[Sound of the The Last Airbender teaser trailer play]
[Trailer Narrator] He is the last of his kind.
All that remains of a once-powerful nation.
Some think he is a myth.
Some believe he is the Chosen One, who will bring balance to a world at war.
And some will stop at nothing to destroy him.
[Welch] That's the teaser trailer for M. Night Shyamalan's work-in-progress, due for release about a year from now in July 2010. It has already engendered at least two protest groups, protest petitions, video'd... web protests, and a growing threat of a boycott. The name of the film is Avatar: The Last Airbender. Mister Shamah—Shyamalan—I keep looking at that name and trying to pronounce it differently than it's supposed to be pronounced... Mr. Shyamalan, the award-winning director of The Sixth Sense, The Happening, etc., got the idea from his daughter's Halloween costume. She wanted to be Katara, from an animated children's fantasy series she watched on Nickelodeon, coincidentally also named Avatar: The Last Airbender. The TV series was an Asian-inspired, Asian-themed, Asian-charactered, even Asian-language, story of a young hero with superpowers, who has to unite the world of Avatar in order to save it.
In Mr. Shyamalan's version, everything stays mostly the same, except the main actors are now Caucasian. The protest of this all-too familiar and ultimately racist Hollywood practice has revealed some uniquely modern challenges. The old lies were blatant: "There are no capable Asian / black / Hispanic actors. That's why we have to paint white actors yellow, brown and black"—whiteface, yellowface, brownface, blackface. The modern lies are subtler: "It doesn't matter what color the actor is--he could be green! Can't we all just get along?"
Does the multi-culti image of our modern society help or hinder efforts towards justice, equality, and organizing? How do we honor and maintain separate traditions and histories while building unity? And to approach these questions we have, joining us by phone, Dr. S. L. Lee, who provided Chinese calligraphy and translation for Nickelodeon's series. And good afternoon to you, Dr. Lee.
[Dr. Lee] Good afternoon.
[Welch] And we will be joined by Phil Lee. In fact, Matt, if you could, uh, call him on that phone over there? But don't... right there... here's the number. Um. Who is with the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, which has been trying to get a meeting with Paramount Pictures, which is producing the Hollywood version. And Emmy Pierce, who is here in-studio, and interning at KPFA this summer. She's the one who brought the story to my attention. She's written a research paper on Avatar, the surrounding controversy, and its broader political implications. And I do want to start with you.
Uh, Emmy... in your paper, you, uh, mention—you conclude that this situation, with the movie and the TV show and the controversy, tells us that we have a long way to go before we reach true pan-ethnicity. You can elaborate on that, but.... She's trying to help Matt make the phone call. What is the... ha! Girl, I'll take care of him. You, you just focus, okay? On, on your....
What, what is pan-ethnicity? What is that theory? What is the scholarship? I know you wanted me to change it to Asian ethnic—pan—what. Just explain it to me. That term.
[Pierce] Well, the idea of pan-ethnicity is, um, as Pei-te Lien says, the idea that people of divergent ethnic origins can identify with each other, based on certain common characteristics or shared experiences and interests. And in the case of Asian pan-ethnicity, that... that refers to the fact that... when you talk about American, you know, Asian-Americans, that really encompasses a lot of different people. Because Asia is a really big place. So when you talk, when most people talk about Asian-Americans, what they really are talking about is pan-Asian America. Um, that is, Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans, Vietnamese Americans, Indian Americans. Um. So, a lot of scholars have done a bunch of research about, um, the different ways in which, you know, different kinds of pressures can force, in some cases, groups to coalesce in that way.
For example, it's—in fact, you know, the fact that we have a term "Asian-American" actually grew organically because, it was during the Asian-American movement that Asian-Americans decided they were tired of being called "Oriental." And they recognized that, a lot of people couldn't tell the difference between a Chinese-American and a Japanese-American, and decided that, "Well, y'know, if everybody else thinks that we're all the same, we might as well make use of that. Clearly we have a common interest. And we have common threats." So, that's basically how the, um, how the pan-Asian, or the Asian-American movement happened.
[Welch] And what's the, what's the timeframe for this? Years, you know, chronologically speaking.
[Pierce] Uh, that was, um... during the whole Vietnam War period.
[Pierce] So when there's a whole lot of protests going on. Which is, I think, a part of the reason why nobody really knows about the Asian-American movement. There was just so much going on during that period, that it gets really overshadowed. And in fact the Asian-American movement did partake in the, um, anti-war movement, because, y'know, some people saw it as a blatantly racist war. Um. So, that's I think part of the reason why it hasn't gotten a whole lot of attention.
[Welch] I just want to make sure that Dr. Lee is still with us. Are you there?
[Dr. Lee] Yes, I'm here.
[Dr. Lee] I'm listening.
[Welch] All right. So, E-Emmy, tell me, what does the Avatar story all about?
[Pierce] Well, the story of Avatar takes place in a fantasty setting, where the entire world is divided into four nations, each based on one of the four elements: Air, Fire, Water, and Earth. Um. So... uh... w-within each of these nations there are certain people who have unique abilities. That is, they have the ability to manipulate the element for which their nation is named. So, they're, they're called "benders". So you have Earthbenders, who manipulate earth, they mostly live in the Earth Kingdom. There's one character, who's born into every generation, and he has the ability to manipulate all four elements. He's called the Avatar, the title character of the show, and it's his job to maintain peace and stability between all the four nations.
Now, at the beginning of the show, however, um, the status of the world is not quite as tranquil as the Avatar is trying to make it. The Fire Nation has decided to, basically, take over the world. And, unfortunately for the world, the Avatar chose that moment to disappear from the face of the planet. So, at the start of the television series, the world has been at war for 100 years. The Avatar has been in hiding, or something--nobody knows where he is--for a hundred years. And, y'know, the situation is looking very dire.
Um. And, the thing about the show is that it makes use of a lot of very obviously Asian philosophies and cultures. Um. The entire... all the cultures of the show, you can see where they come from. Uh... y'know, there are characters in the Earth Kingdom who wear traditional Korean hanboks (which I'm probably mispronouncing). Um, but, the traditional Ch--um, Korean garb, and it's an exact replica, really, of what it looks like. And there are other characters... the entire Water Tribe is based, very clearly, on Inuit and Yupik, um, cultures. They live, essentially, in igloos. And they wear furs, and they have features very clearly similar to what most people think of when they think of Inuit or Yupik. So....
[Welch] And in fact that's where Mr. Shyamalan has already begun filming, in Greenland, with that.
[Pierce] Yes! They've started--um, there are pictures out and about on the internet of, um, large teepees, basically, made of, y'know, large logs covered with fur, which suggests that they're keeping with the, uh, sort of Inuit theme. But, uh, the problem there is that the girl they've cast for the part of Katara, uh, Nicola Peltz, is very much Caucasian. Um. And, y'know, no... nobody is quite sure at this point if they're planning to have the Water Tribe be Caucasian, or if they're planning to ha--to put them in, essentially, yellowface or brownface. Um. At this point it looks like they're going to be Caucasian. Um. Because, y'know, what they've done with the other characters is, uh, they've, they've cast the rest of the nations according to the main cast. Which, originally was all Caucasians.
[Welch] Well, yes, Dr. Lee, go ahead.
[Dr. Lee] Yeah, um... I got involved in this translation and calligraphy, Chinese calligraphy, mainly because I think they have a very excellent theme of, uh, blending in all the different ethnicities, and trying to resolve the conflicts, and, uh, retrace [I'm not sure if that's the right word. -Ske] peaceful and harmony, uh, harmonious society with all these different elements, different ethnicities.
[Welch] Yes, that's the whole point of the Avatar series, mm-hmm?
[Dr. Lee] (simultaneous) That's the whole point.
Right. So, and, uh, when Bryan and Mike--actually, Bryan is the one who contacted me--
[Welch] These are the writers of the original series.
[Dr. Lee] These are the creators and writers, and, and the illustrators of the show. Um. I, I looked at their theme, and the concept of the whole wi--uh, show. And that's what I felt, "This was a great one to be involved." And, since I'm, uh, also a member of the Chine--uh, the Organization of Chinese-Americans, and--which is an organization, a national organization that just promotes, uh, not only our heritage but also the, the social justice and, uh, aspiration of Asian-Americans. So, this is something that I would love to, to do.
And, uh, the, the thing is now, the casting itself is becoming a very controversial subject. And, uh, it has happened before. When there were very few Chinese-Americans in America, in... before 1950s, and actually Chinese was, uh, excluded, for a long time. If you'll remember, uh, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act that--Chinese was the only one, ethnics, or, or nationality, that's excluded from immigration to United States. So this was not, um, relieved until the 1940s, really. And, uh, still there were quotas, and, and... until 1960s, that it was totally, uh, removed from the immigration regulations. So, there were very few Chinese actors, or actresses, qualified, or actually available, to do this kind of, uh, casting. However, since the 1960s, there were a lot of immigrants from Asia, including Chinese and Japanese and als--and many other nationalities. That there shouldn't be any problem of selecting, from a very wide, uh, arena of candidates, to cast this show. And I was very puzzled by why there is absolutely no Asians--other than a South Asian. I think finally there was chosen an Indian in the cast. As one of the evil characters, I was told. I'm not sure about the recent developments, because I don't follow that very well. However, I feel that this is totally off the theme of the original TV show. And I don't think that would be a successful factor [Again, not sure if that's the right word]. Uh, the reason why this TV show is now in, uh, a syndicated show in a hundred-some countries, is because of the idea of having different ethnicities involved, in the animated series. And so I think that should be the same with a movie.
Now, about the calligraphy part. I need to say that I'm not sure what the decision is now, but there was a, uh, I was told that they were almost about to eliminate calligraphy altogether. And, uh, replacing that with some kind of secret code, a mysterious code, of some sort. That is non-language. Which comes back to all kinds of other, uh, shows that were used to portray Asian themes, and with all the non-language written. And, I think that is something that, that really jeopardizes on the success of the previous TV series. So, um, I don't know what, uh, the audience is looking at, but I think the Asian audience would certainly love to see the authentic stuff, including martial arts and calligraphy.
[Welch] Indeed, I'm sure they would. Emmy?
[Pierce] Yeah, I definitely want to agree with what you said, Dr. Lee, about, um, the spirit of the show being that multi-ethnic cooperation. Because something I noted was that, it's inherent in the very design of the show. That Aang, the Avatar, has to travel to all corners of the earth, he has to master the basic elements of all these different cultures / ethnicities / races / whatever you want to call them, and he has to--
[Welch] Fire, swamp, sand, earth -- ?
[Pierce] Yes. And he has to collect friends and teachers, he has to, basically, build this multi-ethnic coalition for this campaign of his to succeed. So, then, originally the casting of the movie, they cast four Caucasian actors for the four main characters, who were supposed to come from three completely different places. But... so that completely takes away the element of multi-ethnic cooperation. And, y'know, even if you decided, y'know, that you're just going to use make-up, that just really, doesn't really address the ultimate point, which is that Hollywood is denying what the show is trying to put forth.
[Dr. Lee] We have seen also in the early history of movie-making, Fu Manchu, and all these characters --
[Welch] (simultaneous) Indeed.
[Dr. Lee] -- that portrayed Asians as wicked and evil characters --
[Welch] (simultaneous) Well, The Good Earth, I remember....
[Dr. Lee] -- were played by Caucasians. Um, first of course, no Asians at the time would be willing to play such characters. And secondly, probably there's a lack of, of people to select from.
[Welch] Well now it appears that they have selected the, one of the stars of, uh....
[Pierce] Slumdog Millionaire.
[Pierce] Slumdog Millionaire.
[Welch] Slumdog Millionaire. Dev Patel, who's going to play of course the bad guy.
[Dr. Lee] Yeah. (laughs)
[Welch] (laughs as well)
[Dr. Lee] And, uh, I don't know. I think somebody already mentioned it, about uh... the TV series Kung Fu? Which was created by Bruce Lee.
[Dr. Lee] But he did not have any part to do with it.
[Welch] (simultaneous) Mm-hmm.
[Dr. Lee] And of course, uh, the actor just died a few weeks.
[Dr. Lee] Carradine. And, uh, so, this has been--I, I watched some of Bruce Lee's movie scripts before. And, uh, some of his documentaries. And there's, uh... openly declare that he created the series, but never got to play the part, because of some discrimination at the time.
[Welch] You're listening to Doctor S. L. Lee, who did--provided Chinese calligraphy and translation for the television series Avatar: The Last Airbender, which is now being, even as we speak, made into a movie by M. Night Shyamalan, uh, somewhere in the far reaches of Greenland, as we understand it. With a largely-white cast. Although, the casting calls... when... for the lesser characters, and for the background, and for the extras, are all asking for non-Caucasians, and specifically Asian actors. It's so insulting and disgusting, that--
[Pierce] Yes, and the original casting call for the main characters read, "Caucasian or any other ethnicity." Which begs the question, "If you want 'any ethnicity', why do you put 'Caucasian' in your casting call?" And then, when they wanted their background characters --
[Welch] Well, obviously, 'cause people who knew this, this TV series would assume that these were going to be Asian actors, so they had to invite specifically Caucasians, or they might --
[Pierce] No, I don't want to put thoughts into the heads of whoever... made it up.
[Welch] (laughing) I'm making it up.
[Pierce] But, um.
[Welch] Oh boy.
[Pierce] But yeah. But, the, like, the example of yellowface that I think is best analogous to this, is probably, um, the silent film Broken Blossoms, which I believe was made in the 1910s or '20s. It was a silent film. And, y'know, this being the 1910s and '20s, obviously they couldn't have Asian actors playing the main characters, even though the main character was supposed to be a Chinese man. There was also, uh, an Asian antagonist, called Evil Eye, I think. Um, and both of those main characters were of course played by Caucasian actors. But that doesn't mean that there were no Chinese people in the movie--on the contrary! There was a scene--there were a few scenes in China, where they had lots of Chinese people in the background to show that this was China. And, y'know, we can make lots of excuses, saying, "Okay, this--these were the times, that's just what they did. We'll just accept that it was wrong, and move on." But, what does it say that the exact same thing happened just in the past couple of years?
[Welch] Right now. 2009 and 2010. Uh, Emmy Pierce, our guest in-studio. And I'm afraid we are not getting through to Phil Lee, we were gonna be speaking with him, he's the president of the Media Action Network for Asian-Americans. You can go to www.manaa.org. They have been writing letters to Paramount Pictures trying to get any kind of response whatsoever. The producer, the parent, of Mr. Shyamalan's film. And, uh, they got one letter back, basically "Thank you for sharing, go away now." And, uh, nothing else has happened.
Meanwhile, uh, Emmy, since we were unable to get Phil Lee, I have to return to your excellent paper on this topic, to remind me of what the various, uh, on-line responses have been. We have one that we'll play, and then you can tell us what, uh... what has been going on in protest.
[Sound of YouTube boycott video #6 playing]
[Damien] Hi. My name is Damien. I live in New York City, and I am Hispanic. I am boycotting The Last Airbender movie, made by M. Night Shyamalan and Paramount Pictures, due to their biased and racist casting choices. This video is a message to the creators of The Last Airbender film, that Avatar fans are a wide and diverse group of people, that by white-washing the casting of this movie they have lost their opportunity to tap into this demographic, which includes my ticket to see the film next year. Thank you for taking the time to watch this video, and please visit racebending.com for further information.
[Dr. Lee] Yeah, on this I think, uh, there are people who are protesting the casting and so on. But I think one of the things that I'd like to remind the producer and the director of this, the movie, is that they are ignoring one very important factor of success, that the TV series, the TV animated series, was getting, is by having this multi-ethnic element in their series. And, uh, removing that is actually jeopardizing the success of this movie. So, I really sincerely hope that they can reconsider their earlier decision, in putting back some of the successful factors and genuine Asian elements into this movie, uh, so the previous success can have a sequel.
[Welch] Well, the problem is that it could be a great success. And it could have these white main characters in front and still prove that all--they're very multi-culti, 'cause of course they, they've got different, they've got interesting outfits on, and they've got all those people in the background that are all those different colors. And, and that's the problem--it sort of waters down any real opening. And I think that's what you were hinting at in your paper, Emmy. I don't know.
[Pierce] Well, yeah. I mean, the fact that they, y'know, just "happened" to choose Caucasian characters for all the main roles is very suspicious. And it speaks to an idea that the average American cannot identify with a character who is not Caucasian--which some people, who are Caucasian, feel very insulted by. There are more videos like the one you just heard at a racebending channel--uh, I mean, sorry, a YouTube channel. The user's name is racebending. Because that's part of the campaign to show Paramount Pictures that, as the person on the recording said, Avatar fans are a wide and diverse group of people, and all of them feel insulted, not just the Asian people. Y'know, I mean, yes, Asian culture plays a really big part, but it's also the fact that it's a multi-ethnic landscape that is being destroyed, that makes it such a terrible thing.
[Dr. Lee] Yeah, uh, with that I think I need to add another point, is there are now many Chinese children adopted by American families. And actually many of them told me that they had their children ready for the audition, to be cast in the movie, and yet--by the time they found that the casting was totally Caucasian, they were very furious, in fact. Because that kind of robbed their children for the opportunity of presenting themselves in the movie.
[Welch] But Emmy, in your research, you are finding that, uh, the powers that be--in this case Paramount and Shyamalan--are paying no never-mind to these protests, and that there is not a greater protest. In fact, you imply that because a lot of the protest is not Asian, it tells us that there's, there's this idea that, "Oh well, Asians don't protest like this, and Asians don't... they're already so happy and healthy and the perfect minority, etc., that they won't matter--it doesn't, they won't mind."
[Pierce] Yeah, there's the myth of the "model minority", which is a very, very often touted statement. But um, it's true, that a lot of people do believe that Asian-Americans have "made it." Which is sort of a [unintelligible] statement to make, partly because, as I said before, Asia is a really big place. "Asian-American" covers a lot of people, and a lot of people like South Asians, South Asian-Americans, who tend not to do as well in school because people assume that, as Asian-Americans, they're going to do great, and they're going to be math whizzes, and go on to Harvard, and whatnot. But that's not necessarily the case. And, similarly, there's also this myth of Asian-American complacency, which I think has partly to do with the fact that, y'know, the Asian-American movement was so overshadowed by everything else. And, y'know, of course, there was a lot going on at that time. It's how it happened. But, um, the idea that our society is completely accepting of Asian-Americans, y'know... there's that idea, but if you look at how many visible Asian-Americans there are, y'know, statistically and proportionately, if you look at things like this movie, where, um... y'know, it was clear--these roles were clearly designed to be played by Asian-American actors, and yet they still could not get the part. You have to ask some serious questions. And, one thing I noticed was that, um, obviously it's very difficult to track demographics on this racebending movement, but looking at the videos themselves, there're very few Asian-Americans proportionately, at least as you--fewer than you would expect made these videos. And that just kind of makes me wonder, how many people are aware of this movement? How many people think that it's important? And there's just a lot of questions there that I really have no answers for.
[Welch] Okay, so we've got www.manaa.org, that's the Media Action Network for Asian-Americans, www.manaa.org, and you mentioned "racebending"? Where, where can we go to get more...?
[Pierce] There's a website called racebending.com. That's, uh, one of the hubs of this movement. Um, there are also LiveJournal and Facebook groups called, variously, "Racebending", "Aang Ain't White", so on, so forth.
[Welch] Okay, 'Aang' being the name of the lead character, the Avatar, in the original thing. A-a-n-g ain't white.
[Welch] Dot... what?
[Pierce] Well, uh aang_aint_white.livejournal.com is one website to go to.
[Welch] All right. And I thank you, Emmy, so much for joining us today, and for working as an intern at KPFA, we really appreciate your work.
[Pierce] Thank you so much, Kris.
[Welch] I was, I was glad to be told about this story. And Dr. Lee, I really appreciate your participation as well. Thanks so much.
[Dr. Lee] Thank you.
[Welch] Okay. And... that's it for the show.
Hm. One thing I think I would note--I seem to recall that preliminary results from that informal poll of our movement a while back indicated that we were about 1/4 Asian. That's roughly five times the national average, so proportionately I think there are a lot more Asians upset about this.