Wednesday, February 4, 2009
So Sunday night, the day before I was going to mail out the pro petition against The Last Airbender casting, I got a message alerting me to this article. I'm sure most of you already know about this incredible twist in the Avatar casting story.
Now first of all, this is certainly a step in the right direction--something to be celebrated. Although it's an odd choice in light of the source material (the Fire Nation is mostly based around ancient Japanese culture in the show), it's a delight to have an actual -- and yes, talented -- minority playing the richest, most compelling character in the story. (In case you don't know, Zuko, the character Patel is playing, is not just a "bad guy" -- he's the most morally complex character and goes through an epic transformation in the course of the series.)
And then of course I couldn't help but wonder if all the internet outrage actually had an effect on Shyamalan's decision to cast Patel in place of McCarthy. He could have simply hired another white actor to replace him. The fact that he specifically chose an Asian when the original casting call was for a "Caucasian" (let's not forget, whoever is responsible for the casting specifically wanted a white actor in the beginning) seems to point to a deliberate and conscious sway in direction.
But here's where a right change of heart leads to further moral entanglements. Having Patel in the role of Zuko sends all kinds of ripples through the movie for further casting. Now all the secondary characters from the Fire Nation also have to be Indian ethnically because they're all related to Zuko. (I guess they don't have to be, but it certainly would be nonsensical at the very least to have his sister, mother, and father be of a different ethnicity.) This is both good and bad -- it means more roles for minorities and Indian Americans in particular, but it also means Zuko's father, the main villain of the story would be an evil ethnic dude going up against a pack of white heroes. AGAIN. You can't win.
I'm assuming Mr. Shyamalan (or whoever is responsible for the casting) gave Patel the role of Zuko to placate those us concerned with the unfortunate casting choices -- and I applaud him for that, whatever his reason for it may be -- but in a way, he's dug himself into a deeper hole because of the inevitable outcome I stated in the previous paragraph. Now it seems IMPERATIVE, even more than before ironically, that AT LEAST Aang, the central hero, be cast with an Asian actor if the movie wants to remain in any way faithful to the ethnically groundbreaking spirit of the show.
Okay, now, this is where things get a little conflicted for me. I read this other article the same day. In calling for extras of EVERY ethnic culture -- not just Asian -- it seems clear that Mr. Shyamalan is revamping the entire world of Avatar to the point where it no longer resembles the show. Apparently in the movie, each nation is going to be a fantastical mish mash of every ancient culture -- Asian, European, African, etc -- and not just an "Asian world." Now, in making this change, it creates the perfect excuse for the creators of the movie to cast whichever ethnicity they want for the heroes -- which of course is going to mean white. This is deplorable, of course, if that is indeed the reason they decided to make this change to the world of Avatar. But regardless, it also makes it so the central characters don't HAVE to be Asian, unlike if they had followed the template of the show. If the world of the movie was simply going to mirror that of the show and they had casted all white actors (as I originally thought they had done) then it's just yellowface and discriminatory, no two ways about it. But in the way in which they've changed the "world"...I have to wonder if this outcry/petition devolves into "fan entitlement" which is the LAST thing I want. I have no intention or desire to join the ranks of people who would boycott an X-Men movie because they made Wolverine too tall or something stupid like that, you know? I got involved in this because I believed there was a clear cut breach in ethics, not because I want a movie interpretation of a show I like to be a perfect replica.
Now of course, the counter argument that constantly runs though my head to my conflicted thoughts outlined in the previous paragraph is that it seems even WORSE to have an all white hero cast if the world is supposed to be even MORE diverse than the Avatar of the show. But at the same time, because of this change in the world of Avatar in the movie, the argument to try and FORCE them to recast seems much weaker. Granted, the change to the world itself seems anti-Asian, but as I said, I'm hoping that complaint doesn't simply fall into the "fan entitlement" category.
Having said all that, when it comes down to it, I still think this is a just cause due to this one simple reason: if they had casted the four heroes as Asian, Latino, Black, AS WELL as White, in this supposed multi-ethnic world, I don't think there would have been a single complaint even though the movie didn't stick to the Asian-centric nature of the show. In fact, I bet everyone would have thought that was pretty cool.
I know I wouldn't be complaining. (I wouldn't be happy of course since I love the world of the show, but I could tolerate it in that context.)
Anyway, I'd love to hear your thoughts on this, particularly from those of you who support the letter writing campaign and the various petitions. Don't get me wrong, I'm still fully in support of this. But if we go on with the petition, I just want to make sure we're doing the right thing for the right reasons. I would love to have you guys, especially those pros who signed the petition, dispel some of my doubts and make me see things in an angle I haven't considered. Comments from trolls will simply be ignored so don't even bother.