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.