By Daina Beth Solomon
Released Thursday, the M. Night Shyamalan film has been criticized for casting Caucasian actors as Asian characters. Based on the anime-inspired Nickelodeon cartoon series "Avatar: The Last Airbender," the movie's story has many connections to Asian and Inuit culture. While the movie is mostly faithful to the story, protesters say, it does not accurately represent the Asian ethnicities of the main characters. While irritating to fans, the issue is particularly upsetting to parents who see the movie as depriving kids of Asian role models.
Since the "Airbender" casting became known in December 2008, Asian-American activists as well as the TV show's fans have called for a boycott of the film. They harnessed the Web to promote their cause, particularly through the site Racebending.com. On Thursday, protesters took to the streets. The crowd, which included over 100 at its peak and otherwise numbered 50 or 60, was drawn from supporters of three L.A.-based organizations--Racebending.com, the Korean Resource Center and Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA). According to Marissa Lee, a founder of Racebending.com, the turnout at the protest was exactly what its organizers hoped for.
"We can’t change the movie, so it's a symbolic demonstration," she said. "We want to send the message to Hollywood that its casting practices are no longer accepted by the public."
Marissa Lee's point is a key one. Activists may wish to change a movie in progress, but they understand it's hard to stop a Hollywood juggernaut. The more important goal is to raise awareness of the issue. If studios become aware that fans will protest racist casting decisions and talk movies into the toilet, they'll change their practices. Or else.
We can see how effective these protests. Not only by the box office, where cause and effect are difficult to prove. But a lot of articles and reviews have discussed the casting issue. These suggest that the protesters have made the movie's mistakes a central issue in its marketing narrative. That wouldn't have happened if they hadn't complained.
How protests work
Racebending comments on this article on Facebook:
This is activism in action, people. It's proof of how protests work. It's why Natives attack such things as Indian mascots, Koff Beer, and Zazzle t-shirts--because they can make the racist stereotypes go away.
For more on the subject, see Dismissing the Pro-Airbender Arguments and Last Airbender is "Completely Atrocious."
Below: "Protesters demonstrate outside the ArcLight Hollywood." (Daina Beth Solomon)