Dear Readers, I’m not big on tv or cartoons, but when I am a fan of something I geek out like a mofo. I don’t even remember how I was introduced to Avatar: The Last Airbender, though I think my friend J might have introduced me to it. My love for this series runs very deep.
For those of you who aren’t familiar, it is a coming of age story about a young monk who has the weight of the world on his shoulders and his realization that he isn’t alone. The series dealt with very complex topics including spirituality (not religion), war, and genocide. ATLA won a fucking Peabody Award in 2008 for “unusually complex characters and healthy respect for the consequences of warfare.” On top of this, the show drew a great following for its diversity in characters and rich indulgence in multiple cultures. The creators of the show paid an extraordinary amount of attention to detail when presenting said cultures and this was noted by people worldwide. Wikipedia states, “In 2007, Avatar was syndicated to more than 105 countries worldwide, and was one of Nickelodeon’s top rated programs. The series was ranked first on Nickelodeon in Germany, Indonesia, Malaysia, Belgium, and Colombia.
So we geeks were really looking forward to seeing the movie version of our favorite tv series. Then the issue of race and casting came about. Many decided to boycott the film because of this. I am ashamed to admit that I didn’t heed the boycott because I really wanted to see the movie. It turned out being really bad which made me feel worse about seeing it.
Damage done, I wrote a letter to Paramount Pictures and M. Night Shyamalan and it went like this:
To Whom It May Concern,
I had reservations about going to see The Last Airbender because of your controversial casting decisions, but went with a friend anyway and planned on taking my family to see it the next day if I felt the movie was worthwhile. I was very surprised to see that the extras were Asian but the main actors were not. Sokka, Katara, and Gran-Gran were sore thumbs as white people in an Inuit village: this disrupted the movie and you lost us as an audience right away. It was also very noticeable that characters who were most likely to be seen as white such as the Fire Lord and Zhao were cast as people of color.
I did not take my family to see this movie. We will not contribute any more ticket sales to this farce. I hope your sales figures will persuade you to cast ethnic people correctly in your upcoming films.
A Disgruntled Fan
Before writing this letter I did some more research and was appalled by what I found. For example, casting calls for main characters and supporting characters differed greatly:
[ AANG ]
12-15 years-old, Male, Caucasian or any other ethnicity. We are looking for a young man to play the lead role in a motion picture franchise. He must be athletic and graceful with an ability in Martial Arts (not necessarily extensive experience) […] He is a young adventurer and should seem like the type of young man who will grow up to be heroic.
[ EXTRAS ]
Physically fit MEN & WOMEN 18-85 yr. Old – Boys & Girls 6-16 yr Old.
NEAR EASTERN, MIDDLE EASTERN, FAR EASTERN, ASIAN, MEDITERRANEAN & LATINO ETHNIC GROUPS….
No experience necessary – Martial Arts & Military Training a PLUS!
Casting Director Deedee Ricketts was more upfront about it later:
“We want you to dress in traditional cultural ethnic attire,” [Deedee Ricketts, the casting director for the film] said. “If you’re Korean, wear a kimono. If you’re from Belgium, wear lederhosen.”[source]
When questioned by an African-American woman about whether not appearing in ethnic costume hurt your chances of being cast, Ricketts responded:
Absolutely not!” Ricketts reassured her. “It doesn’t mean you’re at a disadvantage if you didn’t come in a big African thing. But guys, even if you came with a scarf today, put it over your head so you’ll look like a Ukrainian villager or whatever.” [source]
To me this states absolute ignorance of the cultures represented in the series and an undeniable preference for white actors in lead roles and people of color for villains and extras. This cannot be dismissed as over-reaction or dismissed any other way.
Racebending.com created and excellent compilation of quotes from ATLA fans about why they loved the show and I wanted to share some of them with you.
“I watched the original series and loved the characters because I could relate to them without them being from my background at all. I think that is a big point of the Avatar series, to introduce new cultures and worlds to people–kids especially– who knew nothing about them.”
“I just fell in love with the creativity, attention to detail, and beauty put into the show along with the great respect the creators put into representing the Asian cultures well– rather then as some kind of kung-fu gimmick.”
“It was fantastic being able to spot things from my own ethnic background on the show, which is something that I hardly ever get to see.”
an 18 year old, who identifies as Korean, from Honolulu, HI
“Avatar really shows the beauty of Eastern Asian culture. It made me proud of my Asian heritage.”
a 17 year old half Chinese, half Caucasian young man from Calgary, Canada.
“What drew me in more than anything, was the attention to detail Mike and Bryan [the creators] put into the creation of the world…The best part was seeing the clothes and knowing I have them in my closet, and recognizing the martial arts as parts of forms I’ve learned myself.”
a 20 year old woman of Chinese descent from Vancouver, Canada
“I loved Avatar–the first thing I said when I saw it was ‘Look, there’s brown people on TV!’ I loved the cultural diversity of the show, and what it stood for.”
a 17 year old Native Maldivian young man from London, UK
“Avatar was a show minorities could get excited about because, for once, we had minority leads!”
A 23 year old Guyanese American woman from Maryland
“I find it offensive that Hollywood thinks I’m too stupid or xenophobic to enjoy a movie that stars actors who don’t have the same skin tone as I do.”
a 20 year old Caucasian man from Massachusetts
“Paramount and those involved in the live-action movie blatantly ignored the effort and research put into the series. If they can’t respect it’s source material and what it gave to viewers, I can’t respect their choices for the direction the film is going.”
an 18 year old woman, who identifies as white, from Massachusetts
“Using Indian culture as that of the aggressive, oppressive Fire Nation is greatly offensive. White actors freeing anybody from brown people is a throwback to the days of the “White Man’s Burden”–not to mention disrespectful to my people and my culture. I support Dev Patel and M. Night Shyamalan as talented Indian entertainers, but I personally take offense at the representations portrayed in the film.”
a 17 year old Indian American young man from Cincinnati, OH
“Anyone who thinks this isn’t a big deal should think about the lack of minority heroes in children’s shows and be mailed a photo of my little cousin’s face when she saw a blue-eyed, fair-skinned, light-haired actress cast as Katara.”
an 18 year old Black American woman from Washington D.C.
If you have seen the movie or are participating in the boycott and would like to tell paramount what you think write to:
CEO Brad Grey
Paramount Pictures Corporation
5555 Melrose Ave.
Hollywood, CA 90038
I found 2 different addresses for Shyamalan:
United Talent Agency
9560 Wilshire Boulevard
Beverly Hills, California 90212
M. Night Shyamalan
Creative Artists Agency
2000 Avenue of the Stars
Los Angeles, CA 90067