Tuesday, January 20, 2009
New day in politics, same old racist world on the silver screen
This past Monday, on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, on the eve of Barack Obama's inauguration, I discovered that the casting of the four leading characters for the upcoming live-action movie, "The Last Airbender" (based on the TV show, “Avatar: The Last Airbender”) had gone entirely to white actors. I want—no, need—to say something about this.
I'm going to take a tip from President Barack Obama, and begin this with a little personal story.
When my brother and I were in high school, our favorite class was Drama. While we were rehearsing for the next day's class or participating in a school play or dancing it up at the after party, I don't think there was anything we liked more. During such times, it even surpassed our love of—dare I say it—comics. But we never even entertained the notion of actually pursuing it as a career. Not because we didn't want to, but because we had too much pride to spend our entire lives pretending to be Long Duk Dong, or a Chinese food delivery boy with one line, or a Kato to some Green Hornet. Or even worse, having our hearts broken over and over going after roles that specifically call for Asian Americans like "Avatar, The Last Airbender" only to see them go to white actors. Back in my Drama days in high school, I used to dream of being white so I could pursue acting.
With discrimination like this "Avatar" casting continuing to happen uncontested in Hollywood, my future kids will nurse the same pitiful wish.
And it infuriates me.
If my future kids feel a passion for acting, I want them to be able to pursue it just like any other American. If they're forced to give up that passion due to a genuine lack of talent or hard work, fine. But I don't want their dreams to be clipped at the bud by some unassailable, universally accepted dismissal of their existence on the face this country.
It's not fair. It's not right.
Before I go any further, it behooves me to spill some information on "Avatar, the Last Airbender" for those people who have no idea what it is. 1) It's the greatest, most ambitious animated action adventure TV series ever hatched in the U.S. A cartoon series for kids in which one epic story actually spans 3 entire seasons. A kid's show in which the characters actually grow and change and evolve! A cartoon which actually respects a kid's intelligence and vast imagination. Imagine that! 2) It's wholly and inarguably built around Asian (and Inuit) culture. Everything from to the costume designs, to the written language, to the landscapes, to martial arts, to philosophy, to spirituality, to eating utensils!—it's all an evocative, but thinly veiled, re-imagining of ancient Asia. (In one episode, a region is shown where everyone is garbed in Korean hanboks—traditional Korean clothing—the design of which wasn't even altered at all.) It would take a willful disregard of the show's intentions and origins to think this wouldn't extend to the race of the characters as well. You certainly don't see any blonde people running around in "Avatar." (I'm not saying that would have necessarily been a bad thing, I'm just stating the facts of the show and the world in which it is set.)
Just take a look for yourself.
I was speaking with Gene Yang (author of "American Born Chinese" and National Book Award nominee) about the casting and he said it best: "It's like a white Asian fetishist's wet dream. All the Asian culture they want, without any of the Asian people."
J.R.R. Tolkien never specifically described his central human, and human-like, characters as being "Caucasian" or "European" (as far as I know) in "The Lord of the Rings", but it would be pretty stupid to think they weren't when the entire story and the world in which it was set came from an obvious extrapolation of medieval Europe. Why should it be any different for Avatar?
Or let me draw a closer parallel—imagine if someone had made a “fantasy” movie in which the entire world was built around African culture. Everyone is wearing ancient African clothes, African hats, eating traditional African food, writing in an African language, living in African homes, all encompassed in an African landscape...
...but everyone is white.
How offensive, insulting, and disrespectful would that be toward Africans and African Americans? How much more offensive would it be if only the heroes were white and all the villians and background characters were African American? (I wince in fear thinking about "The Last Airbender" suffering from the latter dynamic—which it probably will.)
Or imagine if they remade "Shaft" or "Zorro", but cast white actors to play the lead roles. It would be outrageous, right? Well, this Avatar casting is no different. But curiously, when similiar offenses are committed at the expense of Asian Americans, and Asian American men in particular, this sort of behavior goes mostly ignored by the press and the people involved.
To show you what I mean, here's a snippet from a recent article on MTV.com:
Due in theaters in summer 2010, "Airbender" has already begun to face a bit of controversy over the casting of white actors like Rathbone, Ringer and McCartney to play Asian characters — a concern the actor was quick to dismiss. "I think it's one of those things where I pull my hair up, shave the sides, and I definitely need a tan," he said of the transformation he'll go through to look more like Sokka. "It's one of those things where, hopefully, the audience will suspend disbelief a little bit."
If Rathbone had gotten the role of "Shaft," and got a perm and a "tan" to play that character (and I don't mean in a self-conscious, subversive way like Robert Downey Jr. in "Tropic Thunder"), there would be a shit storm of outrage from all sectors of America, not just the African American community. It would be a headline across every newspaper, and I highly doubt that production would make it to filming. But when Joel Grey taped his eyes "slanty" and colored his skin to play a Korean man in "Remo Williams" (in 1985! we're not talking ancient history here), it went virtually unnoticed. How was that even allowed to happen? How is it continuing to happen, here in 2009, at the eve of Obama's inauguration (as I type this.) Why this double standard?
Now if you're a progressive Asian American you might be saying that I'm barking up the wrong tree. That perhaps it's better not to perpetuate the stereotype of Asians being nothing but karate-chopping, fortune cookie wisdom spouting monks. But the fact of the matter is these kinds of films are going to be made whether we like them or not. It's a genre, like “Lord of the Rings” and its ilk—the western counterpart to films like “The Last Airbender” or “Forbidden Kingdom”, that's way too popular to ever go away. Almost everyone craves adventure and mythic grandeur. Films like “Avatar”, just in terms of genre, are dime a dozen in Asia itself after all. So since Hollywood is never going to stop making these kinds of films, I think we should protect them and make sure they're done respectfully, as well as pursuing intelligent independent movies that are reflective of Asian Americans in real life.*
And the reason this miscasting is particularly stinging when it comes to “Avatar” is because of the high quality of the source material. "The Last Airbender" has the potential to be something like "Star Wars"—something with lasting value that could give new heroes to your average household in America. And to have something for Asian American kids, and ethnic kids in general, to look up to. To let them know heroes can also look like them and speak fluent English like them. I think it could give immeasurable confidence and pride to these under-represented kids to have something like "Avatar" if it turns out to be as good as I hope. There's no reason Asian Americans should have to forsake "Star Wars" for "Citizen Kane." Both kinds of films have their merits and places in culture and it would be healthy to strive for both--to have Asian Americans and all minority Americans be a part of the entire spectrum
And many non-Asian Americans might be saying, "Relax! Things are getting better—hey, look at 'Harold and Kumar'!" But what they may be overlooking is that for every "Harold and Kumar" (as in 2), there are hundreds of "Avatar, The Last Airbender"s and "21"s.
The movie "21" (released last year!) was supposed to be based on the real life exploits of some Asian American MIT students. But of course, a Hollywood studio just couldn't bear to put an Asian American in the leading role. Instead the role was given to Jim Sturgess. To add insult to injury, Sturgess' sidekick friends were played by Aaron Yoo and Liza Lapira. They're both perfectly capable actors who could've pulled off the role just as well as Sturgess. But Yoo and Lapira were obviously just tossed in as a lame attempt to deflect accusations of discrimination which were sure to follow.
Again, let me repeat that this movie was made last year, in 2008. You may think it unbelievable, but things really haven't changed at all since the time Bruce Lee was tossed aside for David Carradine in "Kung Fu." How could this much time have passed and so little progress been made?
How? Because Asian Americans don't have the support of liberal Americans at large the way some other minorities do. The reason Barack Obama won the presidency, when so many African American politicians before him couldn't get a foothold, is because a candidate finally came along that garnered the support of everyone in America, not just his community (and deservedly so). Now I'm not equating the presidency with something as trivial as a movie role, but this issue is still something deserving of support from outside the Asian American community, as well as within, to help fight discrimination for everyone.
So if you're someone who believes in equality—if you want to see all of America reflected in our world's most popular and influential narrative art form—I implore you, particularly if you aren't Asian yourself, to write a letter of complaint to Paramount or show your displeasure in some form. If you have a blog, please post something to shame the producers of this film or feel free to distribute my little essay here. Especially if you're a professional in the arts or entertainment industry. With a strong enough voice, perhaps we can force them do what's right by recasting this movie. And lastly, if this effort fails, please boycott this film when it's released in the summer of 2010. Let Paramount and the rest of Hollywood know that this kind of blatant discrimination isn't acceptable to us. Not just for Asian Americans, but for all minorities in our country who never see themselves reflected in our country's media.
African Americans kids can finally, realistically dream of being president one day. Can't Asian American kids—perhaps my kids—at least dream of being something as relatively insignificant as central characters in some escapist Hollywood movie where everything is stolen from their heritage?
Can't they be a part of America too?
Derek Kirk Kim
Since the outraged fans seem to be getting ignored by Paramount, I am starting a petition for professionals in the arts and entertainment industry who want to condemn this move and boycott this discriminatory film if it isn't recast. If you're involved in the Film/TV/Animation/Comics/Literary fields in any way and you find Paramount's racist actions even the least bit reprehensible, please leave your name and occupation in the comments. Or email it to me if you know me personally. If you're a media or political figure who could also make a strong statement by adding your name to the list (Mr. President?), please do so. I will continue to collect the names as long as they come in and eventually make a comprehensive list to distribute publicly and send to Paramount. Hopefully this will pressure them to recast the movie or at least send a strong enough message so something like this doesn't happen again.
Here, Gene and I will be the first to throw in our names:
Derek Kirk Kim - writer, illustrator, cartoonist
Gene Yang - writer, illustrator, cartoonist, teacher
If Paramount won't listen to the fans, perhaps they'll listen to the professionals that actually make so many films today possible.
Letters of complaint should be sent here:
Mr Mark Bakshi
President Features Production
5555 Melrose Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90038-3197
Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall
619 Arizona Avenue, Fl. 2
Santa Monica, California 90401
For more information on a letter writing campaign, please visit:
PS: I'd like to thank the wonderful people at aang-aint-white.livejournal.com for all their efforts and for providing me with such a handy source of screencaps.
*This paragraph was edited on 01-22-09 to clarify my points.