Peterson believed that black folk should shut up, stop complaining and just enjoy the story, since race doesn’t matter in casting. I always found this to be a funny argument. Everyone always says that race doesn’t matter in Hollywood casting, as long as the people who are benefiting are white. That’s one of the reasons why I won’t be supporting the upcoming flick “Avatar: the Last Airbender”
If you’ve hung out with a 7- to 12 –year-old kids over the last 5 years. there’s a pretty good chance you’ve caught an episode of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” on Nickelodeon. The story follows the adventures of Aang and his two friends Sokka and Katara as they travel around a mythical Antarctic and East Asian world helping Aang learn how to use his powers to control water, fire, wind and earth. Not only is the show well crafted, witty and engaging, the show’s diverse cast features all Middle Eastern, Asian, or Inuit Indians (Eskimos – was the old term) characters ranging from dark brown to various forms of tan.
The cartoon is being brought to the big screen by one of the most successful Asian film directors in American history, M. Knight Shyamalan. So all should be well, right? Well except for the fact that Shyamalan and his crew cast all of the lead characters with white actors.
The Asian-American community and fans of the show are understandably up in arms over this. It’s bad enough that Shyamalan has shown a tin ear towards this issue in casting, but the only main character who was cast as his true ethnicity (Asian) was the dark-skinned villain. Whitewashing characters of color is not new, but that doesn’t make it right. Angelina Jolie used a spray-on tan and curly wig to play Afro-Cuban Marianne Pearl in 2007. In 2008, the main characters in the gambling movie “21” were re-cast as white even though the true story was about Asian kids. And this year, Jake Gyllenhaal is playing “The Prince of Persia” as the list goes on and on.
Hollywood producers usually have two excuses for the whitewashing characters. The first is that there aren’t enough “bankable” minority actors, in this case Asian, who can draw a big enough audience to anchor a big budget film. This is the same self-fulfilling logic that Hollywood used for years to deny black men leading roles in action films until Will Smith and Wesley Snipes made millions in “Bad Boys” and “Blade” back in the 1990’s.
What’s even more offensive about “Avatar,” however, is that when it comes to cartoons to live action films no-one really cares about actors. People just want to see their favorite animated characters in real life. Does anyone really care who the actors are in “Alvin in the Chipmunks” or “Fat Albert” or the “Garfield” movies?
The second lie is that all casting is “colorblind” and all of the best auditions just happened to be white. This one doesn’t pass the smell test either since recent casting documents have been revealed showing that they looked specifically for “Caucasian: or some other ethnicity” for the lead characters.
Hollywood producers pride themselves on making stars out of nobodies. With the proper marketing and production little known men and women become megastars in months. So we can no longer just sit back and accept discriminatory casting practices, whether they harm African-Americans, Latinos or any other ethnic group simply looking for an equal chance to see themselves on the big screen.
As much as I liked the cartoon “Avatar” I won’t be giving the film any of my money in the theatre, and anyone who is concerned about justice and fair play in media should skip out on this film too and support our Asian brothers and sisters.
Years ago, I told Jesse Peterson that race in casting actually matters and that it would be crazy seeing a biopic of Ronald Reagan where he is played by a 5’7’’ Asian man. I guess M. Knight Shyamalan would make that casting decision, if no ‘qualified’ and bankable white actors showed up to audition.