Is 'The Last Airbender' Racist?

Critics accuse the M. Night Shyamalan flick of whitewashing its cast

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There isn't much director M. Night Shyamalan can do about the withering reviews critics are giving his new film The Last Airbender. However, he can contest charges that he whitewashed his cast to appeal to American audiences, an accusation being hurled at him from a range of critics and advocacy groups.

The Indian-American director's film is based on a children's cartoon set in a Pan-Asian universe with Asian and Native American characters. Though the film has a number of speaking roles with Asian actors, its leads are Caucasian save for the villain, who is played by Cliff Curtis of Slumdog Millionaire fame. Some of Shyamalan's detractors are calling his casting decisions racially biased. Does he leave himself open to such claims?

  • This Is Sad, says Michael Le, spokesman for Racebending, a group boycotting the film: "It’s unfortunate that it’s come to this...They’ve constructed a film that is contrary not only to what fans expected to see but is also contrary to what America expects to see in a film released in 2010 featuring Asian culture and Asian and Native American characters as heroes."
  • Has a Pernicious Effect on Asian Children, writes Jenn Fang at Reappropriate: "These film executives are sending the message: 'Asians simply aren’t familiar enough — not 'American' enough – for White movie audiences to relate to'. So you end up with White-washing of Asian movies and the take-home message, yet again, that Asians aren’t good enough to be the heroes. We’re neither good enough to play romantic leads nor are we heroic enough to have elemental energy-balls shooting out of our hands. Is it any wonder that kids are colourstruck?"
  • The Charges Are Completely Unfounded, says director M. Night Shyamalan to Indie Movies Online: "You're coming at me, the one Asian filmmaker who has the right to cast anybody I want, and I'm casting this entire movie in this color blind way where everyone is represented. I even had one section of the Earth kingdom as African American, which obviously isn't in the show, but I wanted to represent them, too! And I fought like crazy to have the pronunciation of the names to go back to the Asian pronunciation. So you say 'Ahng' instead of 'Aaang' because it's correct. It's not 'I-rack,' it's 'ee-Rock.' I'm literally fighting for all this. And who's getting blamed? ME! This is incredible. And so it's infuriating, this stigmatization, that the first word about the most culturally-diverse movie of all time is this accusation. And here's the irony of it, this has nothing to do with the studio system. I had complete say in casting. So if you need to point the racist finger, point it at me, and if it doesn't stick, then be quiet."
  • I Don't Buy Shyamalan's Excuse, writes Gene Demby at The American Prospect: "As we know in all areas of public life, meritocracy is always the explanation when the person landing the job is white. Affirmative action, or some other reason, is always the explanation when it's not."
  • Oh Come On, writes Darin Miller at Big Hollywood: "Calling Hollywood out on some racial bias is utterly ridiculous. Hollywood doesn’t just cast white people in ethnic roles. It casts other ethnicities in traditionally white roles as well. Let’s look at a few recent films: Will Smith recently starred in a remake of 'I Am Legend,' a role that was played by white actors Charlton Heston and Vincent Price in prior remakes. Samuel L. Jackson has recently played Nick Fury in the 'Iron Man' movies, originally a white comic book character. I’m pretty sure the Los Angeles Times hasn’t commented on Marvel Universe’s racial change, as their blog post on Fury doesn’t mention that Fury was originally a white character."
  • Cut the Studios Some Slack, says Camille Alick, project manager for Muslims on Screen & Television: “The hope is to have an authentic depiction, but casting directors have huge jobs in front of them. They’re trying to find the best person for the part. And when it’s a big budget movie, it’s going to come down to a business decision... It’s not malicious intent.”
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.