All weekend, I've been struggling through writing a press release for the aang_aint_white, in contact with some pretty helpful groups and people--and then wham: Three hours ago, M. Night Shyamalan announces that he's thrown out Jesse McCartney and hired Dev Patel of "$lumdog Millionaire" fame to play 'Prince Zuko' instead.
Now, Dev is by all means a talented actor, and now the cast isn't exclusively white anymore. Even though they are following the Slumdog gravy train, Paramount is moving in the right direction, and I applaud them for doing so. But please let me posit that it isn't time to celebrate just yet. As my friend mycenae put it to me, "THE CAST STILL DOESN'T MAKE SENSE."
Before you say, "No matter what we do, the fans will still complain, they are impossible to please" can I posit that it's REALLY hard for people to be pleased about flagrant discrimination? And that we probably shouldn't be?
- Yes, one actor of color is better than none. But one actor of color against a primary cast of white actors is actually tokenization.
- Patel was cast as Zuko, the antagonist of the film. Yes, in Book 3 of the trilogy Zuko redeems himself and turns out to be a nuanced anti-hero. But in Part 1--this film--Zuko is the 'villain.' And eventually, his father and his sister, who have to look like Patel now, too, will remain the ultimate bad guys. Throughout the film, the three white protagonists will be shown as outwitting the hapless Zuko. Gotta push back those brown firebending invaders. So we're back to the status quo, I guess. Asian actors make great sidekicks and villains and that's what we've got here. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride...
- Speaking of which--the three primary protagonists--the HEROES--are still white actors playing Asian characters. This is still yellowface.
- The character of Zuko seemed inspired by Imperialist Japan--physical appearance, coloration, attire and accouterments, etc. Zuko looks pretty East Asian, and Patel is South Asian. So I've got my brownish bone tossed to me. Is this nitpicking? Even if it is...
- The characters who DO look South Asian (the characters with the darkest, 'least white' features) on the animated series--are still being portrayed by white actors. For example, Sokka is still be played by sparkly alabaster Jackson "Guess I've Gotta Get a Tan" Rathbone. But obviously, recasting "Sokka" would have meant recasting his sister "Katara." mycenae jokingly suggested to me that maybe they should have cast the girl from "Slumdog Millionaire" as Katara and Patel as Sokka: "I mean, hello, didn't they realize that there were both male AND female suddenly famous brown people?"
- Either way, "Slumdog Millionaire" is proof that people will go see movies with non-white people in it, especially if it's well made. More significantly, as aaronjv pointed out early on, it definitely seems like "The Last Airbender" folks have realized this and are following the money by cashing in on $$$lumdog's notoriety. To them, he's not just brown--he also looks really $$green$$. If you're brown, it takes an Oscar nomination to make you worthy enough to replace a white pop star with minimal acting experience. You have to prove yourself, first.
- No one seems to have told McCartney, who last Friday was still gushing on radio interviews about fighting ninjas at the 'bootcamp.' Which brings me to my biggest concern. They attributed this casting change to something as trivial as a "scheduling conflict." They still haven't acknowledged the widespread outrage over their ridiculous casting practices and culturally insensitive language. It's not because they made dumb casting decisions--or because they got flak for it. No mistakes were made. "Nothing to see here, moving along, just a scheduling boffo--try to bash us for not having diversity now."
- I'm not surprised they haven't acknowledged any of the outcry, criticism, or accusations of yellowface. Why would they? Doing so would force them to admit they made a mistake. Casting Dev Patel accomplishes a number of things for them: They've found a new actor who will be taken seriously, unlike McCartney. They've found a talented, award winning actor of color with millionaire luck. They've also made it much harder for people to call this casting for what it still is: white actors playing Asian heroes in makeup.
- The cast is slightly more diverse now, but that doesn't make the condoning of yellowface as implied by these casting decisions any less wrong.
I guess I want to urge people not to put down their pitchforks just yet.
"The Last Airbender" deserves more than just one or two (if you count Suki as a primary character--I feel she was a supporting character in Book 1) actors of color--especially given it's roots. We know the show is deeply steeped in allusions to Asian culture. Even Nickelodeon advertised the show as such in 2005--using it's "fantastical Asian world" as a selling point.
We also know that Mako, the actor who played Iroh (and sadly passed away last year) spent his entire career fighting the discrimination Asian Americans face in Hollywood casting offices.
Please don't forget--the primary heroes of this film are still in yellowface.
Don't get cocky, kid. It's not over til we blow this thing and go home.
Fans are still displeased about this, yup. It's not because they're never satisfied--it's because disingenuous, discriminatory casting is unsatisfactory. Rather, it's REALLY difficult for people to be pleased about yellowface.
We are hard to please because casting any number of white actors to play minority characters, when there are so many minority actors and a shortage of minority opportunities, is still discriminative.
There's 25% less yellowface in this film now, but as a whole, the cast still doesn't make sense.
P.S. I guess the rumors of M. Night wanting to take on the role of Iroh might be more likely, now...
Edit: Edited to reflect that Kyle is right and fans can be a pain in the ass. But in this case, the fans are actually justifiably angry.