Posted in entertainment, movies
July 2, 2010

Racism & The Last Airbender

The Last Airbender opens this weekend, and has one of the worst Rotten Tomatoes scores that I’ve seen yet. Right now it’s hovering around 7-9% (Currently it’s at 9, but it was at 7 yesterday). To put this in reference, Twilight’s Eclipe is at 50%. And that’s a movie that is only getting slack from reviewers because they know that it will appeal to its fanbase and it’s fanbase only.

“Avatar” was a phenomenon for Nickelodeon. They found themselves with a series that appealed to both children and adults, one that was both humorous and epic. Not only that, it was a coup for the Asian community. While “Avatar” is not set in our world, it is clearly one that was created with its roots in Eastern philosophies, cultures and myths. The Entertainment industry mostly overlooks the Asian community, focusing on African-American or Hispanic families when given the chance. Asian characters are usually relegated to stereotypes and any compelling story with Asian actors is likely a foreign film imported to the US (Hero, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, or House of Flying Daggers).

So many were hopeful for the movie, which would be the first Western blockbuster that could do it right. (Dragonball: Evolution didn’t cast Asian actors with the exception of Chow Yun Fat, who was of course relegated to the mentor role) Fans began to worry about M. Night Shyamalan, fearing that he would bring the visually and emotionally dark tone (that his films have (he did). Then the casting calls began to leak. They weren’t looking for Asian actors for any of the tribes, with the exception of the Fire tribe. What had been an Asian cast was now predominantly white. Groups were concerned, as South East Asian actors were cast as the villians. Which might seem to some as overreacting- but typically, white characters are the heroes, while minorities find themselves as villains or sidekicks. They even dubbed it “racebending.”

And then, M. Night Shyamalan tried to defend himself. He said that it wasn’t racist- he simply wanted the best actors for the part. He even brought black people into it! And of course, he can’t be racist given that he’s a minority.

I admit, I haven’t watched more than a couple episodes of “Avatar” – but that’s on my to-watch list. However, if he had gone in any direction with the Northern Water Tribe, it should have been away from Russian/Nordic/White – it should have been Inuit. There could have been a few white actors sprinkled in everywhere… but why? He had an opportunity (as well as the clout in Hollywood) to demand it. Yet, he didn’t.

Can he use his minority status to defend himself? If his previous work supports it, of course. There are many minority directors who tend to fill their projects with minority actors, known and undiscovered talent.

Excluding M. Night Shyamalan’s cameos (like Hitchcock, he inserts himself in every movie), how diverse are his movies?

The Sixth Sense – The two main leads are white. Bruce Willis’ wife is white. However, I’ll give this a pass since it was Shyamalan’s first major movie wouldn’t be able to tell the studios he would want more diversity.
Unbreakable – Bruce Willis is back as one of the leads, Samuel L Jackson is the other.
Signs – Nobody in the movie, with the exception of Shyamalan is a minority. (I don’t count the Brazilian kids, sorry)
The Village – They’re all white. Some are crazy, but they’re all white. (This, I will give a pass as they’re supposed to be a country village in Pennsylvania in the 19th century. Though really, there could have been a black person.)
Lady in the Water – I haven’t seen this one, but there is actual diversity in the cast. However, the leads- Paul Giamatti and Bryce Dallas-Howard are still white.
The Happening – Lots of white people. But John Leguizamo is in it.

Following the Sixth Sense, Shyamalan has released 5 major motion pictures. In only one is there any sense of diversity. For whatever reason, Shyamalan doesn’t like to cast non-white actors. Even those he casts, only in Lady in the Water were there any that weren’t well known. Shyamalan defends himself, saying that he went with more Asian pronunciations of names… but is that really the battle that he should be proud that he fought? Instead, shouldn’t he have been trying to fight to protect the look and tone of the series that people loved, instead of white-washing it and morphing it into a generic blockbuster type?

So, I’m sorry, M. Night Shyamalan. I won’t accept your defense that you were simply trying to make the best movie possible. Plenty of people were willing to give you the leeway on the casting if the movie was phenomenal. A 9% rating on Rotten Tomatoes says that the movie is far from that. I won’t accept your defense that you aren’t being racist based on your own ethnicity. Your own movies show a pattern of casting predominantly white actors when you had the opportunity and clout to cast others. The problem is you. You say that you want kids to see themselves in the heroes of the movie, when realistically, all children will notice is that they no longer look like the characters they fell in love with on Nickelodeon.

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