There has been a great deal of controversy in recent months over the casting choices for the movie version of Avatar: The Last Airbender. The fact that most of the protagonists were cast white and Asians were reserved for the villains has many Asian-Americans and their supporters “bent” out of shape given that the characters were very clearly of Asian ethnicity in the original animated show (although they were mostly voiced by white actors).
I posted my own views about the controversy in my LiveJournal back in January. I thought that the casting directors had just picked the best available actors or actresses for the job, and they had all simply happened to be Caucasian. But since then, my views have evolved.
I’ve seen some evidence that suggested the directors intentionally set out to cast the film Caucasian. For example, the original casting call was for actors who were “Caucasian or any other ethnicity,” which suggests they were looking for Caucasians first and anything else second.
And I’ve heard the song “Nobody’s Asian in the Movies,” from the “Commentary: The Musical” commentary track to Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, which sums up pretty clearly the state of Asian casting in the modern film industry. An Airbender movie could have been a great chance to change that, casting ethnic Asian actors in leading roles. But apparently it was not to be.
It has come out recently that one of the producers of the Airbender movie, Frank Marshall, has a Twitter account. He has been posting tweets about the production status of the movie. Naturally, some overzealous fans took that as an opportunity to start deluging him with demands for an explanation.
Our vision for the movie is of ONE world, made up of four Nations, influenced and inspired by the Asian undertones of the series. This world will have an ethnically diverse cast that represents many different heritages and cultures from all corners of the globe.
On the surface, this sounds like a reasonable response, all very politically correct. It’s certainly in line with the way that some of the earlier casting calls for extras requested people to show up in whatever ethnic garb they had, be it kimonos or lederhosen. They want to make the show more “ethnically diverse” so that all ethnicities from the real world are represented, not just Asian.
The problem is, the world of the Avatar animated series is not “ethnically diverse” (or at least, not as much so as the real world). It is based strictly on the Asian subsets of our world (with just a few notable exceptions such as those leaf-wearing swampbenders).
In diversifying the ethnicity of the cast for the movies, they are not faithfully adapting the show—and they are getting rid of one of the things that made the animated show so great to begin with. The animated series’s strong focus on Asian culture was one of the things that made it stand out.
It feels to me like the producers made up this “ethnic diversity” stuff to justify the casting decision they’d already made—to have their cake and eat it too. They want to keep the “Asian undertones” but cast white people in the main roles because white people are safe. They don’t want to worry about non-Asians staying away from an all-Asian movie.
Of course there are many white Avatar fans, but the producers have to worry about attracting a wider audience than just fans. They’re pouring $250 million into Airbender. That’s an awful lot of movie ticket sales just to break even.
And in the end, I’m…disappointed. I’ll still go see the movie anyway. I’m not going to protest, or write a letter, or sign the petition, or call Marshall ugly names. But I’m sad that Hollywood couldn’t manage to transcend its usual way of doing business for once and get an adaptation right.