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The Last Airbender Boycott Explained

Gene Luen Yang sums it up in a short comic.

I signed the original petition and will skip the movie. Sadly. Because, like Gene, I deeply loved the animated series.

[link via Dirk]


Discussion (30)¬

  1. Mike L says:

    I love Gene’s comic and I was looking forward to the movie. Didn’t watch the series, but if a couple of weeks will make a difference for this kind of thing it’s hardly an imposition. I don’t know what’s worse; Hollywood’s rampant racism or their underestimation of their audience.

  2. I was underwhelmed by the previews. Nice to know that I can do good by doing what I was already inclined to do: stay home from this stinker.

  3. Troy Gilbert says:

    I’m not seeing the racism on display here. The casting call was for “Caucasian or any other ethnicity.” I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt that they specified Caucasian because otherwise many actors may have assumed Asian-only. Perhaps I don’t know some unstated rules about Hollywood casting calls?

    M. Night is clearly not a “white guy” so I wouldn’t expect him to be “whitewashing” a movie, and he certainly has some clout in the Hollywood system. Am I missing something?

    • Matthew Marcus says:

      His clout has been diminishing rather quickly thanks to his past two films. And speaking as an actor who has read many audition announcements, I’d say the wording wasn’t just to make sure “white kids wouldn’t show up.” The same thing happened in Dragon Ball Z. But that didn’t sting as much, because…well, it’s just Dragon Ball Z.

    • RJ says:

      You have to realize that adding “or any other ethnicity” is the loophole they use to be able to deny discrimination. By specifying Caucasian, they are indicating that that is their preference. One of the main mistakes people make is treating discrimination as isolated incidents. You have to look at the repeated history of discrimination to connect the dots

    • Cy says:

      I don’t buy this “not racist” statement–if they had honestly been open to casting asian actors in the film, there would have been at least one. Check the extras milling around any episode of GLEE and you can see that there are plenty of Asian actors in Hollywood. We’ve just never heard of them/seen them because there are so few roles they can audition for. So they must’ve been thrilled when they saw this film, with its nearly all-asian cast of characters (I’m counting the Water Tribe as more of an Inuit-based civilzation). And yet, not a single role was given to them out of this film… how can that not be racist?

      You know what this kind of casting says to America? “It’s cool to like Asian culture, but never mind about Asians themselves. We can just leave them out.” Do you really think that’s okay to say?

  4. Superstarseven says:

    I don’t know what you were watching there, Chuck.
    Looks awesome to me and pretty much anyone else who saw it.

  5. John says:

    I just googled the live cast vs the cartoon cast.
    Pretty much the same reaction. Casting is wrong. It may say “Caucasian or any other ethnicity.”, but they only choose Caucasian for the heroes. Wink wink nudge nudge.
    I won’t be taking my kid to the movie.

  6. Raptorix says:

    I want to see the film only to pick it apart to itty bitty pieces, and only then after it has been released on DVD and I can rent it.

  7. eigakantoku says:

    I think it’s an interesting question, and definitely something that should have attention brought to it.

    I’m not sure quite where I fall on the subject, given this interview http://io9.com/5504967/shyamalan-addresses-airbenders-race-controversy-and-answers-your-questions with Shyamalan where he goes in-depth into his casting thought process. (He even references Masking, if not by name) It’s possible he’s lying to himself, but it doesn’t feel like he’s lying to the interviewer. Though maybe the casting director, producers, etc. influenced him towards the white actors more than he’d like to admit.

    As for the casting sheet, that might just be so that agents didn’t just send “ethnic” actors to the auditions, since just writing “any ethnicity” might’ve confused them, given that the industry standard is (obviously racistly) white. And agents aren’t notoriously intelligent, as a species.

    So…I don’t know. Obviously the American film industry favors having white people play everybody, particularly heroes, but does that make casting white people as indeterminate-raced characters inherently racist no matter what? I think Shyamalan at least went into it with the right intentions, but I don’t think he realized to what extent having the main team be all-white would influence the overall feel of the casting, and most likely the movie itself.

    I think there’re probably enough questions to make the suggested 1 or 2 week waiting boycott the most appropriate response.

  8. Darkflame says:

    I suspect Shyamalan picked what he thought was best from those put in front of him. His “crime” here would more likely be inaction rather then action.

    Its a shame really, as I get a impression he truly loves the show and wants to respect its storytelling.

  9. John says:

    I shall heed the advice and wait to see Jonah Hex, instead.

  10. Steve W says:

    I took a quick look at the casting on IMDB. There seem to be a lot of indians in the cast (from India). Last I checked India is in Asia. So, are they just the wrong kind of asians for Mr. Yang or…what?

    • Matthew Marcus says:

      Imagine if they cast Edward James Olmos as Paul Bunyan. He’s from Mexico and Mexico is in “The Americas.”

      If you’re asking, “Isn’t India the same as the cultures the show celebrated?” then the answer is no. Asia’s a big place.

      And the heroes are white.

      • Steve W says:

        You’ve got a good point. I still don’t think there’s anything sinister going on here though.
        I realise that India is different from Japan. I’m saying that I don’t think the casting was about racism.
        Movies are made to make money (most movies anyway). And movie goers are most likely to spend their money on movies and characters that they easily identify with. Bollywood movies have Indian casts, Chinese movies have chinese casts, and unfortunately for Mr. Yang, north american made movies usually have caucasian or african-american casts.
        It’s probably not about racism, it’s about making money by identifying with as wide an audience as possible.
        Maybe one day a Japanese production company will re-make this movie with an all-asian cast.

        • Matthew Marcus says:

          This is about how you define “racism.” Is the casting meant to injure or belittle Asian culture? No. Does the casting decision go hand in hand with an long and sad tradition of limiting the narrative range available to other races in American Cinema? Yes.

          • Scott says:

            Amen to that last point, Matthew.

          • Steve W says:

            I think I understand a bit better now.
            If this movie were a unique case of prejudicial casting it would be a bit less upsetting. But, because it’s not nearly the first time, and probably not the last time, and because this story is very dear to anime fans, this one stings a bit more.
            Am I reading you right?

  11. John says:

    Another way to look at it.
    Would Twilight have been true to the books if the vampire was played by a black guy and the werewolf was played by a Japanese kid?
    Would Harry Potter have been true to the books if Harry had been played by a Pakistani
    Would a Boondocks live action movie been true to the comics if white kids with British accents played the characters?
    So why how can the Avatar heroes be so very white and still be true to the cartoon?
    Oh wait, the villain, he’s ethnic.

  12. [...] Scott McCloud | Journal » Archive » The Last Airbender Boycott … [...]

    • Acgalaga says:

      Fistful of Dollars didn’t have any Mexicans in it. Bunch of Italians and Spaniards. It was also a ripoff of a Japanese movie (Yojimbo). Still an awesome move none the less.

      (the Peanut Gallery)

      • Matthew Marcus says:

        There’s actually a play about the racial casting in westerns. It’s called “I don’t have to show you no stinking badges!” by Luis Valdez. As a formalist, Scott, you’d dig it. It plays with the forth wall of theater in a very cool way.

        The critique is not of the film’s quality or the performance of the actors (both of which may be very good). The offence comes from the film’s adherence to an offensive trend. And while exceptions obviously exist, anyone who has looked at American film can clearly see a statistically significant and non-accidental pattern of limitation in the dramatic range of non-Caucasian characters.

  13. [...] Scott McCloud | Journal » Archive » The Last Airbender Boycott … [...]

  14. Tom says:

    I see where everyone’s coming from, and I absolutely HATE for my first post on Scott McCloud’s blog to be dissent (you’re my hero, Mr. McCloud!), but I’m going to have to say that I respectfully disagree with the “boycott” sentiment here.

    In my opinion, boycotts end up hurting people more than helping them. After all, a lot of artists work really hard to make one film. To boycott a film is to deny all these artists their chance to communicate to you. In my opinion, one should be respectful of the artists and only reject a piece after giving it a shot, don’t base the decision on a matter of principle or pride (especially if you’re protesting a decision that’s already been made).

    On top of that, I honestly don’t see what the big deal is with the casting. To me, their decision makes perfect sense. And I DON’T think it’s about execs thinking that “whites are more relatable!”

    From what I’ve seen and read, their logic is that if Avatar is a world-spanning story, with four geographically distinct nations, the populations of each one have to look ethnically distinct from each other. That’s not a bias, that’s just how ethnicity works. Just because each *culture* was based on Asian influences in the cartoon, that doesn’t mean that there can’t be white or south-Asian *faces* in the movie.

    The only race-based rule was that they needed to make Sokka, Katara and the other water benders the same race. They are family, after all. If they found a great actor for the lead role who *happens* to be white, they need to cast their family as white for the sake of *this* story.

    I doubt that the producers were pulling strings to “non-accidentally” ensure that the water-bender roles went to white people. And I am positive that M. Night Shayamalan was not doing this. They could have gone to any ethnic group, it was all a matter of chance.

    I don’t see the evidence to condemn this production for conscious racial profiling, and if one is going to say “it’s an act of unconscious racism that follows a statistical trend, and deserves to be treated as if if were overtly racist,” one must be prepared to extend that kind of reasoning to its natural conclusion and declare that any artist who may unconsciously or accidentally offended your values (or even dares to conjure up old memories of somebody else who hurt you) deserves to be punished/boycotted as if they did it on purpose. If we all start doing that, then people will start boycotting pretty much every artist, based on hasty assumptions and reactions to perceived offenses.

    I hope I am making sense. I don’t want to sound incensed or rude. I also know a lot of posters on here have already made their decisions, but I feel I have to make my voice heard:
    I think that if an artist devotes a lot of his or her time to a project and has confidence in it, people should at least give it a chance to shine before condemning it. I give everything the benefit of the doubt. You might call me naive, but I don’t see it that way.

  15. [...] Scott McCloud | Journal » Archive » The Last Airbender Boycott … [...]

    • Matthew Marcus says:

      Whew. There’s a lot to unpack here (including some points I agree with). First, I think I need to clarify my position.

      Do I think that every artist in the production of this film should be equally labeled and treated like a KKK member? No.

      Do I think that the decisions made regarding race should be talked about when those decisions shape how race is portrayed in the media? Yes.

      And I don’t believe that the decision was unconscious. Nor do I believe the decision was overtly racist. As with most things, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

      Let’s step away from this film so I can put my money where my mouth is and talk a bit more about this “trend.”

      Lion King: Great movie. While the story is based most clearly on Hamlet, the style is inspired from animal fables and African cultures. So, logically, many characters are voiced by black actors. Except the hero. He’s white. And let’s not forget about the ethic hyena henchmen.

      Aladdin: Good movie. Many of the characters have “faux ethnic” accents, but Aladdin sounds like the whitest kid you’ll ever meet.

      Beauty and the Beast: Great movie. Takes place in France. The French stereotypes have French accents (Lumiere, the broom). Non-French stereotypes sound American.

      Then there are the slew of films (many of them good films) whose message is against racism, but gives more dramatic weight to white characters (Green Mile, Last Samurai, Snow falling on Cedars, Avatar). Is there anything intrinsically wrong about telling the story about a white guy that learns not to be racist? No. Am I annoyed that it’s easier for that story to get made into a film than a story about a non-white character? Yes.

      I could go on, but it’s pointless. People smarter than me have already written books on this stuff.

      So why does Hollywood do this? Money. If being progressive made them money, then they would be the most progressive institution in the world. Like it or not, “mass audience” often means lowest common denominator to Hollywood. And a lot of white people are less likely to see a film if the main characters aren’t white. Not because they are overtly racist, but because a lot of people like seeing films with characters that remind them of themselves (even in the most superficial terms).

      That all being said, however, I probably won’t boycott this movie. I can’t say that it shouldn’t be boycotted. But for me, if a movie looks good and I want to see it, then I’m going to see it. The casting will leave a bad taste in my mouth, but c’est la vie. I will, however, get into numerous discussions like this one.

      That probably makes me a preachy hypocrite.

      Oh well.

      • Tom says:

        My main contention is that there’s a difference between pointing out a flaw with Hollywood and taking out your ire on a specific, largely innocent, movie.

        From what I’ve read, it seems like Shayamalan did his best to create an ethnically diverse world (Avatar, as a concept, is nothing if not an experiment in world-building and constructed cultures). They simply picked the best actors *that they could find* for Katara (Peltz – White), Aang (Ringer – Mixed Race), and Zuko (Patel – Indian), then they built the world around those three. As I understand, the only reason that the water-benders are white at all is because Shayamalan became personally attached to Peltz and would not do the movie without her as Katara. Supposedly, Peltz is a really, really good actress.

        Is there anything wrong if the actress who Shayamalan thinks best fits the role happens to be white? Not necessarily.

        I’m not saying that there isn’t some pattern or bias underneath it that made Peltz more likely to *become* the best actress for the role, or a pattern that prevented equally qualified actresses of color from applying. There could be, and probably is!
        And you could ask important questions to find the truth, such as: “Are kids in the US more likely to get theater training if they are white? If so, is this due to a bias on the teachers’ parts, the parents’ parts, or society in general? Are people of color under-represented in Hollywood, or is there a justly proportional level of non-white actors who are just denied roles? Is the Hollywood problem characteristic of the whole American movie industry or is it better someplace else?”
        By asking and answering these questions, you might expose a pattern of racist casting in the American movie industry, and hopefully change it.

        However, the evidence tells me that The Last Airbender is NOT an example of this pattern. This is not a Disney cartoon, this is not a movie about white people learning not to be racist, this is not a movie where the casting was based on money (Shayamalan is no businessman, and no racist). This is not a movie that casts white people as Asian characters (In the universe of Avatar, the place we call “Asia” doesn’t exist). It’s just a movie where one out of four imaginary nations happens to look like caucasian people, while the others are not.

        There is a way to deal with systemic problems, like racism in hollywood. But that is not to choose one film as a scapegoat (especially if the evidence suggests it is innocent of the accusations).

        The problem is a tree, and to cut down the tree, you don’t vent your anger on a single twig which may or may not even be attached to the same tree. You find the root of the problem, expose it, and change the system from roots up.

        Oh, and please don’t just call yourself a hypocrite and resign. Discussions like this one are important for keeping ourselves “awake”. I try to voice, be critiqued on, and re-evaluate, my own opinion all the time and learn as much as I can about the issue so that I can form a fair and balanced idea of what’s right. That requires listening to everybody’s argument. So don’t fret, we’re learning!

        • Matthew Marcus says:

          Good points all, and with these points we enter into a fuzzy subjective world where everyone sorta has to make their own call. I personally don’t think Shayamalan was part of the “white-out” decision process, but I do think a decision was made, by person or persons, (most likely producers), and it does annoy me. But that’s just me.

          And don’t worry, self-deprecation is sorta my thing in these discussions; I don’t think I could shut myself up if I tried. I know my girlfriend hasn’t been able to do it.

  16. lol wut says:

    If Shyamalan choose the best actors for the role, can somebody explain to me why he choose Dev Patel second to Jesse McCartney.

  17. Sabrina says:

    Thanks for speaking up, Scott! I won’t see the movie either.

    As a big Avatar fan it is also quite disheartening to see all those comments defending the movie. I just got the cartoon’s artbook a few days ago and it breaks my heart to see all those efforts in creating a wonderful Asian fantasy world going to waste with this movie production.
    I don’t understand how people can be so blind and not see the pattern that is repeating itself over and over again in the movie industry and now in this particular adaptation. White actors are preferred for the heroic lead roles while people of colour are playing the bad guys and extras. While the cartoon’s world was mostly inhabited by Asian/Inuit people the only Asian and Inuit actors in the movie are playing such important roles like “Earthbending Father”, “Kyoshi Warrior #3″ and “Village Tribesman” or something along these lines. So while this world may be “diverse” it’s yet again a story about some White people saving it for the helpless people of colour from the brown villains.
    Although Shyamalan claimed it was just accidental that the cast ended up like this the whole line-up follows the perpetuated institutional racism to the point and the Unfortunate Implications of this casting constellation just add up the deeper you are going down the rabbit hole.