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"The Last Airbender" -- Now with 25% Less Yellowface!

Whoa, so this threw me a curveball.

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.


2 things.

1. Yes, fans are always hard to please. Doesn't mean they're wrong.

2. This kinda proves the point I had made to you previously (well, not necessarily proves, but lends credence to, is evidence for, whatever) that the casting is less racially motivated than it is financially. they need some names in it. They probably see a chance to bring in more of an adult audience as well when they bring in the Slumdog kid. I'm not saying stop fighting, I'm just saying that if it were 15 years ago, Short Round would probably be in the movie.
At least 15 years ago there was a "Short Round" on the radar.

I mean, there was a "Short Round"-ish character in Tropic Thunder, who even kind of looks like the main character--but they aren't clawing over themselves trying to cast him.
Oh! I looked over your comment again and you're right. You pointed out that fans are hard to please. I can't believe I wrote that they aren't. It's now corrected to say that fans are hard to please, yes. But this time they're displeased about something relatively legit.

1. They roll with predominately white cast
2. Movie doesn't do so well.
3. Paramount says, "I guess it was too asian for the mainstream audience to accept"
4. Repeat for next POC focal series.
That's why step TWO absolutely has to be--get the yellowface whitewashing of this film on the radar of every film critic. These critics might not be aware of Avatar's Asian roots.

Make sure every critic who bashes the film notes that it sucks NOT because of the Asian elements but because of the yellowface. Have this point driven into their skulls.
I'm still confused how they can cast Dev Patel but keep TANNED RATHBONE AND PELTZ. DOES THIS MAKE ANY SENSE?!?!?!? NO.

I am sooooo angry at this 'Oh, Jesse had a scheduling conflict!'. That is full-on crockery.

Thank you for writing this, bebe.

Edited at 2009-02-02 05:27 pm (UTC)
We need to make sure people don't stop fighting against this. We need to remind people that no matter how great an actor Dev Patel is, the movie still has yellowface in it, and that is still unacceptable. 25% less yellowface is still yellowface. Having a person of color play the villain is still unacceptable when you've got white actors cavorting around in tans trying to play people of color.
Y'damn right. I just full-on linked to this post, if you don't mind. You really know how to get multiple points across. :D
Thanks. I wish I knew of better ways to get the word out there. Did you see my paper trail/emails with EWP and Jeff Adachi?
I don't know whether to be happy because maybe they're trying or pissed because it's such an obvious bit of tokenism.
I guess I feel like if they were REALLY trying...they'd...not do the yellowface thing in the first place. Instead of an F they get a D+ for effort, but it's still a failing grade. Try to focus on the fact that the heroes of the movie are still in yellowface. =/
Yeah. Believe me, it's not escaping my attention, and without a total recast, there's no way I'm going to see this film, or stop speaking out against it. But I don't know whether to view this as a fluke, or a single positive step.
Pfft. Seems like damage control meets slumdog gravy train to me.
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.

What? A brown man can't be a ninja!?

Context is about a minute in:

But seriously, it still doesn't make any sense. (Well, in terms of the story/characters. Financially it makes sense, obviously.)

I really should start watching this show... if only so I can boycott the movie more effectively.
No no, Kat, a brown guy can be a ninja. That's why Patel is now a ninja! The studio is comfortable with brown guys to playing ninjas, but is apparently still not comfortable with brown guys playing uh, brown guys!

Do watch the show though. It is cute and awesome.
Sorry to invade your LJ, but I wanted to say I agree with this 100%.

That sucks about the press release, though, how far did you get?
An outline and some paragraphs describing the context. Currently drafting interview questions and will be requesting interviews soon.
*points up at post* YES. THIS. WHAT YOU SAID. EVERYTHING.

Man, this is going to require a lot more emphasis on the subtleties of HOW they're casting when arguing with people in the future. I can't wait -_-

Though I mean, still, one can't really ignore what their initial casting call for ALL the core characters looked like. Hi, preferential treatment much? *headdesk*

Edited at 2009-02-03 07:47 am (UTC)
Hey, I have a question. Do you mind if I post this on my Facebook as a note? I'm having people bitch at me for my latest status message displaying my disapproval about Dev Patel as Zuko and you've pretty much summed up everything I want to say.
No problem. Feel free to use this as a posted item.
Thank you! It's really eye opening to those who aren't getting the bigger picture. *nod nod*

Why Hollywood is Afraid of Casting Asians

Recent article in NY Times about the "marketing challenge" of the new movie Push: Based on the Novel by Sapphire, which won all three top awards at Sundance (a rare sign of a great movie).

Here's the choice selection:

As films like “The Great Debaters” and “Miracle at St. Anna” have shown, a release labeled a black film by the marketplace — and “Push” already has been — can be an incredibly tough sell to mainstream white audiences.

(emphasis mine)

I propose that a movie labelled an "Asian film" will have these same difficulties, unless it has Jet Li or Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee in it.

Of course, this has nothing to do with the film's quality, good or bad. Nor that it's right to make or cast a film based on what some marketing department thinks will be the audience's perception.

But that's how it *IS* done, and will continue to be done unless people stop watching the crap, watch the good, and better yet, make their own movies.

Re: Why Hollywood is Afraid of Casting Asians

I think a release labeled an "M. Night Shyamalan film" can also be an incredibly tough sell to mainstream white audiences. ::le sigh::

But hopefully that means people won't watch this stuff.


A thought

Hey everyone! I've noticed that this whole avatar situation just keeps getting worse and worse. As previously mentioned, substituting Patel for McCarthy is even WORSE than having the whole cast white. As an African American, I know oh so well how DISTURBING it is to see every person darker than a manila folder portrayed as 'evil'. That kind of racism is older than dirt. Does anyone else agree that it might be best for them to drop the movie entirely? I just don't see how they can fix this ignorant mess they've created.