July 02, 2010

Asians protest Last Airbender

In protest against 'The Last Airbender,' fans find empowerment

By Daina Beth SolomonAs protesters paraded outside the ArcLight Hollywood theater Thursday evening, signs filled the air with hand-written phrases such as "Support fair casting!" and "Hollywood is racist and too ignorant to know it!" The chant of "Get it right, M. Night!" rose above the noise of Sunset Boulevard rush-hour traffic. Meanwhile, just inside the ArcLight's doors, an usher busied herself preparing rows of 3-D glasses for the next showing of "The Last Airbender."

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."
Comment:  Too bad other minority groups didn't get behind this protest. Since the same issues affect them, I'd say they should have.

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:When we talked to the reporter, Daina Beth Solomon, yesterday she mentioned that the comments left by Racebending.com readers and other members of the public are the main reason why the LA Times picked up the controversy in the first place. Your comments do matter and they made a difference!So Racebending used its website, blog, and Facebook page to inform fans about the issues. Specifically, to point out questionable assertions in the media and urge fans to respond. The accumulation of comments encouraged reporters such as Solomon to consider the objections newsworthy. And now one of the nation's largest newspapers is covering the protests.

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)


Synthezoid said...

Rob, were you aware that a number of folks in the Racebending movement always seem to argue that Lautner at least "looks Native" (ie he looks ethnic enough to be Native) thereby giving him a pass? I mean, if people are going to be consistent about proper representation in the media for all groups then why the okay with Lautner?

"...but at least Taylor Lautner looks somewhat non-white?"


Link: http://www.tallycola.com/?p=485#more-485

It's an entry on the racebending website that links to his/her blog.

Rob said...

No, I wasn't aware of that. Lautner doesn't look at all Native except for his brown skin. His cute button nose and other babyface features are the opposite of a traditional Native look.

This is akin to Jackson Rathbone's comment that he'll "need a tan" to play a member of the Water Tribe. It's a false assertion that ethnicity is only skin deep. With that kind of "thinking," we might as well return to the days of redface and yellowface, when white actors in makeup played minorities.