Ok, so obviously the Last Airbender movie has already come out in theaters, but I said I would do a post so here it is. A friend and I wrote this up to post on facebook before the movie came out, and I just never got around to posting it here as well.

For those of you not familiar with the upcoming film, The Last Airbender, it is based on a Nickelodeon cartoon, Avatar: The Last Airbender. The cartoon’s characters are Asian and Inuit, and the setting, while fantasy, is unequivocally Asian (e.g., the characters fight using martial arts, they dress in clothing traditional to a variety of Asian cultures, there are multiple references to Buddhist beliefs, as well as those of other East Asian religions, the architecture throughout the cartoon resembles East Asian architecture, etc.).

Despite these facts, three of the four main characters in the film version have been cast as white. Regarding the fourth, not only is the only non-white actor a replacement for the very white Jesse McCartney who was originally cast (but had to drop out of the film due to scheduling conflicts), he also plays a villain. One of the actors, when asked about the controversy said that when he pulled his hair back in a pony tail and “gets a tan” he hopes that people just won’t think it’s that big of a deal anymore.

Here’s the deal: we believe that taking a movie that would have been a prime opportunity to cast people of color in the lead roles, and “white-washing” it, is a symptom of racism (whether conscious or institutional) and we’re just not down with that.

Below are some of the common arguments for why casting mainly white actors/actresses is not racist, and our responses:

They weren’t trying to be racist- they just wanted to “Americanize” the film.

First, despite the Asian setting, the cartoon is American. It airs on an American channel. The fact that it was successful enough to be made into a movie should be evidence enough that Americanizing it is a redundant concept. But further, the notion that casting white actors/actresses is “Americanizing” is just a coded way of saying American=White. That’s racist.

The cartoon characters have specific eye colors you usually don’t see in Asians, that’s why they needed to cast white actors/actresses.

Color Contacts. Enough Said.

There just aren’t very many talented Asian actors/actresses; that’s why they ended up casting white people.

First, the casting call for the roles read “Caucasian or any other ethnicity.” The wording of the casting call itself is suggestive of a racial preference (other casting calls have historically just said “Any ethnicity” if there actually were no preference) – why not “Asian or any other ethnicity”? Second, the white people they cast don’t have a lot of experience (this is the first film for Noah Ringer, who plays the main character). Anyone seen Twilight? Jackson Rathbone didn’t exactly get rave reviews for his role in that, yet he landed a role in this movie. We just don’t buy that these actors/actresses are better than every Asian actor/actress available. Third, when Hollywood has come under criticism for not casting people of color in the past, the response has generally been that there just aren’t enough roles that people of color can be cast in. It’s one or the other- either there aren’t enough people or there aren’t enough roles- it can’t be both.

I never really thought of the cartoon as being “Asian”- the main character looks white.

Not all Asian people look the same. If you take the context of the cartoon into consideration (e.g. the dress, the food, the writing, the architecture, and the philosophical and religious elements) it just seems pretty absurd to say that Aang was meant to be a white character. For more see this YouTube video that contrasts images from the cartoon, with Asian and Inuit images.