By GUY AOKI
In January 2001, Children Now, a non-partisan, national organization “for people who care about children and want to ensure that they are the top public policy priority,” issued a 36-page study titled “Fall Colors: Prime Time Diversity Report, 2001.” It outlined the preponderance of white males in television playing the heroes and people of color getting non-leadership roles mostly in service positions.
“As America’s primary storyteller and chief cultural exporter, television provides messages and images that contribute to the worldviews of millions. When certain groups are privileged, others subjugated and still others altogether excluded, prime time sends skewed messages to viewers-especially young ones-that these groups are valued differently. This in turn affects the way viewers perceive themselves and interact with particular groups. And youth want to see the diversity of their lives reflected on the prime time screen. As one Native American youth told us, ‘It makes you mad because you wish other people could get in there and not just whites, because they’re on everything.’”
An Asian Pacific American youngster said that when you watch TV, “You want to think, ‘I could do that. I could be there. That could be me in five or six years.’ But you don’t see anything of yourself, and you’re just like, ‘Oh, well maybe I just have to go do this [lower goal instead].’”
I imagine the people at Children Now were overjoyed with Nickelodeon’s Saturday morning cartoon series, “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” The popular series ran for three years and appealed to children-and adults-of all races even though the world was made up entirely of Asian and Inuit people. Kids fought over who was Aang, who was Sokka, and who was Katara. They were powerful. They could achieve. They could aspire to the best of their abilities.
When Paramount announced they were doing a live action, big budget motion picture directed by M. Night Shyamalan (Sixth Sense), fans expected those roles to go to Asian and Asian American actors. There was a nationwide casting call for unknowns to fill the roles of Aang, Katara, Sokka, and Zuko. But in December 2008, the studio revealed that the four main stars were going to be white. Entertainment Weekly’s Web site was filled with 78 pages of comments, the majority from angry commentators vowing to boycott the white-washed project.
New Web sites sprung up expressing their outrage. A group that eventually became Racebending.com (now more than 7000 members from over 50 countries) urged East West Players and MANAA to reach out to the producers in time to reconsider their choices. What particularly incensed them was the casting notice that called for “Caucasian or any other ethnicity.” Clearly, they had had a preference. No wonder they ended up with that line-up. Furthermore, a casting director, DeeDee Rickets, looking for extras, had told a Pennsylvania paper, “We want you to dress in traditional cultural ethnic attire. If you’re Korean, wear a kimono. If you’re from Belgium, wear lederhosen.”
Apparently, the woman didn’t know Korean from Japanese, Belgian from Bavarian. In February of 2009, singer Jesse McCartney dropped out only to be replaced by Dev Patel from “Slumdog Millionaire.” He would be the villain of the piece and lead his Fire Nation against the Earth, Water, and Air Nations.
Both EWP and MANAA tried to meet with the producers that month, but they didn’t respond until a month-and-a-half later when casting was complete and shooting had begun. Sam Mercer, Frank Marshall and/or his producer wife Kathleen Kennedy (we don’t know because they only signed their letter “The Producers”) wrote: “The four nations represented in the film reflect not one community, but the world’s citizens. Their societies will be cast from a diversity of all races and cultures.”
In other words, when faced with an all-Asian project, they suddenly began caring about diversity—away from Asians—so they could include more white people. Can you imagine them freaking out when, on their other movies, they ended up with all-white casts? Not me either. Hell, look at their long body of work. See any prominent Asians in any of them? Nope. So is it a surprise they managed to wipe the slate clean of Asian heroes, replaced them with white people, and only allowed the Asians to be the villains? Rhetorical question, my friends.
As word of MANAA’s dialogue with the producers got out, we received dozens of e-mails from people across the world begging us not to let up—to not let Paramount get away with this. Encouragingly, most of them were white, black, or Latino. They were incensed that Asian children couldn’t be the heroes in their own story.
They were going to boycott the film and tell their friends to do the same. In other words, the non-Asian audience the studio sought to seduce to see their project, wasn’t falling for it. Their cynical plan backfired.
In June of that year, Paramount President John Lesher, who developed the project with Shyamalan, was fired. He was replaced by Adam Goodman. In November, as part of a coalition of organizations including MANAA, JACL, and IW Group who were outraged by another Paramount picture —“The Goods”—I met with Goodman and outlined our concerns. He promised to show me a pre-screening of the movie to prove to me it was far more diverse than I imagined. He insisted it wouldn’t be at the last minute either— not two weeks away from the film’s opening.
Well, we’re now two weeks away from the July 2nd debut. Despite an e-mail to Goodman in February when I heard the director was showing test screenings of the movie to audiences in Phoenix (and later, Chicago), Goodman said it wasn’t yet ready. Another overture last week wasn’t responded to by the time we went to press.
Paramount paid for a handful of website-owning geeks to fly to Virginia to meet with the director as he tried to put a positive spin on his controversial project.
This is how he defended taking an all-Asian project and making all the heroes white and all the bad guys Asian or brown: “Here’s the thing. The great thing about anime is that it’s ambiguous. The features of the characters are an intentional mix of all features. It’s intended to be ambiguous. That is completely its point. So when we watch Katara, my oldest daughter is literally a photo double of Katara in the cartoon. So that means that Katara is Indian, correct? No, that’s just in our house. And her friends who watch it, they see themselves in it. And that’s what’s so beautiful about anime.”
Right. And obviously, what white people believe is more important than even your own daughter, so that’s why you ended up with your rather pale cast. Isn’t that “great?”
Why is this such a big deal? Because Hollywood writers rarely allow Asian people to be the heroes and stars of their own stories. So when studios take source material where we’re written to be just that… and still give it to white people… and then cast us as the villains… that’s just plain unforgiveable. We’re tired of being the comic relief and/or the villains who get beaten up. If you won’t let us be heroes when we’re written that way, when will you ever?
The fact that Shymalan is South Asian American only goes to show that people of all races can become co-opted by the institutionalized racism of the Hollywood system. He’s just another sell-out who rationalizes perpetuating more white heroes when he could’ve had more integrity and cast us as the heroes and possibly launched several Asian American careers instead of…more white ones.
There were visionary directors in the ‘60s who said, “Screw the South. Sidney Poitier’s a great actor, we’ve got a great story to tell, and I’m making him the star of my movie.”
If it weren’t for people like that, we’d never have graduated to Denzel Washington or Will Smith, who is now a bigger box office draw than Tom Cruise.
Hollywood is ridiculously short-sighted in choosing which ethnic community their stars can come from. Everyone benefits from having popular actors of all races. Why just from the white and black community? But if the M Night Shyamalans have their way, that’s all we’ll have 20, 30, and 40 years from now. We’ll only be reading more creative excuses for while we’re still seeing mostly white faces up there on the big screen.
When Rising Sun came out in 1993, MANAA didn’t call for a boycott of the movie. As disturbed as we were by the way the Japanese nationals were portrayed as taking over America with white henchmen killing in their interests, we told audiences, “If you choose to see the film, fine. Just keep our concerns in mind and see if you don’t agree.”
So why are we asking people to not see The Last Airbender? Because this is not about story or plot. It’s about discrimination. And if this $100 million film does well, two more sequels will be green lit on the backs of Asian American actors. Paramount will have gotten away with it. We can’t let that happen. Because it’ll only encourage more studios to keep doing it.
Two years ago, Sony did it with “21”: It was based on a real-life story about an MIT professor who taught his math students how to win at black jack in Vegas. The professor, most of the students, and the guy who won the most money for the team, were Asian Americans. In the film, they were mostly white. The star of the picture was Jim Sturgess, a Brit who had to have a dialect coach on set so he could pretend to be an American! In both that case and Airbender, the producers weren’t depending on big names to sell their movie: It was the concept. Yet they still felt putting too many Asians on screen was too risky.
Recently, Mickey Rourke announced he was going to be playing Genghis Khan in a film! It never ends. But maybe you can help turn this train around. Boycott “The Last Airbender.”
Tell your friends and their kids to do the same. Support something else, spend moretime with your children, or donate money to your favorite charity.
Till next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
Note: To find more information on this topic, go to manaa.org/articles/html or Racebending.com
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Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the Rafu Shimpo.