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such a nasty woman | by maryann johanson

wtf: M. Night Shyamalan on why the whitewashing of ‘The Last Airbender’ totally isn’t racist

Look, I love white people. Some of my best friends are white. But that doesn’t mean that I want to see white people in every movie, particularly if they don’t belong there. Like in The Last Airbender, which is based on a cartoon in which the characters are clearly from Inuit- and Asian-flavored cultures and yet, when we come to finished film, we find that almost everyone is Caucasian… except the villains, who are played by dark-skinned actors of Indian and Maori descent.

Shyamalan tells Sci Fi Wire:

Anime is based on ambiguous facial features. It’s part of the art form. You got a problem with that? Talk to the dudes who invented anime. It’s not my issue, OK? That girl [Katara] looks like my daughter. That boy [Aang] looks like Noah [Ringer]. There is no Inuit that looks like Katara. It’s not true. It’s just not true. She looks like my daughter. My daughter is a dupe of Katara. Our family saw ourselves in it. A Hispanic family saw themselves in it. My daughter’s best friend is Hispanic. She saw it, and their whole family thinks they’re all Hispanic, and that’s true. That’s the beauty of anime, [that] we all see ourselves as incredibly ambiguous and diverse. I wanted to be diverse. I wanted to be more diverse. I had to [build upon] whoever came in, the cultures that came in. This wasn’t an agenda for me. It was just very open to me.

He’s right, of course, about the anime original:

The characters are ethnically ambiguous in their facial features. But not in their surroundings. We can take cues from their cultures about what they would look like if they weren’t anime-style drawings. You don’t have to know a damn thing about Avatar: The Last Airbender, the source material, to intuit from this image that the two characters on the left are from an Inuit-influenced culture and that the two rightmost characters are from Asian-influenced cultures.

Shyamalan tells the Orlando Sentinel:

We wanted the Asian cultures — Indian, Thai, whatever — to be influencing the feeling and look of the movie. But it’s myth. So a building couldn’t look like a pagoda. A temple couldn’t look like Angkor Wat. Visually, and in terms of language and actors, it couldn’t be specific. I didn’t want people to know where we were in the world. I wanted this world to be to Asia what Medieval Europe was to Lord of the Rings.

That’s an excellent analogy, in fact. The vaguely medieval fantasy alt-Europe that is Middle Earth is populated, in Peter Jackson’s film trilogy, with white actors of European extraction, as we might expect. And Shyamalan’s Last Airbender fantasy alt-Asia is populated by Asian actors, right?


It cannot be coincidence that where Shyamalan saw ambiguity, he translated it into “white folk”… except for the bad-guy Fire Nation people, who are dark-skinned. It cannot be a coincidence because this is what Hollywood has almost always done: used white skin as shorthand for goodness and dark skin — or anyone non-Caucasian — as shorthand for badness. And it doesn’t matter what color Shyamalan’s skin is, because he is working within Hollywood’s dictates. It’s very easy to imagine that he would have had a helluva time convincing the Hollywood executives who financed his movie to let him cast Asian and Inuit or Native actors in sympathetic protagonist roles… assuming he even bothered to try. With his recent track record of critical and box office flops, it seems unlikely that he would have pressed his luck.

Oh, and about Dev Patel’s Prince Zuko being a villain? Shyamalan tells Rediff Movies:

The main characters of the film are Noah (Ringer as Aang) and Dev (Patel as Prince Zuko) and they are the heroes of the series.

Dev is on a darker journey that ends very heroic. He is the Shakespearean Hamlet character. And the Uncle Iroh who is basically the Yoda, the Obi-Wan Kenobi character is played by Shaun Toub. These are the most beloved characters in the series.

If this is true, if Zuko is meant to be a hero and Iroh is meant to be a beloved old philosopher warrior, someone should have told Shyamalan’s screenwriter that, because there is absolutely no hint of anything remotely like that in the film.

Oh, but wait: Shyamalan wrote the script. It’s his fault there’s nothing heroic or beloved-ering about Zuko.

And try as he might, he’s not gonna dig his way out of accusations of whitewashing his film. It’s too blatant, too obvious, too disappointing to be explained away.

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  • Kevin

    Actually, the three leads of The Last Airbender look almost EXACTLY like the characters in the image you posted.

    P.C. bullshit…

  • nyjm

    The mystery of how Shyamalan’s first two films were so great keeps getting deeper and deeper. Part of me wonders if I should feel bad for a would-be auteur who, after a couple of missteps, has become a blatant lackey for Hollywood suits.

  • Orangutan

    Patel looks NOTHING like Zuko. Not even remotely. Hell, as far as I can tell from that picture, he’s not even vaguely scarred, let alone horribly disfigured.

    The only one who resembles his character, to my eye, is Noah Ringer as Aang. Sokka MAYBE.

  • Alryssa

    But this is the thing: Anime characters are really -not- that ambiguous in their facial features. Here’s a good visual explanation as to why they are very definitely Asian and not Caucasian:


  • JoshB

    Thanks for the link Alryssa, the video is fascinating and funny.

  • Candace

    Kevin, if you want a better idea of why fans are so pissed off take a look at this image:


  • t6
  • t6

    Oh…and if you don’t like reading, here are some video clips:


  • vucubcaquix

    You beat me to the punch, Candace. I was actually going to mention that in the cartoon’s own official promotional artwork like the one posted in MaryAnn’s entry Katara herself tends to be inexplicably lightened. Perhaps an issue with Nickelodeon’s marketing team?

    In the show itself she is very much brown. I would have a much easier time seeing someone with Zoe Saldana’s or Beyonce’s skin tone (but younger since the character is in her very early teens) in the role:


  • vucubcaquix

    Also, I actually don’t have a problem with Aang’s casting, I thought he looked suitably similar.

    Not that I’ve seen the movie or anything.

    Or plan to.

  • stchivo

    M Night is really showing how ignorant he is and how stupid he thinks we are. I always try to see both sides of an argument and I really gave him a lot of slack because I really wanted the movie to be good. But now that I have seen it I am offended on many levels. He didn’t even try to make the movie good, I enjoyed Mortal Kombat 1 AND 2 better than this, (at least those had catchy techno tunes) and I know how bad those were. I suppose he really didn’t care about race seeing as how he didn’t care about anything else in this movie.
    ….except he did proudly announce at the end the he wrote the thing, so I guess he is just dumb

  • CB


    Hey, I have a question. Mr. Shyamalan and anyone else who doesn’t see this as an obvious whitewashing:

    If the characters’ ethnicity is so ambiguous and open to interpretation and you wanted to be ‘diverse’, how come your interpretation was that the good guys are all white, and the bad guys are all Asian?

    Oh wait, slight change… the good guys aren’t all white, just the ones who matter and actually do anything. Yay, diversity!

  • JoshDM

    The kid playing live action Aang looks like animated Aang. In fact, he looks more Asian than animated Aang.

  • stchivo

    “The kid playing live action Aang looks like animated Aang. In fact, he looks more Asian than animated Aang”

    In the screen shots I agree, I have even argued in favor for Noah. But after seeing it, the acting was so bad I didn’t believe I was watching “Aang” for one second. He did not protray the character very well, but that is M Nights fault more than anything for not giving the poor kid any kind of direction. Before it was released M Night’s claim was that he was the best fit for the part, but I just can’t believe that after seeing the movie. Kudos to the kid for his martial arts skills, but that really should have taken a back seat to acting ability/experience and ethnicity. CGI and a good trainer can make anybody look like they have mad fighting skills.

  • Dymphna

    Seconding what stchivo said.

    The acting is where his claim that he just gave the parts to the best candidates falls down. Hard.

  • D

    Kevin: ”

    Actually, the three leads of The Last Airbender look almost EXACTLY like the characters in the image you posted.

    P.C. bullshit…”

    YES, Kevin, Maryann actualy concedes that in this post. What part of:”The characters are ethnically ambiguous in their facial features.” dind’t you read? Or, more importantly, what part of: “But not in their surroundings” dind’t you get? Or where just randomly looking for something to downplay everytime someone gets their arms up about race? Because, yeah, it is easy to say words like “politicaly correct bullshit”, when, funnily enough, you never had to deal with race issues aimed at you in your entire life. Of course, while growing up, you always had white heroes who you could identify with. And now it doesn’t matter, because you have already grown up, but lots asian children were yet again deprive of heroes who they could fantasise being, FOR ABSOLUTELY NO LOGICAL REASON. The only possible economic(but never moral) justification for whitewashing is to replace non-caucasian characters with an all-star cast. If uncle Iroh had been played by, i don’t know, out of the top of my head, Tom Hanks, the studios would be financialy justified. But seriously, what difference would it have made to cast a corean, japanese or chinese boy as Aang? Seriously, are there no asian child actors available, not even if would have to go looking in other countries. Not that there aren´t enough asians who would like a better at acting in America.
    You know what, just read MJ post again, pay attention to it, and if you still don’t agree,try coming up with something less cliche to say.

  • amanohyo

    CGI and a good trainer can make anybody look like they have mad fighting skills.

    In most cases, I disagree with that statement. The illusion of average fighting skills maybe… barely… with the aid of epileptic editing. It’s a bit like saying that a decent script and good direction can make anybody look like they have mad acting skills. Just as you can’t fake truly awesome acting, you can’t fake physical grace in martial arts fighting scenes (with the exception of CG-ing a head on a stunt double which is usually obvious). A prime example would be the risible “I know kung-fu” action scenes in the Matrix movies; the best trainers, fight choreographers, and CGI money could buy produced nothing but a string of dull, clumsy puppet shows.

    There’s nothing wrong with hiring a kid who’s got some martial arts training. With a decent script to work off of and a good director, you can coax an average (not awesome) performance out of most child actors. That’s all anyone was hoping from these kids anyway, but Shyamalan went and pulled a George Lucas. Of course no one was willing to step up and say, “you are a terrible writer and these performances don’t cut the mustard.” I feel sorry for the poor editor(s) if what ended up in the final cut was the best she and/or he had to work with. Where are your standards Shyamalan?

  • amanohyo

    I agree with D – although the actors do look like their cartoon counterparts, when the universe appropriates so much from east asian and inuit cultures it’s insulting to cast all the good guys white, especially when they’re all no name actors anyway. As a kid, I was so happy to see Jonathan Ke Quan in Goonies and Temple of Doom even if he was playing to stereotypes. There are many more asian kids in America today- must they always identify with the white kid on the movie screen (or more recently, Will Smith’s privileged progeny)?

    As with most of these racism/sexism in the movies complaints, it’s not that we never want to see a movie with an all white cast of good guys. It’s that this movie is part of a larger pattern. When 90+% of the “good” main characters in kids’ movies are white boys, and around 35% of the children in the audience are white boys, something ain’t right. Not only is it a disservice to imply to some kids that people who look like them can’t be the hero, it’s insulting to white boys to assume that they couldn’t (or shouldn’t) identify with non-white and/or non-male protagonists from time to time.

  • Isobel

    There seems to be a real pretension among white people (and I’m white) that race issues no longer exist, and that by bringing up the fact that they still blatantly do exist, people are being racsist. It’s crazy.

    Something on one of those links really pinged, too, about non-whites in the USA (and it happens all the time here in the UK too) being asked where they’re from, even if they have an American (or some kind of English) accent. A friend of mine gets this all the time – she’s from Sheffield, and has a fairly strong Sheffield accent. Her grandmother is Grenadan and came to the UK when she was a child, and yet Charlie is always asked where she’s from, despite her regional UK accent and the fact that actually half of her family are white. The only time I’d ask where someone was from originally was if they didn’t have some kind of English accent. Otherwise, they’re English as far as I’m concerned.

    I also got hugely irritated by that film (I forget the name) about Hawaii, where they had the Hawaian Princess played by someone who didn’t look even remotely polynesian (I think the actress was of South American descent). Hollywood either whitewashes (like Catherine Zeta Jones playing a Mexican woman in Zorro) or just bungs any brown person into a role, as if all ethnicities are interchangable.

  • when the universe appropriates so much from east asian and inuit cultures it’s insulting to cast all the good guys white

    Firefly always seems to get a pass here. I watched about half the episodes and the movie, and the only Asian faces I remember seeing were comfortably in the background. Not a bad show, but for all the swearing in mangled Mandarin and Chinese writing on every surface, Grey’s Anatomy had a more Asian cast.

    I have to say I was shocked by the video linked above. No, not that anime characters are Asian, but that people thought they weren’t. The video didn’t mention the most obvious bit for me: the hair on the men. I have seen men in Korea and Japan with Goku hair. And not cosplaying. That anybody over age six thinks Shampoo is white boggles my mind. I suppose I lost touch with mainstream America when I lived in Korea.

    And you know something? Not a bad thing to lose touch with.

  • Ogami Itto


    By Shyamalan’s first two films you mean these, right?



    The guy’s a hack, has always been a hack, and simply got lucky once or twice (depending on which of his movies one likes). Shyamalan’s seemingly fathomless arrogance doesn’t help matters either.

  • Kai

    There are many more asian kids in America today- must they always identify with the white kid on the movie screen (or more recently, Will Smith’s privileged progeny)?

    I love how you try to erase Jaden Smith’s race by pointing out his class privilege, as if there aren’t black children in the audiences who are also long overdue for more black heroes and main characters.

  • Knightgee

    Oh, M. Night. Can you do nothing right?

  • amanohyo

    Kai, while I don’t think much of Jaden Smith’s acting, mentioning his powerful connections was not an attempt to erase his race. I wanted to draw attention to the fact that even getting an african american boy in a starring role requires that you be able to pull some important industry strings.

    If you have to be the son of Will Smith to be a non-white child movie star when african americans make up nearly 15% of the population, what does that say about the chances of an asian american child being given the chance to be the hero? I’m sorry if it sounds as if I’m entering the oppression olympics or saying that african american children aren’t just as deserving of having black heroes they can identify with in mainstream movies. That is not my intention.

    I am very hopeful that Jayden’s performance will open the doors for more non-white child actors. It’s been eight years since Whale Rider (and Lilo and Stich) came out after all.

  • Boingo

    I have no idea where Shyalaman’s head was at insisting
    the similarities with his own kid, etc. I can only
    guess (set up for kowtowing to the money guys for the next big project?)?.
    It may be most “rock star” status puts some in a bubble.
    I do know Hollywood was extremely slow in having any motives to right the inequalities of the social landscape-down right complicit in cementing stereotypes.

    I do know, after reading other sites, that this site
    was most direct,and in-yo-face about it. After all, perceptions are formed at an early age.

    I won’t see this flick. I won’t recommend it to my friend who takes his nephews,and nieces to the movies
    every weekend. The whole thread has been more
    interesting than half the movies I’ve seen this year.

  • JXN

    There’s a small problem with all the credit being given to Noah Ringer as a Martial artist; Most (60-70%)of his fight work was done by a Young woman named Jade Quon. The effects people used CGI to put Ringer’s face on her body. You can actually tell when she’s on screen if you look at Ringer and how he moves then compare that to the grace and polish Aang displays during fights.

  • kathleen

    If he is saying the casting was based on who looked most like the character (which is stupid because I would rather someone who was good at acting and could convey the feelings of the character a thousand times over someone who just looked similar) then he needs to get his eyes checked.

    I agree that the kid does look a bit like Aang and a case could be made for him playing the part. I do not think any other the other actors look at all like their cartoon counterparts.

    The real tragedy here is the story itself . So disappointing. They had so much to work with and failed so horribly.

    Also yes *SSPOILERS* Zuko is ultimately more heroic and has in my opinion the greatest emotional journey in this series but that plays out in the second season so you really wouldn’t see that it this movie.

  • CB

    Firefly always seems to get a pass here. I watched about half the episodes and the movie, and the only Asian faces I remember seeing were comfortably in the background. Not a bad show, but for all the swearing in mangled Mandarin and Chinese writing on every surface, Grey’s Anatomy had a more Asian cast.

    Not me. To me, it’s the single biggest flaw with the series. Joss went out of his way to create a world that was supposed to be a mix of Chinese and American, but there are no Chinese people outside of the background. I’ve heard some highly contrived explanations from fans. They just happen to be on the white half of the ‘verse; all the Chinese people are in the core (cus they obviously would stick to the Alliance being collectivists and all) even though they visit a core planet and it’s more lily-white than any of the others. Pretty weak to explain why not one character, even one who only shows up for one episode, is Chinese. Might as well have used a Trek-like “in the future humanity acts as one, but we’re all Western” universe and just come up with a different way for people to swear on TV. :P

    At least he wasn’t starting from source material where the captain of Serenity was Asian and he decided to make him white. :P

  • Newbia

    Serenity gets a pass because at least all the actors are *good*. The lack of diversity is disappointing but at least every actor was really the best for the job and a joy to watch. In Avatar all the actors are terrible (except, ironically, the dark-skinned villains), so there’s really no excuse.

    The racism in the casting of this film is made blatantly obvious when you look at the casting call. http://www.racebending.com/v3/background/caucasian-or-any-other-ethnicity/
    For the main characters, the casting call asked for “Caucasian or any other ethnicity.” For all the secondary characters, the casting call asked for “near eastern, middle eastern, far eastern, Asian, Mediterranean and Latino ethnic groups.” The call also asked for those ethnic actors to dress in “the traditional costume of your family’s ethnic background.”

    Here’s the crowning moment of *headdesk*, from the casting director:
    “We want you to dress in traditional cultural ethnic attire. If you’re Korean, wear a kimono. If you’re from Belgium, wear lederhosen.”


  • Codyarthur

    Despite Noah slightly looking like aang, his acting is terrible and his personality totally different than aang… Kataras actor sucked, sokkas was ok, but I think the original voice actor wouldve been better, along with his cheesy jokes and a few SLAPPAPOW’s thrown in…

  • itzmurda

    Author is a racist and he should be made an example out of. I didn’t want to see a black Honeymooners or Karate Kid. But we have to live with it. Apparently its only cool to point out if whites are the actors.

  • Elizabeth Miller

    Shyamalan is an idiot. Those were the dumbest explanations I have ever heard. Basically his funders wanted white actors and he had to give them what they wanted.

  • Elizabeth Miller

    You must be color blind or dumb. Clearly the brother and sister in the cartoon are darker and of Inuit culture.

    Do these characters look white?


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