Water. Earth. Fire. Air. Race. A few days ago, I decided to check on the progress of the ’10 movie The Last Airbender, the live-action version of my all-time favorite animated series, Avatar: The Last Airbender. As many other fans had already known or discovered, M. Night Shyamalan and Paramount had been putting together a cast that flew in the face of what helped make the animated series so popular in the first place. That there were White faces in the cast for The Last Airbender isn’t so surprising. That there were mostly White faces in a pan-Asian/indigenous people conception, at least until recently, was surprising.
Maybe I’m overreacting again. Maybe it wasn’t possible over the past two years to find Biracial, Asian or Native American actors to fill some of the more distinctive roles. I mean, with Russell Means, Jet Li and Kal Penn too old or unavailable, the director and producers for the film would have to find unproven or unknown actors to fill the roles of Aang, Sokka, Katara, Zuko and the other characters from the original show. Despite having about two years to do research and planning for The Last Airbender, Shyamalan and company came up with a mostly White cast by the end of ’08. There were a bunch of protests over the initial casting of Jesse McCartney as Zuko, who was replaced with Dev Patel only a few weeks ago. Because I have a kid and do watch movies made in this decade, I actually know who these actors are. None of them are Zuko, at least in look or face. Apparently no one Japanese was available to play that part.
It’s not that I would expect any studio or director to be able to go out and find Biracial folks who are Indian and German, Native American and Irish, Japanese and French, Chinese and Black, and just so happen to be good actors for this film. But I would expect them to at least try. Even in my small world of teaching, writing and nonprofit work, I’ve had students in the past years who look the role and are young enough to play these characters, assuming their acting chops are more than sufficient. So what gives?
What gives is the same old model of open, blind casting that Hollywood uses to find the best actors for a particular project. Except that open or blind casting really isn’t open or blind. It’s a way of allowing relatively unknown actors to get a role normally reserved for the more successful or famous ones. But it hardly guarantees that actors of color get a role that they would otherwise fit. Black actors have been aware of this for years. So have Asian and Native American actors going back to the days of the Western shoot ’em ups and Hollywood’s first forays into “Asian” films in the ’50s. To think that after the groundbreaking success of Avatar — not to mention films such as Slumdog Millionaire, The Last Samurai, Memoirs of a Geisha and Apocalypto — you would think that the folks involved in The Last Airbender project would use a different formula. But of course not. It took pressure from fans and critics for the Shyamalan and the cast directors to find folks like Cliff Curtis, Jessica Andres, and Aasif Mandvi.
Some bloggers and critics have said that with the casting of Dev Patel as Zuko, that the film decidedly has White actors playing the “good guys” and the darker cast members playing the “bad guys.” If the movie goes the way the casting process has gone, they may well be correct. I have a bit more faith in this end of the process than in the casting end. With the creators of the animated series (DiMartino and Konietzko) involved in the writing process for the film, they may be able to break out of the Hollywood archetype mold and build in complexity with these characters. We all know that Zuko and Iroh were complicated characters, not purely good or evil. Aang himself was both wise and naive and made lots of mistakes as Avatar. If that somehow stays in a script that these actors can somehow follow, I don’t think it would come off as White good guys versus multicultural bad guys.
Some bloggers and critics have said that the casting shouldn’t matter, since almost all of the voices for the animated series were White. Not quite true. Yes, most of the main characters’ voices were White. But Zuko’s wasn’t — Dante Basco’s Filipino American — and neither was Iroh’s, at least for two of the three seasons. So many of the other voices crossed ethnic and racial boundaries that to argue that the voices were distinctly White is a moot point. The voices matched the characters, who weren’t drawn as Whites. And to assume that a voice that isn’t White would sound “Asian” in some obvious way is about as ridiculous as blind casting for a multicultural film project like The Last Airbender.
What does all of this mean? Nothing, really, since the majority of folks who’ll turn out to see the movie will be concerned about three things: special effects — including martial arts moves — how closely the story lines follow the ones in the animated series, and whether Katara and Aang in the film live up to the animated series. For all we know, none of this will matter at all, and The Last Airbender will boom or bust Independence Day weekend ’10 because the fans will come out in droves or drips to support the franchise. As for me, I’ll wait for my trusted critics to give me a glimpse of what to expect before I spend a dime to go see it with my son. If any of the issues that have cropped up in casting or in the struggle over themes and archetypes seem to have had an effect on the film, we’re not going. This despite having become a fan because of my son. I’ll wait for DiMartino and Konietzko to create another series first. And if the worse case scenario occurs, Shyamalan will lose another fan.