April 03, 2010

Shyamalan defends Airbender whitewashing

I and many others have written about M. Night Shyamalan's whitewashing of the Asian and Inuit characters in The Last Airbender. In a recent interview, Shyamalan finally addressed the issue:

Shyamalan Addresses Airbender's Race Controversy And Answers Your QuestionsOne of the biggest questions we get on a regular basis whenever we write about this movie, besides tone questions and mythos inquiries, is about the casting. There are a lot of fans that have casting issues with Sokka, Katara and the Fire Nation. Can you address the fan concerns about the casting?

Here's the thing. The great thing about anime is that it's ambiguous. The features of the characters are an intentional mix of all features. It's intended to be ambiguous. That is completely its point. So when we watch Katara, my oldest daughter is literally a photo double of Katara in the cartoon. So that means that Katara is Indian, correct? No that's just in our house. And her friends who watch it, they see themselves in it. And that's what's so beautiful about anime.

When we were casting, I was like, "I don't care who walks through my door, whoever is best for the part. I'm going to figure it out like a chessgame." Ideally we separate the nations ethnically—ideally. I didn't know how or what it was going to be. And it was so fluid. For example if you found a great brother, [but] he didn't go with my favorite Katara, then we couldn't use him. Theoretical things like that. There was an Ang that we really loved, but he was like 5'10." There's all kinds of issues that come to the table physically. And I had a board of all the people that I was considering, the seven or eight. There was, at one time, a Chinese Sokka and Katara, and they were over here. One of them was a better actor than the other, and so I was gathering my pros and cons.

I was without an agenda, and just letting it come to the table. Noah is a photo double from the cartoon. He is spot on. I didn't know their backgrounds, and to me Noah had a slightly mixed quality to him. So I cast the Airbenders as all mixed-race. So when you see the monks, they are all mixed. And it kind of goes with the nomadic culture and the idea that over the years, all nationalities came together.
That almost sounds reasonable. But here's what Michael Le of Racebending has to say about The Last Airbender's background:

Interview with the Racebender

A discussion with the spokesperson for Racebending.com about M. Night Shyamalan's Airbender adaptation.

By Jordan Hoffman
Jordan Hoffman: Do you find that there is sort of a great irony in that the animated show was created by two white guys, and the movie is being directed by probably the most successful director of color in Hollywood? And is there anything to the argument that Shyamalan gets a pass because he’s of Indian descent?

Michael Le: There are two parts to that question, and I guess I’ll address the first one, which is the Caucasian creators Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. We have enormous respect for the work that the original creators did. We actually got to meet them on a couple of occasions, informally, not as part of Racebending, just as fans. They’re great guys, they did an amazing job, and they were incredibly respectful to the source material. They knew that they wanted to do something different, not just draw from the same Western sources that Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter would draw from. They really had the whole Eastern influence and Eastern root to the series, and they went out of their way to do that. They hired a cultural consultant, they had authentic Chinese calligraphy on the show, they showed that they loved and respected the material, and Americans responded to that. Americans of ALL color responded to that. A Caucasian-American could look at it and say “hey, this is something unusual, this is something that clearly the creators had a lot of passion for, and this is beautiful, and we wanna respect that.” And of course for Americans of color, especially for children of color, it was this beautiful chance to see themselves portrayed visually in the series as heroes, even if not all of the voice actors were Asian American. So I would say that it’s more complex than saying it was created by these two Caucasian Americans as though they didn’t have respect for the source material, as if they didn’t have respect for Asian culture.

Jordan Hoffman: I read about this on your site, that the casting calls for the leads said "Caucasians and Other Ethnicities." I hear that and I think, "okay, they are looking at Caucasians, and they are looking at other races, too." That's in sync with how Shyamalan claims he simply cast the best actors he could find. Is it too much to hang someone on how a casting notice is written?

Michael Le: Let’s look at what another casting call might look like. Look at the show Heroes, which often does specify based on the needs of the character. If the character is, for example, in Japan, and he’s a business owner, he needs to be fluent in Japanese or Native. Then they say okay, we’re gonna need Asian-American actors for this role, preferably Japanese, and it’ll say that in the casting call. Now in another case, where the ethnicity of the character isn’t as obvious or important or maybe a little more open to interpretation, they’ll put “all ethnicities welcome.” And you’ll find that there is a world of difference between saying “all ethnicities welcome” and “Caucasian or any other.”

Jordan Hoffman: There’s another argument that says the show upon which this is based well, the calligraphy may be Chinese, much of Aang’s background may have its roots in Chinese culture, other parts of his origin is reminiscent of the Dalai Lama, but...it’s not India, it’s not China. It’s the Air Nation, which is made up, and it’s a cartoon, so therefore you cant get too hung up on the specifics. The Water Tribe? What do they look like? I don't know, they’re make-believe, so you can make them look like what you want them to look like.

Michael Le: Look at that question and what it’s asking, then it’s implicitly saying “I personally see ambiguity in the race of your characters.” And from that, the default is white. So it becomes that it should be white, as opposed to “hey, these characters are steeped in Asian culture, they’re deeply rooted in Asian culture, they read and write in Chinese, eat with chopsticks, they dress as Asians do, their architecture is very Chinese and Japanese-influenced, the creators went out of their way to create something that just reeks of Asian influence, so why not have them be Asian?” And that’s the reverse of that question, where you step back and think “is this about the characters being ambiguous and therefore they’re white, or hey, these characters, they’re so Asian, all these traits about them are Asian.”
Comment:  To recap, the creators went out of their way to make The Last Airbender authentically Asian. I don't know if Shyamalan is right about anime in general, but his claims don't apply here. DiMartino and Konietzko did not intend to make the characters "ambiguous," they intended to make them Asian and Inuit.

Shyamalan's response to this is tortuous. He redefines "steeped in Eastern culture" to mean "ambiguous," then redefines "ambiguous" to mean "largely Caucasian." He puts out a casting notice that emphasizes "Caucasian" and doesn't mention "Asian" or "ambiguous." He hires lily-white actors to play three of the four major Eastern roles, then implies he's being true to the source material.

At least Shyamalan didn't give us the usual dissembling about whitewashing being an economic necessity. If you go by his words, he cast The Last Airbender for stylistic reasons--to create a multicultural "We Are the World" vibe. It wouldn't surprise me if he was also thinking of the movie's marketability, but he didn't say that.

Whitewashing is racist

Here we see the pure racist stupidity of Hollywood in action. The Last Airbender TV series was incredibly popular with its and strong Eastern influences and brown-skinned characters. Why would you even think of tampering with success? Because American movie audiences are radically different from American TV audiences? Because movies starring Jackie Chan, "Harold and Kumar," and other Asian characters have been huge failures in the US? Give me a reason that's even remotely related to reality--i.e., that isn't an excuse for racism.

To reiterate, no one is claiming an economic motive for changing the characters' race. The only professed motive is a creative one. Shyamalan preferred a white cast so he chose one.

More on The Last Airbender:

Whitewashing Natives in Last Airbender
Last Airbender images released
Villains and losers in Airbender

More on the Asian-Indian connection:

Asians and Indians on TV
Hollywood Chinese and Indians
How kids taunt Asians (and Indians)

More on casting issues:

Finding Native actors at auditions
Indians hold steady at 0.3%
Roscoe Pond or a big-name actor?

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