November 13, 2010

Noah Ringer = American Indan?!

You may recall the huge controversy surrounding the casting of The Last Airbender (TLA). White actors were chosen to play Asian and Inuit characters. Perhaps the worst offense was choosing the unknown Noah Ringer to play the lead character Aang.

Now Ringer is claiming to be "of American Indian heritage.", which led the protests against Airbender addressed the question of whether this matters. If a person of color played a character of color, does that negate Racebending's criticism?

Noah Ringer:  American IndianFor the entirety of the production and release of the film, Ringer was presented as a white person who Shyamalan "felt" was "mixed race with an Asian quality to him." This was never disputed or debated by the production. In the conversations Asian American organizations and had with Paramount, including with the President of Paramount Pictures, both parties operated on the premise that Ringer was white. But in lieu of ambiguous ethnicity, white should not be the default. While we don't presume to doubt Ringer, we wonder why his heritage was hidden and obscured by Paramount Pictures, while other actors' backgrounds were flaunted by Shyamalan in his TLA-defensive interviews. In short: why were we, the movie-going public, allowed to assume that Ringer was (the default) white?

What this says to me is that a) Ringer is racially 'ambiguous' enough to play Aang (or as Shyamalan says, has "an Asian quality"--whatever that means--which apparently should be good enough); and, b) therefore race in A:TLA is unimportant/irrelevant, and anyone can play anyone.

Our efforts were never just about hiring minorities. Our concern goes beyond just "presentness" of minorities. There are many films that have actors of colour who play the roles of sidekick or bad guy or Extraneous Person #253. still stands by our opinion that Aang was Asian. Minorities are not interchangeable, and further tokenism in film is not our goal. The argument that there was a minority in the film playing one of the any whitewashed minority we should shut up and sit down--why should we when so many characters were still whitewashed? When the film perpetrated so many racial stereotypes--depicting black and Inuit communities as helpless victims, depicting Asians as villains, idiots, traitors and massage ladies?
Some commenters on this posting made some excellent points:birdbrainblue
2010-11-12 01:20 am UTC

If Noah really does have Native American heritage, this just makes TLA even worse (if that's possible), because apparently, the world is divided into whites and "ethnics", with no other distinctions.

I also have a horrible, horrible feeling that some agent of his is pulling a Johnny Depp or something and pointing out Noah's "newly discovered" Native American ancestry in preparation to announce him as playing a fullblooded Native American. Think about it: even Paramount didn't know about his heritage, because it would have been an excellent counter for our arguments and they never used it. This does not bode well, in my opinion.

2010-11-12 01:32 am UTC

I wouldn't necessarily assume that Ringer is lying about his heritage. However, I'd like to point out that according to the IMDB page his new movie Cowboys and Aliens is about Apache Indians and Western settlers setting aside their differences to fight an alien invasion. So, maybe they are preparing just in case there is a reaction to casting in this movie.

2010-11-12 01:41 am UTC

...well, damn. That'

And I'm not assuming he's lying, I hope he isn't! But I think, especially with this information about his new movie, that his agent or someone might be messing with data in order to avoid another race controversy in the kid's second movie. I'm highly suspicious.

2010-11-12 03:10 pm UTC

Yeah, I immediately thought of Taylor Lautner when I heard about Noah Ringer's Indian heritage. Prior to being cast in Twilight, Taylor identified as Caucasian. I know this because The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl may have kinda been a teeny tiny guilty pleasure of mine, so I read a few interviews/articles about the actors. It wasn't until Twilight came out and there was uproar over Taylor's casting, when he suddenly started saying, "LOLz you guys, don't worry, I did some research into my genealogical roots and I do have Native American ancestry! So it's all good..." and now he goes around in interviews identifying himself as being of Native American heritage.

2010-11-12 03:36 pm UTC

Yeah, that was pretty convenient.

In another post someone made an interesting point that people with Native American heritage that they strongly identify with don't merely say "I'm Native American" or "I have Native American ancestry." They identify as specifically Choctaw, Cherokee, etc.

It would be interesting to hear more details from Ringer in upcoming interviews if it's something he wants to talk about.

2010-11-12 04:09 pm UTC

To be fair to Lautner, I think he has specified what tribe he's a part of, I just don't remember what it's supposed to be.

But even so, it makes me wonder...let's assume that Taylor isn't lying. After all, it is certainly well within the realm of possibility that he has Native American/First Nations heritage. But if that's the case, he clearly has never identified with the culture or tribe (prior to Twilight), and it was such a small part of him that he wasn't even aware of it until he did a genealogical search! So even if he is telling the truth, I don't know if that means he's qualified to play a NA/FN role. Yes, I realize that putting this sort of quantifiable 'quota' can be problematic and sticky...but, well, to use a counter-example--my Taiwanese friend has some distant Dutch ancestry in her blood, even though she completely identifies as Taiwanese. Were she an actress, would this qualify her to play white roles? Somehow, I doubt Hollywood would see it that way....

2010-11-12 04:23 pm UTC

Yes, exactly. This is the whole 'convenience' of the whole heritage/ancestry justification. It's generally a hypocritical one-way street the allow white-identifying/presenting actors to play characters of colour, but it hardly ever (if ever??) applies the other way around. It ties in to the colourism issue, for sure.

2010-11-12 06:40 pm UTC

Among all those white roles that have been cast with a PoC I think there's none where they were actually trying to justify the casting with "Well, s/he might not look like it but we just found out s/he has some White European ancestry--so it's all find and dandy!"

For example, I can't think of a single case were someone might have said that Halle Berry could play any white role--even though she has more "White blood" in her than many of those wannabe Native Americans.
Comment:  If Hollywood isn't racist and merely picks the best actor or the actor with the most box-office potential, then great. Halle Berry can play Jackie Kennedy opposite Denzel Washington as JFK.

Racebending doesn't presume to doubt Ringer, but I do. Claiming to be of Native heritage is meaningless without details. Something like 20-25% of Americans can claim to have a drop of Indian blood, but that doesn't make them Native. "Heritage" is where you come from, not what you are.

If you're really Native, you can specify what tribe or tribes you come from. You can point to specific lineages on a family tree. And you have enough "blood" to be recognized as an Indian--either enrolled in a tribe or accepted by a Native community of peers.

Johnny Depp can trace his Cherokee ancestry to his great-grandmother Minnie. Even Taylor Lautner's claim of being part Potawatomi and Odawa is plausible. He grew up in Michigan where these tribes are located, and they have members named Lautner. Ringer has nothing comparable to that.

Is Ringer lying?

I don't think he's lying, exactly. One, I suspect his people are making the claim, not him. Two, I suspect someone found a couple of drops of Indian blood in his background--enough to make him 1/32 or 1/64 Indian. And his people started making the "of American Indian heritage" claim because of his role in Cowboys and Aliens.

Ringer's claim may be technically true, but it's probably false and misleading. Someone who's of 63/64 Anglo-Saxon heritage isn't also of American Indian heritage. "Heritage" means you've been guided or influenced by your ancestry, and a drop of blood does't do that.

For those concerned about casting issues, let's take note: Noah Ringer is billed fifth in Cowboys and Aliens as Emmett. He's ahead of Adam Beach, billed seventh as Nat Colorado. If the biggest Native role in the movie has gone to a white boy, it's time for another protest.

For more on The Last Airbender, see Asians Protest Last Airbender and Dismissing the Pro-Airbender Arguments. For more on the subject in general, see Audiences More Openminded than Hollywood and Minorities Aren't Quite American.


Anonymous said...

Noah does not, in fact, portray a Native American in Cowboys & Aliens. He's the white son of a frontier sheriff.

Anonymous said...

Among all those white roles that have been cast with a PoC I think there's none where they were actually trying to justify the casting with "Well, s/he might not look like it but we just found out s/he has some White European ancestry--so it's all find and dandy!"

For example, I can't think of a single case were someone might have said that Halle Berry could play any white role--even though she has more "White blood" in her than many of those wannabe Native Americans.

Actually, a similar situation did occur in which a White woman was hired to play a Black woman...their defense for hiring Jolie? Well, the Black woman in question also had some White ancestry. SO DOES 99 PERCENT OF THE REST of people of African-American heritage. That doesn't mean Whites should always plus us or any other Black person with White ancestry.

Not that it matters "whether or not it would be done to someone else". The fact is that the same disrespect is show all around, it's a common enemy we're fighting.

Anonymous said...

Oops, not "plus us" - but "play us"

Np said...

I do not believe he is lying and I also think who cares the last airbender days are done and Im just glad noah has a good acting carrer