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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Yellow-facing and White-washing: The Racial Issues Raised by the Casting of The Last Airbender

I’ve been loosely following the whole kerfuffle surrounding the casting of M. Night Shyamalan‘s live-action adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender (renamed The Last Airbender, presumably to avoid confusion with James Cameron‘s Avatar project), wherein the lead characters of the Asian-influenced animated television series have magically become white people in the live-action version. Avatar is one of my own kids’ favorite shows, and I happen to like it quite a lot myself — it’s one of the smarter shows aimed at kids, well-researched and thoughtfully created (by, I should fairly note, a couple of white guys, Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko) with an interesting and complex Asian and Inuit mythology woven through it. And controversy has been brewing online among Asian-Americans and hard-core fans of the series over the “white-washing” of the Asian-based lead characters for the adaptation by casting them with white talent.

Avatar: The Last Airbender, the television series, is heavily Asian-themed. For those who aren’t into Avatar, here’s a quick rundown of the basic story: In the Avatar world, civilization is divided into four separate groups: Earth, Water, Air and Fire, with each nation’s social structure built around its dominant element. Each nation has “benders” who can manipulate their tribe element martial-arts style, and then there is one Avatar each generation who has the ability to bend all four elements, but who has to learn to bend the elements that are not his by birthright (with the element opposite the Avatar’s birthright being the most challenging to learn). There are a lot of Eastern spiritual elements (particulary Hindu) interwoven into the story, including the ability of the Avatar to call on the knowledge of all past Avatars, which resides within him, the opening of chakras, and concepts around reincarnation (really, come to think of it, I’m surprised the religious right hasn’t been all over this show for its “non-Christian” elements).

The controversy over the casting stems from the decision to cast the four lead roles with white actors. Newcomer Noah Ringer (supposedly a young karate champ from Texas) plays Aang, the “last Avatar”, Nicola Peltz (Deck the Halls) plays Katara, a young Water Bender, Twilight‘s Jackson Rathbone plays Sokka, Katara’s brother (interesting choice), and pop singer Jesse McCartney was tapped to play Zuko, the villain (er, what?). McCartney has since dropped out (good news, that was a horrible casting choice) and been replaced by Slumdog Millionaire‘s Dev Patel — smart on the one hand, since he’s at least Indian, but as hard-core Avatar fans have noted, the mythology of the Fire Nation is more Chinese in origin than Indian, which makes Patel the wrong kind of Asian for the part.

There was a similar controversy surrounding the casting of white American Justin Chatwin to play the lead part of Goku in Dragonball Evolution, which opened earlier this month, and last year blackjack drama 21 stirred accusations of white-washing for its casting  of white talentJim Sturgess and Kate Bosworth in roles that in real-life were played by Asian-American males. The Last Airbender is the most recent example, but racial white-washing has been a part of  Hollywood since its beginning. Website Buns of Yogurt offers a pretty thorough visual history of the “yellowfacing” of Asian parts in film, noting Hollywood’s long and storied history of casting white faces in Asian role, from Mary Pickford in Madame Butterfly way back in 1915, to Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany‘s (1961) to Bruce Lee being shut out of playing the character in Kung Fu that he came up with, in favor of white actor David Carradine.

And it’s not just in the casting of white actors in Asian roles that’s a problem; this 2008 article for Asian Week by Philip W. Chung also points to films like Come See the Paradise (1990), which stuck a story about a white man in love with a Japanese woman in the middle of a story about interment of Japanese-Americans during WWII to make it more palatable, and True Believer (1989), which effectively erased the contributions of numerous Asian-Americans to the real-life story of the freeing of a Korean-American jailed for a crime he didn’t commit. And even when Hollywood does cast actual Asians in Asian roles, they don’t always get it right — as in the controversial decision to cast Chinese actresses in the three lead roles in Memoirs of  a Geisha, which is set in Japan (oh, those darn Asians, they all look alike anyhow, who’s going to notice, right?)

As for The Last Airbender,  bloggers — some more well-known than others — have been talking about the controversy. On her blog, comedian Margaret Cho is calling out Shyamalan(who’s an Asian-American himself, born in Indian and raised in the suburbs of Philadelphia) for casting yet another Asian-themed film with white actors in the lead roles, and Slashfilm has also covered quite a bit about the controversy over the casting calls. On the, the author points readers to, where fans up in arms about the casting of The Last Airbender can find out how to protest, while ran a thoughtful piece by Amy Pham for Northwest Asian Weekly about the Avatar whitewash.

I was talking all this over with an Asian-American friend the other day who posited that perhaps Hollywood doesn’t take the concerns Asian-Americans raise about the white-washing of Asian roles seriously because Asians are stereotypically perceived by many white Americans as being submissive, polite and complacent (“Oh sure, they’ll complain on their blogs about it, but no one reads them anyhow except other Asian-Americans … they’ll get over if we toss Bai Ling in there somewhere … have the screenwriter add an evil, sex-crazed hooker into the story.”). She might have a point.

I’ve got to side with the folks who are upset about the casting on this one. This is an adaptation of source material that is completely Asian in nature, filled with eastern spirituality. What’s the rationale for casting white kids in the lead roles here? I’ve got nothing personal against Ringer — for all I know he’s the Next Great Talent — but what, they couldn’t find three talented Asian kids out of everyone they auditioned to take the lead heroic roles? There wasn’t a single Asian boy who could both do karate and act in all those casting calls?

It’s not as if the studio can argue that they felt they needed “name” actors, because Ringer is a complete newcomer, Peltz, while she’s done a couple other films, is certainly not “name” talent yet, and Rathbone is really only known for Twilight at this point, which presumably has a different demographic than that for The Last Airbender. So why all the white faces in the lead roles here? I can only assume the studio thinks the film will sell better with white actors playing the leads, but I have to think the series’ fanbase, which actually gets the storyline, would have been just as happy (or happier) with Asian actors cast in those roles.

When it comes to casting white faces over Asian roles, especially for an adaptation of a manga or anime series, studios no doubt seek to sell beyond the demographic of the source material; some number-cruncher at the studio probably has spreadsheets and a nifty Powerpoint presentation that prove conclusively to the studio pockets that Asian faces don’t open films or create crossover. But isn’t that the same argument Hollywood’s been using since time out of mind in casting white actors to play Asian parts? Hollywood’s a tough business with an eagle eye on the box office bottom line, and the attitude toward race in casting decisions isn’t likely to change until Asian-Americans band together to show Hollywood shirts the financial impact their united weight can bear by boycotting films they feel white-wash Asian parts, and supporting those that do cast Asian actors in lead roles.

It’s 2009, folks. We have an African-American man in the highest elected office of our country. Can’t we have an adaptation of an Asian-themed series with actual Asian actors playing the lead roles?

– by Kim Voynar

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon