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Realms of Fantasy Columnist Condones Whitewashing When “Magic” Is Involved

(crossposted from my personal blog)

I know that pointing out RoF Fail is a little like kicking a puppy, but you know how it is when Nick Mamatas sends you a link clearly meant to induce blog-worthy rage — you just have to accommodate him.

So, LJ user torrain was reading the latest issue of Realms of Fantasy and didn’t get far before the facepalm reached epic proportions. Inside the magazine’s movie review of The Last Airbender ze found this awesomeness:

However, The Last Airbender has already caught flak for “whitewashing,” meaning, the casting of white actors (or actors who appear to be white) to play non-white characters, especially when those characters are heroic. It’s a hot-button issue that dredges up memories of images like Al Jolsen wearing black-face makeup. Of course, there are two sides to this coin. On one hand, whitewashing can feel insulting, disrespectful, and disappointing to movie-goers. Many may label it as politically incorrect. On the other hand, anyone who has run a casting call will tell you that when you find the right person for the role, something magical happens. Time seems to stop, and you feel as if the character comes to life right in front of your eyes. The character is no longer ink on paper; the character begins to live and breathe. It has nothing to do with race and everything to do with the individual human being reading for the part. Adding to the mix is the fact that some roles written for white people have been won by actors of color, and some roles written for men have been played by women. In other words, whitewashing isn’t a one-way street. It’s a difficult situation that places filmmakers between the goal of finding magic and not offending audiences. At the end of the day, most directors simply want to tell a good story.

There’s a lot of obvious fail going on here, and it’s hard to know where to begin, but I’ll start with this notion that “something magical happens” when the right person comes along for the role, even if that person is white and the character is not. Even if this was ever true somewhere in the world, it’s not true in this movie. Let’s quote Roger Ebert talking about the casting, specifically:

Shyamalan has failed. His first inexplicable mistake was to change the races of the leading characters; on television Aang was clearly Asian, and so were Katara and Sokka, with perhaps Mongolian and Inuit genes. Here they’re all whites. This casting makes no sense because (1) It’s a distraction for fans of the hugely popular TV series, and (2) all three actors are pretty bad. I don’t say they’re untalented, I say they’ve been poorly served by  Shyamalan and the script. They are bland, stiff, awkward and unconvincing.

Entertainment Weekly:

The trouble with The Last Airbender is that Aang, as a character, is a saintly abstraction (Noah Ringer plays him with a sensitive pout that grows cloying), and he’s surrounded by generic young actors who are like place holders for real stars.


Shyamalan has worked wonders with child actors before, but Ringer is no Haley Joel Osment, delivering some fancy footwork but zero charisma in the pic’s key role. Most dialogue scenes are framed in tight Sergio Leone-style closeup, emphasizing the actors’ wooden nature. At that proximity, we notice that Rathbone never blinks; nor can he be counted on to deliver any of the comic relief of his animated counterpart.

I could go on. The issue here is not that M. Night just happened to find these amazing kids to play these roles who just happened to be white. This is what he or the producers or the studio set out to do from the beginning because, even though millions of people love the cartoon and its clearly Asian characters, they felt that audiences just can’t handle brown and yellow people as the heroes. As the evil villains, sure. But protagonists must be white, right?

Whitewashing, no matter how much you pretty it up with the magical casting feeling of amazingness, is still just damn wrong.

The second half of that paragraph, which you probably didn’t even read because the first part was so rage-inducing with its faily wrongness, I shall paste again, because it also needs addressing:

Adding to the mix is the fact that some roles written for white people have been won by actors of color, and some roles written for men have been played by women. In other words, whitewashing isn’t a one-way street. It’s a difficult situation that places filmmakers between the goal of finding magic and not offending audiences. At the end of the day, most directors simply want to tell a good story.

Jesus. Okay, deep breath. First of all, the conceit of having women play roles written for men is usually about deconstruction more than it’s about some magical audition process or someone being “right” for a role. And I can’t come up with any examples of people of color playing roles “written for white people” unless you’re talking about classical theater or something. Maybe they mean Sam Jackson as Nick Fury? But again, when POC play, uh “white” roles, that actually has a different weight and purpose behind it than whitewashing. The power differentials there are NOT equal. Are POC overrepresented in Hollywood movies and American television? No. Are white people? Yes. So when whitewashing occurs, do you know who it hurts and disrespects and diminishes? POC.

The fact that this Realms columnist doesn’t understand any of this is already major fail. The fact that his or her editor doesn’t understand any of this is even bigger fail. And it’s leading many people to question why they would even bother to save such a magazine from its impending cancellation when all they have to look forward to is a bunch of racefail in the non-fiction section.

I’m just going to bottom line it for you: Whitewashing is never okay no matter what. If you don’t agree, then you’re really too far gone to exist in polite and cultured society and perhaps you should do us all a favor and go back to the cave you most certainly crawled out of.

Is that too harsh?

14 thoughts on “Realms of Fantasy Columnist Condones Whitewashing When “Magic” Is Involved”

  1. cerebrate says:

    Oh dear gods.

    “Adding to the mix is the fact that some roles written for white people have been won by actors of color, and some roles written for men have been played by women.”

    Okay, the ONLY two examples that I can come up with that come even REMOTELY close to this are:
    – Angelina Jolie in “Salt”, the lead role of which was written as a man and then rewritten as a woman when Tom Cruise backed out, and
    – Duane Jones as Ben in the original “Night of the Living Dead”, which wasn’t necessarily written as/for a white man (he was written as a “crude but resourceful truck driver”, which would probably be coded as white) but was rewritten for Duane Jones because, as George Romero has said, he was the best actor for the role.

    Two examples, and those are iffy at best. Yeah, that totally balances out all the white people occupying roles depicting people of color.

  2. Lori S. says:

    Maybe they mean Sam Jackson as Nick Fury?

    Don’t forget Idris Elba as Heimdall in the upcoming Thor movie.

    I mean, I certainly can’t. In a good way…

    (And lots of movie fans can’t, in a bad way. Which puts an extra underline to the lies in this column.)

  3. Amal El-Mohtar says:

    I’m so tired of people going on about BUT THE RIGHT PERSON FOR THE JOB TRUMPS RACE. The casting call pretty clearly decimates that argument, and for someone to venture into critiquing the critique without knowing that smacks of poor research in addition to lack of logical process.

    In short, ugh.

    1. Piricarmen says:

      Outstanding!!! Ignorant people who have little or nothing to do with minorities have the nerve to tell us (the recipients of daily white supremist nonsense) what the deal is.

  4. unusualmusic says:

    You know, I not even going to look at this shit. Fuck it all.

    1. The Angry Black Woman says:

      You’re not missing anything of import.

  5. Rob Hansen says:

    Given that Nick Fury *is* black in Marvel’s ‘Ultimate’ continuity I doubt many people had a problem with him being played by Sam Jackson, particularly since he’s clearly modelled after Jackson and says in the comics at one point he wants to be played by Jackson. Apparently, Jackson’s wife apparently bought him a page of original artwork with this Nick Fury in it as a present at one point.

    Kingpin was white in the comics and played by Michael Clarke Duncan on screen, which was apparently the result of their being no white actor available who was large enough and had that physical presence.

    I admit to being puzzled by the casting of Elba as Heimdall given that these are the gods of the Norsemen. Then again, the character of Hogun arrived in Asgard from an Arabian Nights world and so should be non-white.

    A current example of the rare phenomenon of a black actor playing a part traditionally played by a white actor is that of Angel Coulby, who plays Guinivere on the TV show ‘Merlin’.

  6. Jon Hansen says:

    The only one that ever came to mind for me was “Rising Sun,” a Sean Connery/Wesley Snipes movie from ’93. In the book the Wesley Snipes character was white, but for the movie the director wanted Snipes instead. Crichton objected on the grounds that the Japanese would treat a black man differently from a white man, and ultimately quit the screenplay, took his money and left. I have no idea if his objections were valid or not, as I don’t know enough about how the Japanese viewed/treated Black Americans in the late ’80s (when the book was written). This hardly justifies the Avatar trainwreck. Hell, I started watching that clip Mamatas posted on his LJ and had to stop after a minute, the acting was so bad.

  7. Leland Eaves says:

    Morgan Freeman played Red in Shawshank Redemption but in the short was an Irishman. They made a joke about it in the movie.
    Funny how this movie has stirred up so much controversy while being so epically bad. Even if they had cast people of color it wouldn’t have made the movie much (if any) better.

  8. SMD says:

    Yes, you know, because having casting calls that say “CAUCASIAN, or any other ethnicity” totally makes it easy for you to have that “magical moment” with someone who might actually be the appropriate race for the character. Not to mention that the preferences of white over other ethnicities would absolutely produce a disparity between your options. I can’t imagine being non-white and seeing that casting call and thinking, “You know, they’re totally looking for someone who isn’t white for that movie. I should audition.” (This is all sarcasm, just in case that isn’t clear…)

    You can’t argue out of this one, Airbender supporters. It’s not possible. The casting calls were, if not outright racist, at least racist by being incredibly ignorant.

    I think what is most offensive about all this to me is that it’s not a case of maybe updating some old piece of literature or picking people for nebulous-raced people. This is a case of picking white characters to play characters that are OBVIOUSLY not white. It’s so bloody obvious it hurts the mind to think about all of the crap that went into this movie…

    I’m done ranting. *grumble*

  9. Diana says:

    Leland, I think it stirs up a lot of talk from people because there are a lot of fans of the TV show who are very upset about the casting (regardless of the quality of the film) — and specifically a lot of Asian fans of the TV show who were so happy to see Asian characters and an Asian world represented. There isn’t a lot of that for children.

    I loved the TV show, and I know that without the racefail I would have been first in line to see the film even if it was truly terrible and filmed on a shoestring budget. But as is, I haven’t seen it. The sad part of that is, the takeaway for Hollywood will probably NOT be “Oh, we shouldn’t whitewash our properties.” It’ll probably be “Oh, we shouldn’t have movies based on children’s television/Asian fantasy worlds/epic fantasy.” So I may be voting with my dollars, but Hollywood has a different idea of what I mean by it.

  10. Genevieve says:

    While there have been a few instances in which characters who were white in the source material were portrayed by actors of color in a film, in the vast majority of these cases, the story was set in America–thereby making the “problem” (if there is one) not nearly as big as putting a bunch of white people in an East Asia-based fantasy world. Of course, this doesn’t happen nearly as often as casting white people in roles which were originally not-white.

  11. Carrie says:

    I second Diana. Not only is it wrong to whitewash actors, it’s a poor entertainment choice. You know how I feel every time I hear one of my favorite stories (tv, book or game) is being made into a movie with a white actor instead of one of the actual race of the character? Really fucking disappointed.
    People love these stories because of the richness of their characters, and part of that richness is their race.
    I thought it couldn’t get worse than making the Prince of Persia white, but then I saw the casting choices for The Last Airbender. UGH
    I didn’t pay to see either of these movies in theater, and I totally would have if not for the terrible casting choices, because I love that game and that tv show.

  12. Ems says:

    I know I’m VERY late to comment-but just read this article-but a recentish case of white washing-and blackin up to boot-was when Angelina Jolie was cast as the biracial Mariane Pearl in A Mighty Heart. What was irritating was that the well known actresses (who were also biracial to boot)Thandie Newton or Halle Berry could have also been cast. Both excellent actresses. Both, esp Halle, big office name draws. That was a ridiculous, and repugnant Hollywood move.

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