Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Some Commentary on the "Last Airbender" Race Controversy

There is a movement against M. Night Shyamalan's upcoming movie, "The Last Airbender" on account of the actors cast to portray the main characters are predominantly white and should be representing a different ethnic culture.

The most uproar came from the casting of Jesse McCartney to portray Zuko, the secondary antagonist of the first film. I myself was frustrated by this casting choice because I didn't feel Mr. McCartney had the chops to play such an intricate character. Thankfully, he has been replaced by Dev Patel, star of "Slumdog Millionaire", adding much needed diversity to the cast.

So the main qualms with the casting now are that the darker, brown people have become the villains of the franchise, while the white kids are cast as heroes. While nothing can be done at this point because of casting except a boycott of the film upon its release, people have continued to complain that this was an injustice to diversity and the uniqueness of the individual eastern cultures the movie is attempting to portray.

I present this different viewpoint to their argument.

The original series, "Avatar: The Last Airbender", was drawn with these cultural differences in mind. Each of the four nations had a distinct ethnic background and rich history apparent in their dress, way of speech, and practices. So why, then, was the original cartoon not boycotted when the voices of the main characters were that of white people and the villains of the series voiced by darker, ethnic people? Sokka and Aang were both voiced by white actors, as were Katara and Toph. Zuko, the presumed villain, was voiced by Dante Basco, and Iroh, originally, was voiced by Mako.

The same casting happened in the cartoon as did in the movie.

Now, without being told this, you may not be able to guess that this was the case, and that is not because the actors had a cartoon to hide behind. I argue that it is because of the depth and believability they brought to their characters. They breathed a life into the show with their voices, and portrayed the ethnic diversity beautifully.

So why can't the actors on screen do the same? If diversity stops at the surface of the skin, then yes, they are doomed to fail. But in this day and age, I would hope more oft than not we would ere on the side of believing diversity is more about what one carries in their heart and mind.

I do understand the argument against these actors. There is a wealth of actors from specific ethnic backgrounds that could have played these roles to the "t". But we must keep in mind that this movie is being made for Americans by Americans (not to mention it was created by two white guys). The cultural sensitivity is borne into this story. The people at the helm get that because it is intricately woven into the storyline from beginning to end. Race is important to the story, but it isn't the main attraction.

There is so much more going on. "The Last Airbender" will touch on genocide, war, censorship, responsibility, destiny, inner-conflict, peace...the list goes on. We should be concerned that these themes and motifs get across, regardless of how dark or light the actors portraying them are.

Another point. Zuko, who those who oppose the casting for the movie say is the villain, forget that Zuko is one of the most complicated, unique, and challenging character to play in the entire movie. His character will blossom in ways many of the others will not and it is an honor that of all the characters to cast, they got that one right, as far as ethnicity goes. And they have built up the entire cast of the fire nation with strong Indian actors who will undoubtedly bring a much needed depth and richness to the portrayal of the fire nation.

As for Aang, Sokka, and Katara, I am sure these actors will do well with the roles they've been given. I am sure the will come to understand what they represent. We have to remember that this is a Nickelodeon funded film as well. Nickelodeon, founded in the US, has on their hands what may very well be their best feature film yet. It may do wonders for their international notoriety. They know what is at stake if they botch the cultural aspects of this film. They know what's at stake.

Again, race is not the big issue, nor is it that big of a deal in the context of this film. No one is being portrayed as less than white or worse off than white. If they stick to the core of the original series, this will be one movie that supports and cultivates diversity in the minds of those who view it. So there are a couple of white kids at the helm of that. Some would argue they are the ones who need a lesson in diversity the most.

Let them play their roles and let us just enjoy that one of the best cartoons to ever be on television is become a live-action movie!

For more information about the movement against the casting of "The Last Airbender", visit www.racebending.com. For information about the film itself and the new teaser trailer, visit www.thelastairbendermovie.com.

***Oh, and I just found this out, the voice of Fire Lord Ozai is Mark Hamill. How's that for a twist?***


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