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

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

Should white actors play Asian and Inuit characters?

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

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

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

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