Once upon a time, M. Night Shyamalan was a wonderboy. His "debut film," portended a breakout of Hitchcockian proportions, and his very name - M. Night-breathed otherwordly allure. Now, some 11 years later, the director's reputation is staked on a Nickelodeon cartoon. The Los Angeles Times, which kindly undercounted the self-inflicted damage to his last two pictures, described "The Last Airbender" as his studio's last gamble.
The movie-based on the ancient adventures of a young "avatar" (no relation to James Cameron's blue critters) out to stop four nations from warring-generated mighty advance buzz. But given Shyamalan's tenuous track record, he really couldn't afford to stir up a controversy even greater than the fears that protective fanboys normally harbor over beloved works. "Whitewashing" accusations have persisted since casting was first announced 18 months ago. Miffed fans who respected the cartoon's "culturally nuanced depiction of an Asian/Inuit fantasy world" immediately founded a protest site, while critics like Roger Ebert called the casting choices "wrong." Now critics are lacerating the film, largely on its own demerits, although the Wall Street Journal revived the persistent issue yet again.
Shyamalan, an Indian American, downplayed the outcry, but when singer Jesse McCartney-originally cast in one of the four main roles-dropped out due to concert conflicts, the director did end up casting Dev Patel of "Slumdog Millionaire." (Patel by the way has been spared the bad reviews.)
Leading up to the film's release, the mood in the commentsphere was predictably split: Some dismiss race-casting as an immature obsession ("grow up" seems to lead as the most common retort), other fans - like Los Angeles Times readers - feel a boycott is necessary to get a reasoned conversation about race going. With all the bad reviews, talk of boycott may be moot. As for a reasoned conversation, this family movie could well provoke a few questions from its (intended) young audience. Let's give it a shot as to what led up to this whole mess.
Whitewash On, Whitewash Off
As Hollywood sins go, whitewashing's a lesser evil than yellowface, the old Hollywood practice of casting whites in clearly Asian roles, à la Fu Manchu, M. Night Shyamalan, and Charlie Chan. San Francisco-born Bruce Lee left Tinseltown in a huff, after he losing a TV role of a half-Chinese monk to one David Carradine. Broadway hasn't been exempt from these controversies: The New York City Commission on Human Rights held a 1990 hearing to understand how to help minorities improve access to roles after Jonathan Pryce landed the role as the Eurasian pimp in "Miss Saigon."
The most recent go-to example for whitewashing was "21," the 2008 movie based on a true story about mostly Asian MIT students who became modern-day casino raiders. Nearly all the characters went through a race change, and the producer allegedly said "We didn't have access to bankable Asian-American actors that we wanted." (John Cho presumably too busy belching down sliders in Guantanamo). On the other hand, the book's (not Asian) author Ben Mezrich witnessed a studio executive say all the actors, save one, would be white. In the end, most of the young cast weren't American household names, especially lead actor Jim Sturgess, a Brit who got a dialect coach to help him with his American accent.
Like "21," "The Last Airbender" is largely made up of unknowns - the only real exception was Jesse McCartney, and he's out. This, fans argued, was a star-making vehicle where chances could have been taken, and (alternative) fresh faces welcome.
Real World in Make-Believe
The accusations get complex considering "Airbender"'s origins. Shyamalan himself calls anime "ambiguous." Like "Prince of Persia," another recent release which earned a round of criticism for its lack of Iranian actors, the original TV series "Avatar: The Last Airbender" is an out-and-out fantasy created by two Anglo gents (Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko).
Capitalizing on "Lord of the Rings" and Harry Potter mania may have inspired the idea of "Airbender," but the creators sought an Asian sensibility that, as DiMartino said in a 2006 interview, "was a little bit more natural ... We wanted to base (the "Avatar" series) on Asian culture and kung-fu and Eastern religion and thought."
Both DiMartino and Konietzko even studied with the Harmonious Fist Chinese Athletic Association, to make sure they got the moves right. Authenticity mattered in a fantasy universe. (Incidentally, all those aforementioned characters were created by non-Asian writers. Yellowface aside, keeping the appearances of the "other" was part of the mystique, for better or for worse.)
Another twist: The award-winning cartoon dealt with issues of genocide, nations at war, and cultures at risk. That this movie, of all movies, should provoke a debate about authenticity and opportunity is, depending on how you look at it, disappointing and yet fitting.
Go Far East, Young Actor
If anything should resonate in the American conscience, it's the notion of equal access. A decade ago, starring roles for blacks were infrequent - and now Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, and Samuel Jackson have box office cachet. These days, despite proven box office successes, good leading roles for women are hard to come by.
For Asian Americans, part of it has been trying to establish a viable talent pool. Given the difficulty in getting acting gigs, quite a few Asian Americans (and Canadians) have decided to skip Hollywood altogether and go east...far east. Bruce Lee, again, is the most famous example in this reverse migration, but scanning today's overseas box office credits yields a few more: Asia's biggest action star today is Boston-bred Donnie Yen (his mother, a world-respected martial artist, still runs a school in Massachusetts). Berkeley-born Daniel Wu, part of Jackie Chan's stable, has added directing and producing to his workload.
Honolulu-born Maggie Q (who for the record is half Vietnamese, and part Irish/Polish) paid her dues in Hong Kong before landing some choice but minor roles as a good girl ("Mission Impossible III") and bad ("Die Hard: Live Free or Die Hard"). She then snagged a fairly big role in a massive Chinese martial epic. Back on U.S. soil, though, she's gone small screen, where she'll play a rogue assassin in CW's "Nikita," the downscaled path of many actresses ... but that's another story. But imagine Maggie Q in a (well-scripted) live-action "Mulan," complete with all the bloody bluster of a "Braveheart" or "Gladiator." Sounds like a winner.
Then again, the irony is that Hollywood, instead of checking its own backyard, looks eastward for its casting as well. "The Karate Kid" stars the reliable Jackie Chan. While Seth Rogen's the inspired choice for "The Green Hornet," and his sidekick Kato (once played by Bruce Lee) is Jay Chou, all the way from Taiwan.Seeing that race-casting is so complex, there has to be yet another twist to ruminate: What if "The Last Airbender" had an Asian cast, and received these same awful reviews? Might Hollywood have blamed once again the lack of bankable Asian stars? At least, right now, the fingers remain pointed at Shyamalan.