As much as I enjoyed Avatar: The Last Airbender, the excellent and popular animated epic that aired on Nickelodeon a few years ago, I'm viewing the premiere of its movie adaptation tomorrow with serious apprehension, and not simply because it's being helmed by M. Night Shyamalan. The television show is set in a deeply imagined world whose inhabitants are mostly Asian. Aang, the heroic Avatar, appears to be a Shaolin monk, with an origin story similar to that of the Dalai Lama. His fellow travelers, who hail from the fictional world's cold south, are comparatively darker-skinned and appear to be Inuit. And yet, as the blog Racebending has been pointing out for some time now, the young actors playing those characters in the movie adaptation are white.
But it gets better. (And by "better," I mean much, much more problematic.) Zuko, the series' chief villain, comes from a country patterned after imperialist China. In the film, he's played by Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire fame. The hothead general of the army hunting the Avatar? Aasif Mandvi of The Daily Show. The ruthless leader of the evil Fire Nation? Cliff Curtis of Whale Rider. So to recap: The source material is set in a world in which nearly all the characters are Asian, but the movie ends up with a crew of good guys who are all white and a slew of bad guys who are all brown.
This isn't an accident, as the casting directors were instructed to find kids to play the good guys who were "Caucasian or any other ethnicity," while casting calls for extras of the Fire Nation -- the story's bad guys -- explicitly requested people who were "Near Eastern, Middle Eastern, Far Eastern, Asian, Mediterranean, and Latino."
For his part, Shyamalan has denied that race played a roll in casting and said that he was simply looking "for the best fit" for each role. But as we know in all areas of public life, meritocracy is always the explanation when the person landing the job is white. Affirmative action, or some other reason, is always the explanation when it's not. Frank Marshall, the movie's producer, has apologized for the casting-call documents, which he said were created by a third-party casting company but should have been more closely monitored.
It's hard enough to be an actor of color without roles for characters of color magically becoming white when those films hit the big screen. Just last month, Jake Gyllenhaal made his bid for action-hero stardom in The Prince of Persia. But since Hollywood clearly sees race as so fluid and inconsequential, no one should object to Donald Glover being cast as the titular character in the next Spider-Man flick, right?
-- Gene Demby