Colorblind (and Only Seeing White)
By Reuben Baron
There’s been much debate on the news about if we’re living in a “post-racial society.” The main issue of contention has if the angry protests of the Obama administration have to do with race. Passing under the radar is an issue that’s soon going to be on everyone’s radar: next year’s summer blockbusters. The entertainment industry has always been problematic in their treatment of race, from the heyday of blackface and yellowface to denying Bruce Lee a starring role in Kung Fu, a show of his creation, and replacing him with white actor David Carradine to the computer-animated minstrel acts of Jar Jar Binks, Mudflap, and Skids to last year’s 21, in which the true story of a mostly Asian-American group of MIT students was cast with almost all white actors. Two of next summer’s biggest films, The Last Airbender and The Prince of Persia, continue the tradition of denying actors of color roles written for them. If Hollywood is anything to go by, and if the masses still buy tickets to these films despite many reasons not to, then it can be safely said that the “post-racial society” is nothing but a myth.
The Nickelodeon cartoon series Avatar: The Last Airbender won high acclaim, including an Emmy and a Peabody, for its detailed, well-researched fantasy world based on Asian and Native American mythology. The live-action movie adaptation titled The Last Airbender (Avatar has been reserved as the title of a very different and quite awesome-looking James Cameron sci-fi extravaganza) looks to betray the very qualities that made the cartoon so successful. The hero, Aang, a character from a culture clearly based on Tibetan Buddhism, is being played by a white kid named Noah Ringer, while the characters of Katara and Sokka, from the dark-skinned Inuit-influenced Water Tribe, have also been cast with white actors, Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone (who based on his presence in Twilight and S. Darko, Donnie Darko’s pointless sequel, seems to be a curse on any film set he sets foot upon).
Initially the main antagonist Zuko was going to be played by Jesse McCartney, but in an attempt to quiet complaints about the whitewashed casting, Paramount recast the role with Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire fame and similarly cast the remaining imperialist Fire Nation characters with assorted people of color (except for the most powerful and one of the few heroic Fire Nation citizens, Avatar Roku, who’s been cast with a white actor). So now the film has been changed into a story where heroic white people fight evil, dark-skinned, mostly Middle-Eastern people. The Last Airbender’s casting is not just racist but potentially sexist if the rumors of Avatar Kyoshi being turned into a man are true. It looks like a horrible adaptation, with the TV series’ accurate calligraphy and martial arts replaced with jibberish writing and fight choreography by the guy who did Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of Crystal Skull, and given the failing recent track record of director M. Night Shyamalan (ironically one of the few big-name Asian-American directors in Hollywood but also apparently quite desperate for an easily marketable hit), it’s very likely to be a bad movie.
(Really major irony: one of the casting directors for Airbender, DeeDee Rickets, also was a casting director for Tropic Thunder, a movie making fun of Hollywood racism.)
It probably was inevitable Airbender would get screwed up, given the low track record of live-action movies based on cartoons. The only genre with a worse record is live-action movies based on videogames, which the Prince of Persia movie happens to be. Disney actually held a poll a few years back to see whom fans would want to play the titular Prince. The winner by a wide margin was David K. Zandi, an actor who also happens to be actual Persian royalty. So who is cast in the end for the role? Jake Gyllenhall. White actress Gemma Arteron is playing the Princess of India in the movie. There’s one piece of ethnically accurate casting among the leads: Ben Kingsley as the evil Nizam. A shame the only major roles he can get these days are villains in videogame movies.
Defenders of the studios say that they don’t care about race regarding casting. This is a lie; the casting call for the four main roles in The Last Airbender specified a preference for Caucasians (see http://www.racebending.com/v2/why-does-racebending-com-exist/the-language-of-casting). Defenders also say they’re just picking the best actors. This is wrong too: Shyamalan in an interview said himself they didn’t pick Noah Ringer for his acting skills. He also stated Dev Patel was the best actor for Zuko, but if that was the case why was Jesse McCartney initially cast? With those arguments invalidated, the casting is clearly shown to be problematic.
It’s too late to change the casting for either of these two movies. A boycott, however, will hopefully send a message and save people a good $22.