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Why you should not see “The Last Airbender” movie, but watch the cartoon instead.

Almost a year ago, I did this post The People and their cultures: POC and the movies And now, on the eve of the gut-churning insult in every way that is the movie adaptation of The Last Airbender, I come again. Doubtless, you have seen the commercials. Aren’t the CGI effects pretty? And its going to be in 3D! And Lord knows that people have prioritized CGI effects over fucked up cultural messages embedded in the story before, hello Avatar! Let’s not do it this time. Please, do not allow Hollywood to make money on this character representation FAIL of a film.

I have been following the saga on the website racebending lj and website which have led the way in fighting against the BS in this movie, and seems to be on its way to taking on the BS in other movies like this as well. They have been doing very good work, and I got a lot of my links from their websites.

To bring it home, lets start with Face Painting, an absolutely GORGEOUS breakdown of the racial issues with this travesty of a film.

In her paper “Levels of Racism: A Theoretic Framework and a Gardener’s Tale,” Camara Phyllis Jones (MD, MPH, and PhD) postulates that there are three levels of racism: internalized, personally-mediated, and institutionalized.

Internalized racism is how one personally feels about race and its meaning, though they may not necessarily act out on these underlying and internalized assumptions it most definitely affects them at the subconscious level (eg. “It had occurred to Pecola some time ago that if her eyes, those eyes that held the pictures, and knew the sights-if those eyes of hers were different, that is to say, beautiful, she herself would be different.” – Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye).

Personally-mediated racism maintains social-structural barriers, the result of assumptions held by people or a community (eg. “This town was so much better before those goddamn ___ moved in. It’s their fault the town’s economy has gone down so much”).

Lastly, institutionalized racism is racism at the highest infrastructural level, in which policy is dictated by racial assumptions and discrimination (eg. South Africa’s long history of Apartheid in which black South Africans were politically and legally segregated from whites, spearheaded by the South African Nationalist Party from 1948 to 1994).

Herein this last level of racism lies Paramount Studio’s greatest offense of reinforcing institutionalized racism within the Hollywood business. MORE

Another take on the subject is offered here:These are my colors

Two years ago, a group of my friends introduced me to Avatar: The Last Airbender, an animated television series by Nickelodeon that first aired in 2005. By the time I was sitting on the floor of my friend’s cabin, clustered around the screen with my friends, it was almost time for the series finale to air. I watched two or three episodes from the end of season three, and then I went home to start from the beginning, because this was a show unlike anything I’d ever seen on North American television, and I couldn’t wait to see more.

Here was a fantastical Asian world, full of well developed and delineated countries, each with a distinctive culture and a carefully developed mythology born from real world Asian traditions, art forms, myths and religions. Here was beautiful Hànzì adorning the walls of temples and restaurants. Here was the food I loved best from my childhood, eaten with chopsticks by the heroes of the show.

And here were the Heroes: Brave, noble, beautiful, strong, and Asian.

On July 1st, Paramount’s live action adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender opens in theatres across North America.

Do not see this film. Do not pay to see this film. Do not give this production any of your hard earned money, be it through ticket sales, merchandise, or the eventual DVD sales. And here is why:

All of the principal cast members are White.

Or almost: when the cast of the movie was originally announced sometime in 2009, the four main characters Aang, Katara, Sokka and Zuko, were all cast as white kids. An uproar occurred from the outraged fans–Asians and non Asians alike–because how, in 2009, could such a blatantly racist, discriminatory casting exercise in old school Hollywood whitewashing be justified? High budget Yellowface slated for release in 2010? It seemed almost too ridiculous to be true.

And so, Paramount responded by re-casting for one role. They re-cast Dev Patel, a young Indian actor, as Zuko. None of the other lead roles were re-cast.

Zuko is the villain. A villain, mind you, who switches sides and joins forces with the heroes to defeat the ultimate villain of the story, who just happens to be Zuko’s father.

So now, we’ve gone from a completely whitewashed cast of heroes (supported by faceless, dark-skinned background noise otherwise known as extras, otherwise known as collateral damage, otherwise known as set decoration on par with that exotic vase from somewhere no one cares about in China), to a whitewashed trio of heroes who will eventually show our poor, misled brown child the light so that he can help them save the world from the rest of The Evil Brown People.

If you can’t see why this story is now deeply disturbing and problematic, if you can’t imagine how this could be damaging and wrong, then we are going to have problems.MORE

M. Night Shylaman has for whatever reason decided to be the token POC face spouting and thus trying to legitimize the racist Fail on this, and he has sure as hell been doing his job. (seriously? Ethnicities are NOT Interchangeable WTF!!! Random Black people all up in a narrative is NOT your get-out-of-racism card! And Evil POC in the movies? AINT FUCKING IRONIC) But don’t get it twisted. M. Night Shylaman has decided to work with constraints placed on him by the very white, very middle and upper class, very racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist, cissexist…in short very goddamn problematic; Hollywood decision-makers. And this is about them, those producers, casting directors and everybody who took a fucking property and ripped out the guts of what made it successful, what made it true, what made it unique, what made it so special to so many minorities; because they once again decided that only ablebodied, misogynist, het, cissexist white males deserve to see their culture being reflected and respected and validated in entertainment. The rest of us, women, racial and disabled and lgbtaqi minorities? We don’t matter. We are adjuncts to the great white male, and our stories? Don’t get to be told. And if by some rare chance our stories do get to be told? Able-bodied, het, cissexist White people (for the most part) are going to buy them, make movies out of them, and replace us with themselves, just to make it goddamn clear that only they matter in this universe and there will be very very few things that minorities of any type will get to have and hold and enjoy.

And don’t you DARE say that its just fiction, or its just stories.

No such thing as *just* fiction

Fiction has very, very real consequences for readers, writers, and cultures. They are cultural transactions, either within a culture or sometimes between cultures. To say that it’s "just fiction" when discussing what does and doesn’t matter culturally and literarily is like saying it’s "just trade" when talking about the economy.

The statement is absurd on it’s face. I can’t think of any other way to articulate how utterly, stupendously, profoundly wrong such a phrase is.

Just as trade can make, break, and shake an economy – so too does fiction with culture. So much of the information and ideas that we carry around with us come from the stories we’re told. The attitudes that so many white folks have about people of color doesn’t simply come from things we’re taught in class or things we’re told. It comes from fiction. From the books and movies we’re handed as kids.

I can give example after example of how people have responded to movies, books, TV shows. People name their kids after favorite characters, or try something they read in a book. People take attitudes away from what they read.

The things we read, even and especially the fictional things, affect us. It leaves a mark on us. Even bad books, boring books, poorly written books, racist books. Many times, especially if we’re making no effort to be aware, we aren’t conscious of the impression being left on us.

Nobody gets away from a book unchanged. Nobody. You are always a slightly different person after every little bit you read. Whether you loved it, hated it, didn’t care – it shifted you, rearranged some of your molecules, shifted the little pathways in your brain.

Fiction shapes the reader, the writer, and the culture. When we commit fiction, we shape and are shaped.

And when we commit fiction that is unexamined, full of the monstrous ideas that have been shaping us, and don’t even know they’re there, we’re shaping the world for the worse. When we read fiction and do not look for the monsters even a little, we are being shaped for the worst and letting it happen.MORE

but we must always be polite!

So, this kid, with his brown skin almost the same shade as mine, his hair in light brown tight ringlets. He looks at this quiet black man next to me and his mind says, "SCARY".

Where did he get this? Say we’re generous and assume the mom didn’t teach it to him, or the grandparents. Say we assume they’re not from New West, they’re from somewhere in Metro Vancouver with even *less* black people. Say all that.

Do you think this kid even understands that when he’s a grownup, skin maybe darker than in its baby stages, people are going to be calling *him* the "scary man"? Do you think he even recognizes that he’s not the hero and never will be? He’s already learned from the media and society that the darker you are, the scarier you are; when will he start recognizing his face reflected back only as villain, as joke fodder, as exotic backdrop? When will he realize that other people — people like me included — don’t see him as white, even in the middle of all his white family?

This is why it matters for kids, for adults, for *anyone* to see themselves in stories. And I don’t mean as nameless creatures with no agency, or as a nation of genocidal warmongers. And there are overlaps with the racefail; there’s the character Teo, whose father builds him a wheelchair after he becomes disabled, who’s also been removed from the movie (to make place for a traitorous Asian character). There’s the elders like GranGran, who has been reduced from a competent and vital woman to a faint ancient-wisdom shadow. There’s Suki and the strong female Kyoshi Warriors, cut from the movie without even a credit.

We’re the scary people on the screen, and we’re the scary people in life — even to a child who’s at least partly one of us. Don’t ever tell me that it’s just a movie.MORE

Now. One of the good things is that they managed to put it up against the Twilight juggernaut, which, I would remind you, has its own racefail with Taylor Lautner. So by definition, it is unlikely that they are going to open well. But a quick googling of reviews reveals that the movie itself aint that good. So if you MUST look at this for trainwreck purposes, consider seeing it at a cheap ticket theatre, or d/l it or something. Or simply get ahold of the cartoon itself and watch it. But while you are at it, and even while you are boycotting it, consider the fate of Dev Patel, a gorgeous actor who took this part because it offered a change from what he was getting offered parts as the terrorist, the taxi driver, the smart geek or any “guy named Raj.”. Even if the movie was good, the race fail, gender fail and all around character representational fail is and will always be fucking wrong. Lets continue to challenge the system at every level, with every fucked up casting decision, so that non-white actors can stop being put in this position, so that kids no longer grow up with harmful, destructive stories, so that society will be a better place for ALL of us, and not just the privileged few.

23 thoughts on “Why you should not see “The Last Airbender” movie, but watch the cartoon instead.”

  1. Pingback: More On The Last Airbender « curiosity killed the eccentric yoruba
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  3. Lala says:

    Honestly while I too disagree with the casting I think fighting against this movie is like tilting against windmills. It’s going to be huge.

    1. PlusSizedWomanist says:

      I disagree with that. The movie got a 6% score on Rotten Tomatoes, along with a HALF STAR from Roger Ebert. The people have spoken, and they say that this movie is shit.

    2. nojojojo says:

      I haven’t yet seen a review of this movie that didn’t point out that racism is really the least of its problems. It’s becoming increasingly clear to the public that racism = an early indicator of crapitude. If the director doesn’t care enough to screen out stereotypes, etc., from their characterization, then the director probably doesn’t care much about plot, pace, or any of the other things that make up a good story.

      I think this is going to be the flop of the summer. And while I no longer care if it hurts Shyamalan’s career, I do hope it doesn’t damage Dev Patel. I want to see him in more A-list stuff.

      1. Rob Hansen says:

        Dev Patel’s big break came when he played a character in UK TV series ‘Skins’ – that’s where he was spotted for ‘Slumdog Millionaire’. There’s a ‘Skins’ movie currently being developed but those involved are being very tight-lipped about which characters will return for it. On AfterElton they hot for gay teen Maxie from seasons 1 & 2 to be in it, while on AfterEllen they’re salivating at the thought of lesbian couple Naomily from seasons 3 & 4 appearing. So possibly Dev will get to reprise his role for that, returning to his actorly roots, as it were.

  4. Farah Mendlesohn says:

    I know very little about the cartoon, so only vaguely followed the furor about casting. I had completely forgotten about it.

    And then I saw the trailer this week.

    You’d have to be wilfully blind not to realise there is something really screwy with the casting–and as a side issue I am delighted to report that they can expect to be laughed at if anyone starts citing “best actor for the job”. The acting is stilted and pathetic.

  5. Revet says:

    I just saw the movie and it is horrible. The magic of the series is absent and the special effects were boring, I could not wait for it to be over. The non-white characters were the only interesting parts of the movie. They could act and gave beauty to the story. The director failed again.

  6. Daioshin01 says:

    LOL I had a feeling this movie would flop, but I didn’t know it would be THAT bad judging from some of what is cited here! Then again what do you expect from Shyalaman, the very guy who directed ‘The Happening’ and ‘Lady in the Water’. It serves them right! It’s the 21st century and to think Hollywood would try to get away with B.S. like this hiring white actors to play Asian characters! WTF!

  7. Sarah Morehouse says:

    Did you read Roger Ebert’s review of it? He does mention that they changed the races of the leads. He goes on to pan the movie with extreme prejudice. Bad CG, bad editing, bad lighting and colors, bad script, bad acting, and above all (in Ebert’s view) a bad choice to Hollywoodize an anime.
    “[Shyamalan’s] first inexplicable mistake was to change the races of the leading characters…”

    I deeply wish he’d made a bigger point of it and talked about it in terms of systemic racism in American media, but… it’s in there. It was noticed and disliked by somebody in the mainstream. It’s a wedge in, so let’s hammer it!

  8. Zelda B. says:

    I saw a link to this blog through a friend, and it sort of took me by surprise, because I’ve seen so much of the original series (my 6-year-old is obsessed), and none of the main characters (save Zuko and some of the Fire Nation people, all villains) seem particularly Asian. It has always struck me as a little odd, I mean, with all the Asian references, and they’re all big blue/green/grey eyes and European looking. So, while it would have been great to see some POC cast in the film, it would have made the original series make more sense, also.

    Agree that the movie was a fail–we saw it last night, kid was looking forward to it and we weren’t going to pass on it. It was kind of disappointing, and I wanted to like it, but it just kept falling flat, and every adult in the theater was laughing. I’ll be very surprised if it doesn’t disappear immediately.

    1. nojojojo says:

      Zelda, the characters have blue/green/etc. eyes because this isn’t Earth and their races don’t map completely to ours; there’s still a fantasy element involved. The show partly uses eye color as an indicator of nationality. Fire Nation people have light brown/yellow eyes (the color of fire), Water Tribe people have blue (the color of water), Earth Kingdom have green, Air Nomads have gray. And since there are Asians who have eyes in all those colors (except yellow, which again — not Earth), it’s not beyond the pale.

      And the characters do look Asian, just not the kind of exaggerated, stereotypical Asian we’re used to seeing in American-made cartoons (excessively “slanty” eyes, exaggeratedly yellow skin, etc.). Here’s a good article on the subject.

      Unfortunately, the film isn’t likely to disappear immediately, since enough people have bought tickets to it that it hasn’t been classified as an immediate flop. All those people in the theater who were laughing at the film still helped to support its racism.

  9. GallingGalla says:

    M. Night Shylaman has decided to work with constraints placed on him by the very white, very middle and upper class, very racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist, cissexist…in short very goddamn problematic; Hollywood decision-makers. And this is about them, those producers, casting directors and everybody who took a fucking property and ripped out the guts of what made it successful, what made it true, what made it unique, what made it so special to so many minorities; because they once again decided that only ablebodied, misogynist, het, cissexist white males deserve to see their culture being reflected and respected and validated in entertainment.

    I have not yet had time to read the entire article, but *this* is why I don’t see movies any more. Even so-called “art films”, “indy films” is about, by, and for ablebodied, misogynist, het, cissexist white males – it’s tiring and frustrating. No way will I be seeing this film. Watch the animated series? Oh yeah.

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  12. Iron_Lynx says:

    Omega Fail. 500 million dollars spent, and not a single shred of anything good in return. Considering he started with a series that has such grand potential, there is no other phrase to describe what Shylaman has accomplished here.

  13. avatarfan says:

    can’t we just not go see it because it’s a terrible movie that has none of the fun and appeal of the fantastic series?

    1. unusualmusic says:

      No. Because racism is a great big honking problem that needs to be fixed. You might be priveleged enough for it to not hurt you, but it sure as hell hurts a lot of people, as the links document, and our pain and damage needs to be tended to.

    2. nojojojo says:

      Sure, that can be your reason. But my definition of “fun” and “appealing” includes the fact that the original series was different — it broke the “rules” of racism that have dominated American entertainment for decades. I can watch the original series without feeling any of the gut-churning revulsion that fills me when I see most stereotype-filled crap. That’s what makes it fun for me. YMMV.

  14. Lala says:

    I don’t know ultimately how well ‘Airbender’ will do but I do know I never listen to the critics because they never get it right imo. I

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  17. John says:

    I must confess… I did see the film. It was horrible. And I cannot tell you how pissed I was to see:
    A) Katara was useless and awkward, not an inspiring and talented martial artist
    B) Zuko was a brutish thug, not a troubled young man who has redeemable and even honorable qualities (even before he became a good guy)

    I guess the message sent here is that woman are useless and young minorities are thugs.
    I will never wash away the taint that was this movie and I will never forgive myself for supporting it by spending time watching it. Never.

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  20. Aydan says:

    I came to this blog via the post on responsible parenting, and I know this is a bit late, but I’ve been rewatching the animated version lately and I just wanted to add my drive-by voice to the recommendation. It’s ethnically diverse, it’s got a lot of very strong women characters, one of the characters is blind. Also it’s well-written. It might be a good antidote to the bad taste in your mouth that reading about the film may leave.

  21. Aydan says:

    Um, and by “ethnically diverse” I meant that it is based on Asian cultures but portrays a variety of them– not just lumping all Asian cultures into one homogeneous mix.

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