I’ve been continuing to follow the casting controversy re “The Last Airbender” film by M. Night Shyamalan. The two main organizations of fans that arose to fight it, Aang Ain’t White and its sistercomm Racebending, have been working hard to try and get the word out about the casting and why it’s a problem, though they’ve run into a lot of brick walls. Some “The Last Airbender” (TLA) online communities won’t let them discuss the issue, dismissing their concerns as (wait for it… oh, whatever, you’ve heard this before) race wank. They’ve gotten no response at all from the film’s producers, beyond a vague insistence that TLA will be more diverse than the TV show was, somehow.
It took a professional advocacy group, the Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA), to actually get a clear response:
The Director’s vision for this film is one of world, influenced and inspired by the Asian undertones of the series, and that is both diverse and inclusive in the make up of the four nations represented in the film’s cinematic world.
Early casting includes an Indian actor, born in Mumbai and raised in the UK and the US; a Persian actor born in Tehran and raised in the UK, Switzerland and the US; a Maori actor born and raised in New Zealand; a Korean-American actor, born and raised in Chicago; an American actress of Italian, French and Mexican heritage; among several others of varied nationalities from around the world.
The four nations represented in the film reflect not one community, but the world’s citizens. These societies will be cast from a diversity of all races and cultures.
In particular, the Earth Kingdom will be cast with Asian, East Asian and
Emphasis mine. Now, to provide a little context for people who aren’t fans of the show and don’t realize what’s happening here:
- There are no black people in the original cartoon. I’m OK with that, actually. As a fantasy and science fiction fan and writer, I get bombarded with all-white secondary worlds all the time*. It’s kind of refreshing to see an all-PoC one, even if those P aren’t my particular C. (Plus, opens the door for all-black fantasy worlds in the future.)
- All the PoC actors mentioned above? Are going to play villains, bit parts, or extras. The three “heroic” leads are still white.
- In the cartoon, the three heroes (represented by white actors) come together from two “good” nations to fight against an evil nation (represented by the Indian actor mentioned in the letter) which is oppressing and eventually tries to “ethnic cleanse” a fourth nation (which will be represented by “Asian, East Asian, and Africans”). So with this casting, we have two nations of heroic white people fighting genocidal brown people to save other poor downtrodden brown people. And black people. Can’t forget us when you’re casting victims.
So in the name of diversity, the film’s producers are ignoring the diversity that was in the original cartoon — characters who evoked cultures as wildly disparate as the Inuit, Mayans, Indians, Koreans, Chinese, Pacific Islanders, Arabs, Japanese, Tibetan, Ainu, and probably a dozen more. They’re replacing it with “Diversity: American Style”, in which all those ethnicities get lumped together into “one community” and stripped of agency, a few black and multiracial people get sprinkled on for flavor, and white people get the best parts and the most screentime.
I cannot begin to explain how revolted I am that black people are being used to justify this shit. Fortunately, MANAA explains it for me, in their response:
After dealing with Hollywood studios for the past 17 years, we are more than familiar with the justifications used to cast white actors instead of actors of color. Other film productions have previously used the same pretexts, touting diversity through the casting of supporting roles–but only after first discriminating in casting the lead roles.
MANAA is a strong supporter of studios’ efforts to increase diversity, but it is absurd to use that as an excuse to make a project more white and to say the original concept wasn’t diverse enough when the cultures of the four Asian nations clearly were.
Emphasis mine again. Because that’s the thing: there weren’t any white people in the original series, either. And clearly the producers were not OK with this, despite the many, many all-white fantasy worlds that already exist. So all their “diversity” bullshit is really just a cover for their primary goal, which was to shoehorn white people into this world. But the creepiness of this goal would’ve been far too obvious if they’d only inserted white folks, so they tossed in some other races too.
There’s no conscientious commitment to diversity in this. This is diversity done as an afterthought, an excuse, something to point out and shout, “What in the world can that be?” as a distraction. Then while our backs are turned, boot PoC from primary, non-stereotypical roles into their traditional place at the back of the bus.
I want black actors to get a paycheck as much as anyone, but I don’t like seeing my people used in such a transparent ploy to hurt other PoC. That shit doesn’t help any of us.
* And I have no problem with them, either! See? I like White People Movies!