out and started throwing a riot it was way too late to go back and change. And now they are trying to make excuses. At least the boy playing Aang earned it for himself. Sure he is a white kid from Texas, but even before he new a movie was being made he was such a fan of the series that he shaved his head and all his friends and classmates started calling him Aang. He was already spending all his time acting and looking like the character plus he is already really good at martial arts, it would be hard to not go with him.

  • Darren Reed

    Allow me to be quite frank in saying, “who gives a fuck?”

  • Kat

    @stchivo:

    “I think that the concept of being racially sensitive to the source material didn’t even cross the minds of the folks doing The Last Airbender”

    That’s no excuse. Asian culture is a huge part of the world of “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” If they wanted to be faithful to the source material in terms of the setting (filming in Greenland and importing Asian trees), then they should have been faithful in terms of the people as well. If they didn’t want to bother, then they should have picked another story with which to make a movie and left “The Last Airbender” to someone who would actually respect the source material and the people whose cultures it used.

    “and by the time the fans found out and started throwing a riot it was way too late to go back and change.”

    It wasn’t too late for them to switch Jesse McCartney with Dev Patel as Zuko. Why couldn’t they have changed the other actors, too? Besides, that move was just a bone to throw to the protesters (not rioters, mind you). Not to mention that it only made things worse, because now instead of all of the characters being whitewashed in the movie, it’s become a story of white = good and brown = evil, which has only been done a million times in Hollywood, goes against the very messages of the show, and only contributes more negative stereotypes about people of color.

    “And now they are trying to make excuses. At least the boy playing Aang earned it for himself. Sure he is a white kid from Texas, but even before he new a movie was being made he was such a fan of the series that he shaved his head and all his friends and classmates started calling him Aang”

    And I’m sure that plenty of Asian-American boys have pretended to be Aang, too. And I didn’t know that being a fan of a character automatically made you the best candidate for portraying him/her in a movie, regardless of acting skills, accuracy, or experience. I’m American and I love the Harry Potter series. Does that mean that the directors should have chosen me to be in their Harry Potter films, even though I’m not British and have no acting experience in movies whatsoever? This is a Hollywood film, not cosplay.

    “He was already spending all his time acting and looking like the character”

    How does he look like Aang? Aang is not Caucasian. Just because his skin isn’t yellow and his eyes aren’t miniscule does not make him white. He is an Asian boy whose culture resembles Tibetan Buddhism. The fact that Noah Ringer shaved his head and has light skin doesn’t mean that he’s the best person to play Aang.

    “plus he is already really good at martial arts, it would be hard to not go with him.”

    You know who is also really good at martial arts? Brandon Soo Hoo. He’s the actor who played the young Asian crime lord in “Tropic Thunder.” He would have been great for Aang. But, of course, a white actor was chosen for the role of a blatantly Asian character instead, because heaven forbid a non-white actor be the lead for a major action/adventure film that’s in English.

    @Darren Frank: People who care about whitewashing and cultural appropriation clearly do. Iranian-Americans who never get the opportunity to see themselves as anything other than terrorists, sidekicks, or religious buffoons on the silver screen do. People who care about historical accuracy and positive representation of ethnic minorities do. I’m sure that years ago, some people wondered why blackface was such a problem. A lot of people care. If you don’t, that’s your business.

  • Kat

    Oops, I meant “Darren Reed.” Sorry.

  • Accounting Ninja

    Count me among the Avatar fans groaning at this whitewashing. It’s so bloody obvious!

    Take Katara, for instance. She and her brother Sokka are two main characters, and they come from the Southern Water tribe at the south pole. Their village was very clearly Eskimo-ish in nature. The people were mainly brown-skinned. Katara herself is brown, with curly dark hair. Just because she’s drawn with blue eyes doesn’t erase the fact that she’s clearly NOT white.

    Some pics from the animated series of Katara:

    Face
    Katara and her brother Sokka
    Katara with Ty Lee
    And, kind of “spoiler alert”, but here’s a pic of Katara kissing Aang to demonstrate that she has always been quite a bit darker-skinned than the Avatar.

    Now, here’s Katara from the movie:
    Pic 1
    Pic 2

    This doesn’t even look vaguely like the same girl to me. I guess I can kind of understand Aang being white, because it reminds me of the confusion over whether anime characters are “white” or Japanese (they are Japanese, but are drawn in a very Caucasian way). Aang’s skin is fair, and his eyes are big and round, but I still think an Asian kid would’ve done nicely.

    Plus then, you get the added bonus of seeing a non-white couple as main characters and love interests.

    I fear for this movie. The animated series is excellent with its plots and characterizations, but ALSO with the fact that it treats its female characters as competent, fully-human people and it features all kinds of races/skin tones and presents this as completely not-special and normal!! This series is what good, non-racist, non-sexist media really is.

    What else are they gonna do? Make Katara into a Damsel in Distress? Is Azula (a ruthless Fire Nation princess) still going to be the main baddie?

  • Accounting Ninja

    Sorry for the double post, but just a couple more things:
    Just for clarification, I DON’T endorse Aang being white, but I can see how his design might be mistaken for white, especially if you’ve never seen the series and the episodes showing his home temple life.
    It’s still inexcusable, like their whitewashing of Dragonball Evolution. The whole thing was based on a friggin famous Chinese myth!…um, loosely interpreted of course. ;)

    Also, another thought upon further studying of Katara pics: I don’t know if it’s just the way the movie pictures are taken or the fact that there aren’t many out there for the public, but Movie!Katara’s face is utterly devoid of Animated!Katara’s characteristic passion, friendliness, confidence and wisdom beyond her years. Whenever you see Animated!Katara in the pics I linked, her face is doing something, whereas Movie!Katara just has this blank, vulnerable look.

    This does not bode well, my friends.

  • stchivo

    @ kat
    “How does he look like Aang?” I’m sorry, but have you seen the cartoon series? You can’t look at cartoon Aang, and look at Noah Ringer and tell me there is no resemblence.
    “And I’m sure that plenty of Asian-American boys have pretended to be Aang, too.” Well yeah lots of boys have pretended to be any number of characters on TV and that doesn’t instantly qualify someone for the part. But you can’t say whether any of those kids even auditioned. Noah wasn’t just sought out and picked, he had to audition like any other no name actor. I just think he should get due credit for having the most impressive audition. If you can show that the kid from Tropic Thunder tried out for the part or was even asked or available, or wether any Asian or Asian-American even tried for the part, than you might have an argument.
    It you watch the series than you would also know that race and culture, while present, is never an issue that is discussed or presented in any way. There is only nationality, Water, Earth, Fire, Air, and the politics involved between and within the nations: war and the horrors of war, empires and dictatorial leadership, military coups, media censorship, etc. There are also individual conflicts i.e. family/parent issues, falling in love, responsibility versus playtime, duty and honor. But race and what somebody looks like determining who they are is never brought up. Everybody is just people. So why does it have to be an issue for the movie? If the original creators were trying to make everybody Asian, rather than just influenced by asian culture, then why does cartoon Aang have green eyes and cartoon Katara have blue eyes? Sokka has blue eyes, Toph has green eyes (and I believe she WILL be played by an Asian actress) and Zuko and Azula have gold eyes! If they meant to depict people that were completely Asian or Inuit then their eyes would most likely be brown.
    I am more concerned that the actors chosen for katara and aang and sokka can’t act very well and will butcher their parts. The asian actors for the other roles are people that can act and, even though they look less like their characters then the main three do, they will come off better for their acting skills.

  • Kat

    @stchivo:

    “I’m sorry, but have you seen the cartoon series? You can’t look at cartoon Aang, and look at Noah Ringer and tell me there is no resemblence.”

    Because he’s bald and light-skinned, right? Never mind that most of the pictures that I’ve seen of Noah Ringer as Aang show him as pouty and miserable (why the director and/or the photographer told him to look that way, I have no clue), while the original Aang was light-hearted and cheerful.

    But that’s not the point. Even if there is a resemblance there, Aang is Asian. He is not white. Noah Ringer is. Just because they share some common features doesn’t mean that they’re the same race or ethnicity. Belle of “Beauty and the Beast” fame has brown hair and brown eyes. There are plenty of Asian girls with brown hair and brown eyes. They likely see themselves in Belle, too. That doesn’t mean that they should be picked for the title role if Hollywood ever does a live-action version of “Beauty and the Beast” and makes sure to set it in France.

    “Well yeah lots of boys have pretended to be any number of characters on TV and that doesn’t instantly qualify someone for the part. But you can’t say whether any of those kids even auditioned. Noah wasn’t just sought out and picked, he had to audition like any other no name actor. I just think he should get due credit for having the most impressive audition.”

    How do you know that he had the most impressive audition? Just because the director picked him? He was more impressive than any of the Asian-American actors who auditioned? In an ideal world, talent would be the only qualification, but unfortunately, it isn’t. You’re telling me that Jackson Rathbone, the actor who’s going to play Sokka, was the best actor that Shyamalan could find? The same actor who had barely two words to say in “Twilight” and whose oh-so-stellar acting was never mentioned in film reviews? How about Jesse McCartney, who was originally picked to play Zuko? I wasn’t aware that his acting credentials were anything to rave about.

    “If you can show that the kid from Tropic Thunder tried out for the part or was even asked or available, or wether any Asian or Asian-American even tried for the part, than you might have an argument.”

    Note a key part of your argument: “was even asked.” No, he was not asked. He was not asked, even though he had already starred in a box office hit. He was not asked, even though he is around the same age as Aang. He was not asked, even though he has an impressive resume of martial arts skills (check his IMDB profile). He was not asked, even though the character is Asian and so is he!

    He was not asked, because again, it’s all fine and dandy to expect kids from all ethnic and racial backgrounds to identify with a white lead. But heaven forbid we expect white kids to identify with a non-white lead, a non-white actor. That’s too extreme and politically correct!

    And how do you know that not a single Asian-American boy auditioned? Go to YouTube and search for audition videos of Asian kids trying out for the part of Aang. One of the most notable ones was Perris Aquino, a Filipino-American boy. Hundreds tried out for the part. And why wouldn’t they? Aang is an Asian character!

    “It you watch the series than you would also know that race and culture, while present, is never an issue that is discussed or presented in any way. There are also individual conflicts i.e. family/parent issues, falling in love, responsibility versus playtime, duty and honor. But race and what somebody looks like determining who they are is never brought up. Everybody is just people. So why does it have to be an issue for the movie?”

    First of all, they’re all Asian. There are no Europeans or Africans in “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” So, even though there is a great deal of diversity, the differences between the characters are never that extreme, so they didn’t have to be mentioned all the time. In “Lord of the Rings,” for example, Eowyn and Faramir didn’t spend every sentence of their dialogue making such a big deal about how different people from Rohan and Gondor were. Why? Because they’re both human and both of their lands were inspired by British culture and mythology, hence both of them were white.

    Second of all, yes, race and culture certainly are discussed, but because it’s set in a fantasy world (that is based on Asian cultures), it’s not blatant. The Fire Nation wants to conquer all the other nations. The Fire Lord, Ozai, believes that he, as well as his nation, is superior and champions the idea that the Fire Nation should absorb and effectively “civilize” the others. Children are taught a biased form of history in Fire Nation schools that justifies the Fire Nation’s imperial ways and marginalizes the other nations. Sound familiar?

    Because of the Fire Nation’s warmongering, other nations grow to view the Fire Nation with distrust, fear, and suspicion. Jet, a Earth Nation boy, hates all of the members of the Fire Nation because Fire Nation soldiers killed his parents. He is prejudiced against the Fire Nation and they, in turn, are prejudiced against him and his nation, as well as the others. Also, the Fire Nation wiped out an entire race of people! They committed genocide! You think that that’s not an example of race being brought up?

    A great theme of the show was the virtue of overcoming each other’s differences and learning to work together. The Gaang is a perfect example of this, since it is composed of each member of the nations and is a microcosm of the Avatar world in itself. Aang is from the Air Nation, Zuko is from the Fire Nation, Toph is from the Earth Nation, and Sokka and Katara are from the Water Nation. By whitewashing the leads, the movie is ignoring this message.

    “If the original creators were trying to make everybody Asian, rather than just influenced by asian culture, then why does cartoon Aang have green eyes and cartoon Katara have blue eyes? Sokka has blue eyes, Toph has green eyes (and I believe she WILL be played by an Asian actress) and Zuko and Azula have gold eyes! If they meant to depict people that were completely Asian or Inuit then their eyes would most likely be brown.”

    *headdesk*

    Are you serious? Really? Did you actually watch the show?

    Their eyes are those colors for the same reasons that their ethnic clothes are all the same colors. It’s just a way to separate them from one another. Katara and Sokka have blue eyes because they belong to the Water Tribe. Oceans and seas, which are made up of water, are very often blue, hence why the clothes of the Water Tribes are also blue. Toph belongs to the Earth Nation. Grass grows on the earth and is green, thus green would seem be an appropriate marker, both for her eyes and her clothes. Aang does not have green eyes. He has grey eyes, because he belongs to the Air Nation, and grey is the closest eye color match for the air. Now, for Zuko and Azula, who belong to the Fire Nation, you could say that red is closer to the color of fire than gold. However, I’m sure that the creators, conscious of the fact that red eyes often signify evil in popular culture, wanted to steer clear of that clichéd stereotype and so chose to go with yellow instead, while leaving their clothes red. Do I really have to go into depth about this? It’s not rocket science!

    It’s just a marker to distinguish one group of people from the other in the show. But you know what? There are indeed Asians with blue eyes and green eyes. Despite popular misconception, those eye colors are not exclusively European traits. Granted, they are certainly rare to find in Asians, hence why such cases are noteworthy. But blue-eyed and green-eyed Asians do exist. As for gold, I have yet to see that as a prevalent eye color in Europeans, either.

    Rabbits do not walk on two feet in real life nor do they have hands. Nevertheless, I have yet to see anybody argue that Bugs Bunny is not, in fact, a rabbit, but a kangaroo.

    “I am more concerned that the actors chosen for katara and aang and sokka can’t act very well and will butcher their parts. The asian actors for the other roles are people that can act and, even though they look less like their characters then the main three do, they will come off better for their acting skills.”

    Well, at least we’ve finally come to a point that we can agree on. I also think that Dev Patel will steal the movie (and rightfully so). I also don’t have much faith in the acting abilities of the three leads (which begs the question of why they were chosen to begin with. And didn’t you say that Noah Ringer must have had the most impressive audition in order to have landed the role?). I do hope that the Asian actors come off better and are compensated by receiving better roles in better movies that will respect their cultures instead of trampling all over them.

  • stchivo

    @ kat
    Thanks for your long response, here is my long response back!:

    “Never mind that most of the pictures that I’ve seen of Noah Ringer as Aang show him as pouty and miserable (why the director and/or the photographer told him to look that way, I have no clue), while the original Aang was light-hearted and cheerful”

    True, although there are many scenes where Aang is in a serious mood and I can see why they would try to copy that, not that I agree that they are doing the best job of it. Aang was always able to bounce back quickly and go back to being light-hearted and cheerful. We’ll just have to see the movie to judge wether they did that right.

    “Aang is Asian”
    I know your going to pull your hair out with this one but Aang is Air Nomad, a fictional nation of people with aspects that resemble or are based on a real life group of people.

    “How do you know that he had the most impressive audition? Just because the director picked him? He was more impressive than any of the Asian-American actors who auditioned?”
    I don’t KNOW, but it is not unreasonable to assume that since he got the part, the director liked him best. I have a hard time seeing an asian-american director telling himself “I will only accept a white kid for this role that is based on an asian people.” I’m not saying he made the RIGHT decision, just not a racist one. But I won’t know if the director made a bad decision until I see the movie, though I am certainly not getting my hopes up to much based on the previews. I was really just trying to give the kid props for getting the gig. Thousands try out but its still ok to congratulate the winner even if you don’t agree with a judges decision.

    “You’re telling me that Jackson Rathbone, the actor who’s going to play Sokka, was the best actor that Shyamalan could find? The same actor who had barely two words to say in “Twilight” and whose oh-so-stellar acting was never mentioned in film reviews? How about Jesse McCartney, who was originally picked to play Zuko? I wasn’t aware that his acting credentials were anything to rave about. ”

    I quite agree and never meant to include them with Noah Ringer. Jesse McCartney and Nicola Peltz just seemed like Nickelodean standbys, like when they do a made for tv movie they just go with actors from their tv shows. Disney does the same thing. I actually think those were chosen because they were easy and/or Nickelodean demanded they use somebody they already own. I could be wrong but it seemed that way. With Jackson Rathbone I am baffled as to why he was picked, we certainly have no idea what we are going to get and I don’t expect to see the sarcasm and humor that make up the character of Sokka from this guy. I hope I do, but I don’t expect it.

    “And how do you know that not a single Asian-American boy auditioned?”
    I didn’t know, I was asking you. Thanks for enlightening.

    Ok, I’m going to stop quoting, its probably not necessary. About the eye color thing, please remove your head from your desk. I know that there is a specific magical reason for their eye color, but it just goes to show that they are people based on a certain culture but aren’t necessarily the culture. The genocide of the air nomads was not done with racist motives. Although still a very evil act, it was done for military positioning. The next Avatar was going to be an Air Nomad, and the Avatar was the only thing that could stop the fire nation, so the firelord’s way around that problem was to simply kill all air nomads with the hope that the avatar would go with them. If it was the earth kingdom that was next in the avatar cycle then the fire nations move would have been different. So it was not a racist move, it was military stragy.
    They are all the same poeple just in different nations, not races. Jet hated the fire nation, yes, but he couldn’t tell that Zuko and Iroh were fire nation until he saw them fire bend. Team Avatar had no problem hiding out in the fire nation cities with a simple change of clothing. Zuko traveled alone for a time and received help from villagers and nobody accused him of being fire nation until he bended. They are all the same people, just different nations. Hence no race issue. Its like Guatamalans and Mexicans, different nations, same race.
    These actors might be bad choices, I just don’t think the race of the actor matters as much as acting ability.
    Do Asians have an uphill battle in hollywood? Yes, I would say so. Just like any minority in the US. But the problem is on both sides. If you look at Mexican Novelas, made in mexico by mexicans, the leads are almost always very white because thats what the poeple want to see on tv. Even in Bollywood, the most popular stars are much lighter than the vast population of India. People in general, all ethnicities included, want to see the prettiest people on tv and in movies, and the prevailing opinion of beauty tends to be lite complected people. The movement to change that opinion is good and is gaining ground, but I don’t think this movie should be boycotted like many want to based on so called whitewashing when it could very well play a major role in bringing many asian actors to prominence.

    Now, I suppose I can admit that I very much appreciate the effort the creators went through to make the trilogy seem authentic, or real. From the martial arts to the building design to the clothing and the Chinese letters (are they all chinese?) all over the place. It does seem out of place to have such, um, gringos do the parts. But I also know that they traveled to places like Iceland to find inspiration for the layout of the lands, and what about the swamp tribe? They were definitely based more on bayou hillbillys than anyone asian. So although asian actors should be the obvious choice, I just don’t thing race matters in the story. Besides, Lord of the Rings was successful because the actors portrayed the characters accurately, not because they looked like the characters, and most the fans forgave the many changes made because the story was still believable and felt like the real deal. But I had a hard time with Harry Potter movies because, although the actors fit the description, mostly, I think they acted poorly (specifically Harry, Hermione, and Ron). So I think that if the actors can pull off the characters well then much will be forgiven, but we will just have to wait and see.

    By the way, just in case you can’t tell because I don’t think I am the best writer or debater, I do love Avatar: The Last Airbender and consider it a great epic story on the same level as Lord of the Rings, Wheel of Time, Harry Potter or any of your favorites. I feel nervous that M Night either doesn’t care enough to do it justice or simply isn’t talented enough to do it justice.

  • Kat

    @stchivo:

    “I know your going to pull your hair out with this one but Aang is Air Nomad, a fictional nation of people with aspects that resemble or are based on a real life group of people.”

    No, I’m not going to pull my hair out, but I do realize that I should have worded my response more accurately. Yes, Aang is an Air Nomad. However, his culture is heavily based on Asian culture. Just like Boromir and Faramir from “Lord of the Rings” are technically from Gondor (a fictional kingdom), but their culture is based on various cultures of Europe. It wouldn’t make sense to cast South Asian actors as the two brothers, just because their country is fictional. Likewise, it doesn’t make sense to cast a non-Asian actor as Aang, either.

    “I don’t KNOW, but it is not unreasonable to assume that since he got the part, the director liked him best. I have a hard time seeing an asian-american director telling himself “I will only accept a white kid for this role that is based on an asian people.”’

    Then why were the casting calls labeled as follows: “Caucasian or Any Other Ethnicities?” Why did “Caucasian” need to be noted? Why did a movie, based on a show that drew heavily from Asian culture, even need to cast Caucasian actors? The continent of Asia is diverse in itself and was reflected as such in the show. White actors were not needed to create diversity; it was already there in the source material. If casting Caucasian actors wasn’t important, then the language of the casting call would have made it clear.

    And you know what? I also have a hard time seeing an Asian-American director telling himself that “I will only accept a white kid for this role that is based on Asian people.” Especially when the director has stated that one of the main reasons why he signed on for this project in the first place was because his daughter was a fan and she wanted to dress up as Katara, a notably dark-skinned character.

    “I’m not saying he made the RIGHT decision, just not a racist one.”

    I don’t think he was consciously being racist. I guess a better interpretation would be that he was unaware of the racial implications that his casting would create. But then again, he *is* a person of color himself, so I don’t understand why or how he could not see what is so wrong about whitewashing the characters. Characters that share his ethnicity have not been treated favorably in Hollywood either. If a new movie came out that depicted all Indians as barbaric, warmongering villains and the British as saintly, pure-hearted heroes, would he be happy about that?

    “But I won’t know if the director made a bad decision until I see the movie, though I am certainly not getting my hopes up to much based on the previews. I was really just trying to give the kid props for getting the gig. Thousands try out but its still ok to congratulate the winner even if you don’t agree with a judges decision.”

    Just to make it clear (in case I gave the wrong impression in my previous comments), I have nothing against Noah Ringer. None of this is his fault. He is lucky to have gotten a big break in this role and I don’t blame him for being happy about it, but I would have preferred if he had received another big break in another movie for a role that wasn’t explicitly Asian. I certainly don’t wish for his acting career to fail; I just don’t think that he should have been picked for this one particular role.

    “I quite agree and never meant to include them with Noah Ringer. Jesse McCartney and Nicola Peltz just seemed like Nickelodean standbys, like when they do a made for tv movie they just go with actors from their tv shows. Disney does the same thing. I actually think those were chosen because they were easy and/or Nickelodean demanded they use somebody they already own. I could be wrong but it seemed that way. With Jackson Rathbone I am baffled as to why he was picked, we certainly have no idea what we are going to get and I don’t expect to see the sarcasm and humor that make up the character of Sokka from this guy. I hope I do, but I don’t expect it.”

    The reason why I included them is because many supporters of this casting claim that they, as well as Noah Ringer, were picked because they were supposedly the best for the parts. If they were chosen just because they were “easy,” then that doesn’t say very much about the integrity of the casting directors or their faithfulness to the original source material. I really don’t know why Jackson Rathbone was picked, either. Taylor Lautner has a bigger part than Rathbone has ever had in the “Twilight” series so far and he at least has some claims to Native American ancestry (even though many commentators on the Internet that I’ve seen are dubious about these claims). If they wanted to cast someone of “Twilight” fame, they could have chosen him. And speaking of “Twilight,” the director of “New Moon,” one of the films in the “Twilight” franchise that Rathbone starred in, took the time and effort to actually go out and find actors of First Nation ancestry. Why couldn’t “The Last Airbender” have done the same?

    “I know that there is a specific magical reason for their eye color, but it just goes to show that they are people based on a certain culture but aren’t necessarily the culture.”

    True, the series is based in a fantasy world, so the characters are not technically Chinese or Japanese or Korean, etc. But why would the creators work so hard to infuse their world with Asian influences and give their characters Asian clothes, Asian belief systems, Asian food, Asian styles of fighting, and names like “Aang,” “Sokka,” and “Zuko” if they didn’t intend for the characters to resemble real-life Asians? The characters even read and write hanzi – authentic Chinese script. Paramount knew that, so the hanzi has been replaced with imaginary symbols instead.

    “The genocide of the air nomads was not done with racist motives. Although still a very evil act, it was done for military positioning. The next Avatar was going to be an Air Nomad, and the Avatar was the only thing that could stop the fire nation, so the firelord’s way around that problem was to simply kill all air nomads with the hope that the avatar would go with them. If it was the earth kingdom that was next in the avatar cycle then the fire nations move would have been different. So it was not a racist move, it was military stragy.”

    You’re right, but it was still determined by the idea of wiping out an entire race. Punishing the whole for the acts of the few (or, in this case, one person). The very fact that Ozai was prepared to exterminate a whole nation of people shows that he did not regard them as human beings but as obstacles, a notion that is an essential component of racism. They were all the same to him: a faceless group of people containing a single threat. True, he would have shown the same treatment toward the Earth Kingdom if that had been the case, but in the end, you could say that he was an ethnic chauvinist. He believed that he and his kingdom were superior over all and that their interests trumped the well-being of others. That very belief required the idea that the other nations and their peoples were lesser than his, an idea which, if you get to the bottom of it, is racist.

    “They are all the same poeple just in different nations, not races. Jet hated the fire nation, yes, but he couldn’t tell that Zuko and Iroh were fire nation until he saw them fire bend. Team Avatar had no problem hiding out in the fire nation cities with a simple change of clothing. Zuko traveled alone for a time and received help from villagers and nobody accused him of being fire nation until he bended. They are all the same people, just different nations. Hence no race issue. Its like Guatamalans and Mexicans, different nations, same race. “

    Exactly, except in this case, the race is Asian. You’re right, they’re all the same race – they’re *all Asian.* Or, to be technical again, they’re all part of a fictional race that is heavily based on the Asian race. So, why did Shyamalan have to cast non-Asian actors?

    “These actors might be bad choices, I just don’t think the race of the actor matters as much as acting ability.”

    I’m afraid that we’ll just have to agree to disagree on that one.

    “Do Asians have an uphill battle in hollywood? Yes, I would say so. Just like any minority in the US. But the problem is on both sides. If you look at Mexican Novelas, made in mexico by mexicans, the leads are almost always very white because thats what the poeple want to see on tv. Even in Bollywood, the most popular stars are much lighter than the vast population of India. People in general, all ethnicities included, want to see the prettiest people on tv and in movies, and the prevailing opinion of beauty tends to be lite complected people.”

    That’s true, but it doesn’t make it right. You’re right, light-skinned people tend to gain the most coverage in media around the world – from Latin America to East Asia. But that’s not a good thing. I’m not saying that whitewashing media is an exclusively American problem. Certainly not. For example, as I mentioned earlier on this thread, France is about to make a movie about Alexandre Dumas, who was biracial in real life. They’ve chosen the all-white Gerard Depardieu to play him. Now is Depardieu a fantastic actor? Absolutely. I loved him in “Cyrano de Bergerac” and “Danton.” But a lot of people are upset because choosing a white actor to play Dumas does not hold true to who the man was or to the struggles and hardships he endured precisely because of his mixed ethnic background.

    “The movement to change that opinion is good and is gaining ground, but I don’t think this movie should be boycotted like many want to based on so called whitewashing when it could very well play a major role in bringing many asian actors to prominence.”

    Which Asian actors, though? The ones who serve as background extras? The ones who are playing villains? Dev Patel had an interview with W Magazine recently, where he talked about his fears of losing work in Hollywood, even though he was just in an Academy Award-winning film. How many Americans remember Parminder Nagra, who played the lead in “Bend it like Beckham?” Keira Knightley’s career certainly skyrocketed, but did hers? It shouldn’t have to be this way. Asian actors should not have to star in movies that whitewash and diminish their cultures in order to gain roles, just like women should not have to star in misogynistic romance comedies in order to gain prominence in Hollywood.

    Also, boycotting is a way to bring attention to this issue. If nobody protests, if nobody cares, then why should Hollywood? Blackface didn’t just end with Hollywood suddenly deciding that it was wrong and choosing to end it.

    “Now, I suppose I can admit that I very much appreciate the effort the creators went through to make the trilogy seem authentic, or real. From the martial arts to the building design to the clothing and the Chinese letters (are they all chinese?) all over the place. It does seem out of place to have such, um, gringos do the parts. But I also know that they traveled to places like Iceland to find inspiration for the layout of the lands, and what about the swamp tribe? They were definitely based more on bayou hillbillys than anyone asian.”

    That’s a common misconception. The Swamp Tribe is more likely based on the Vietnamese. The reason why they had Southern bayou accents is because the show was geared toward an American audience. A lot of Americans associate Southerners with being hillbillies (no offense to Southerners!), and since there’s a lot of swampland in the South, the creators assumed that American children would make that connection. The show has been dubbed in other languages and I’m sure that those countries have inserted their own equivalents of the “rural, hillbilly type” into the voice acting. I’m not sure what the equivalent is in France, for example, but they probably chose people to do an accent or dialect from a region in France that is considered backwater for the Swamp Tribe. It’s all a matter of cultural context.

    “So although asian actors should be the obvious choice, I just don’t thing race matters in the story. Besides, Lord of the Rings was successful because the actors portrayed the characters accurately, not because they looked like the characters, and most the fans forgave the many changes made because the story was still believable and felt like the real deal.”

    I doubt the fans would have forgiven the changes if Aragorn had been played by Denzel Washington and Galadriel had been played by Halle Berry. Also, even though there were certainly changes made, the overall movies were still faithful to the source material. Peter Jackson seriously spent a lot of time and effort making sure that the details were right and the overall themes were still there. The story was still believable and felt like the real deal, because of his efforts. For that amount of dedication and perseverance, he won an Oscar. I doubt the same could be said for Shyamalan.

    “But I had a hard time with Harry Potter movies because, although the actors fit the description, mostly, I think they acted poorly (specifically Harry, Hermione, and Ron). So I think that if the actors can pull off the characters well then much will be forgiven, but we will just have to wait and see.”

    Whatever one may think about the acting abilities of Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson, we can all agree that they are believable as the characters they’ve been chosen to portray. You look at Daniel Radcliffe as Harry and think, “Yes, that’s Harry.” You look at Rupert Grint and think, “That’s Ron, Harry’s redheaded best friend.” It would be much more difficult to accept that these actors were the people they were playing if they didn’t look like them. If the actor playing Harry was blond, for instance, and didn’t wear glasses as part of his role, would you really believe that he was Harry Potter, even if he was a brilliant actor?

    “By the way, just in case you can’t tell because I don’t think I am the best writer or debater, I do love Avatar: The Last Airbender and consider it a great epic story on the same level as Lord of the Rings, Wheel of Time, Harry Potter or any of your favorites. I feel nervous that M Night either doesn’t care enough to do it justice or simply isn’t talented enough to do it justice.”

    I do, too. I don’t think that M. Night will do it justice, and it’s really sad, because, like you said, “Avatar: The Last Airbender” is a great story. We both love the show and I’m glad that we have that in common.

    And just before I forget, I apologize if I sounded condescending, patronizing, or snippy in my last comment to you, especially regarding the eye colors. It’s just that I’ve seen a lot of pro-casters who have used that same argument and who have not been the most courteous or respectful in presenting it, either to the protesters or to Asians in general and I was feeling frustrated. You may not think you are the best writer or debater, but you’ve been very civil in our debate, and I should have responded in kind. As I said before, we’ll just have to agree to disagree. :)

  • Jadedfairytale89

    The politics involved with representation are more complicated than so and so is a great actor so he/she can play this part.  Some of the posts on here are thoughtful and reflective about the economic and racial inequalities that are played out in Hollywood. But the original blog that dismisses the significance of white-washing as “no big deal” is highly problematic. Socially repressing who is and is not allowed to have access to lucrative parts in films and ignoring the need for more people of color to adequately represent themselves in the media keeps from criticizing the power structure.