Diversity? Not in The Last Airbender

The Last Airbender is set to release July 2010. And the tagline should read: In an Asian world, only three white heroes can save the world.

The film, a live-action adaptation of the hit animated television series AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER, is part of a franchise widely advertised in 2005 by Nickelodeon executives as set in a “fantastical Asian world.” Despite the show’s overt use of elements from Asian cultures and concepts—including Asian religions and martial arts—initial casting calls indicated a preference for Caucasian actors, and ultimately only Caucasian actors were cast in the lead protagonist roles. Conversely, all casting sheets for background roles and non-speaking extras have requested actors of specific East Asian, Asian, Hispanic and Middle Eastern nationalities.

Fans were outraged by the December 9th, 2008 casting announcement and immediately mobilized, writing over two hundred letters protesting the ‘whitewashing’ of the movie to producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, and director M. Night Shyamalan. Although the production has since cast actor Dev Patel (SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE) as antagonist ‘Prince Zuko,’ minority actors have again been relegated to supporting and villain roles. The cast of THE LAST AIRBENDER does not reflect the cultural diversity of the source material and instead evokes the infamous and archaic Hollywood practice of “yellowface,” where white actors are ‘made up’ to play Asian characters.

In addition to "yellowface", Paramount Pictures' casting of THE LAST AIRBENDER perpetuates the Hollywood stereotype to portray the heroes as white and the villains as darker-skinned. In the animated series, the Inuit-based nation (Water Tribe) and Tibetan-based nation (Air Nomads) are the heroes. In the movie, both the Water Tribe and Air Nomads will be completely white-washed and populated with white actors. Conversely, the genocidal, evil Fire Nation will be entirely populated with darker-skinned actors, who actively oppress and destroy all other Nations.

The Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) and the East West Players have both taken action to discuss and work with Paramount Pictures. Also, a variety of newspapers and online magazines have since reported on this issue, questioning Paramount Pictures for their racial bias when casting roles for this children's film.

Paramount is trying to put a bandaid on this problem by casting Asian actors in minor, background and villainous roles, in a world that will still be saved by three white heroes. For fans, now is the time to tell them that that isn't good enough.

The pre-production window is closing. This valid concern must be taken into journalistic consideration. With more attention from media sources, we hope to show Paramount that their audience -- no matter what their own race may be -- won't support this project as it stands.

They Said What?

"Dress in traditional cultural ethnic attire...If you're Korean, wear a kimono. If you're from Belgium, wear lederhosen... We're trying to create these four different nations so we're looking for different skin tones, and features, and bone structures...It doesn't mean you're at a disadvantage if you didn't come in a big African thing. But guys, even if you came with a scarf today, put it over your head so you'll look like a Ukrainian villager or whatever."
- Casting director Deedee Ricketts advising prospective extras.

"There's been some talk that we're casting authentic Asians as a response to the backlash, which is totally wrong because our world is multi-ethnic and the 'Avatar' world will be multi-ethnic.'"
- Casting director Deedee Ricketts in regards to fan protests.

”I think it's one of those things where I pull my hair up, shave the sides, and I definitely need a tan. It’s one of those things where, hopefully, the audience will suspend disbelief a little bit.”
- Actor Jackson Rathbone (Sokka), on portraying his character

”I’ve been in kung-fu, dude, for like, three hours a day. Like, Martial arts and stuff. Fighting with like, different ninjas, and, it’s crazy, man.”
– Pop singer Jesse McCartney, since replaced by actor Dev Patel.
(source: transcript from a radio interview with JohnJay Rich Show)

Timeline of Events


The animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender—marketed by Nickelodeon's Marjorie Cohn as set in a “fantastical Asian world” premieres to critical acclaim.

January, 2007

Paramount Pictures, MTV Films, and Nickelodeon Movies announce the signing of M. Night Shyamalan to write, direct, and produce a trilogy of live- action films based on the series. According to an interview with SFX Magazine, Shyamalan came across the Avatar animated series when his daughter wanted to be Katara for Halloween.

April - June, 2008

Over a course of months, director M. Night Shyamalan says in multiple interviews that his interest in the Avatar lore was due largely to its "Buddhist philosophy and Hindu philosophy".
(source; source; source)

August, 2008

Released casting call sheets for the four lead roles read: “Caucasian or any other ethnicity.”

December 9, 2008

Entertainment Weekly leaks the core cast of The Last Airbender– newcomer Noah Ringer, Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone (Twilight) and pop star Jesse McCartney. None of the lead actors are ethnically Asian, resulting in fan outcry.

December 11, 2008

A group of fans launch the “Saving the World with Postage” campaign at aang-aint-white, urging the public to write letters to producers Kennedy & Marshall at Paramount Pictures, and Shyamalan at his company, Blinding Edge Studios.

December, 2008

A Facebook group for anyone protesting the white-washed casting of The Last Airbender is created, currently with over 2000 group members: People Against Racebending: Protest of the Cast of The Last Airbender Movie

January, 2009

Over 200 letters are ignored and returned to sender. Campaign organizers are given out-of-date and conflicting contact information by Paramount employees, but fans continue to send in letters to the Kennedy/Marshall Company. There is no response, and Asian American artist Derek Kirk Kim creates a petition of industry professionals who plan to boycott the film.

What if someone 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.
- Derek Kirk Kim

January 24, 2009

First Open Casting Call for background extras held in Philadelphia. Flier reads: "dress in the traditional costume of your family's ethnic background.”

February 7, 2009

Dev Patel (SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE) replaces Jesse McCartney as antagonist Prince Zuko. Studio attributes this change to ‘scheduling conflicts.’ Heroes of the film remain Caucasian actors depicting ethnically Asian characters.

February 7, 2009

The second background extras casting call is held for “Near Eastern, Middle Eastern, Far Eastern, Asian, Mediterranean and Latino” people. At the audition site, fans stage a small protest.

February 11, 2009

The Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) sends a letter to producer Sam Mercer, voicing their concern and requesting a meeting.

February 16, 2009

Casting call for adult principal roles seeks: “Chinese and Korean actors- MEN ONLY, age 30-60.” The East West Players sends a letter to producer Sam Mercer requesting a meeting.

February 25, 2009

Casting call for backdrop/extras of "Mongolian, Cambodian or Laotian heritage" in Arlington VA, as well as extras of "Cambodian, Mongolian, Chinese, Korean and Thai Descent" in Flushing NY will be held on March first.

March 1, 2009

Auditions from the Flushing, NY Casting Call reveals that Paramount intends to cast according to the race of the lead roles. The evil, genocidal Fire Nation will therefore all be Indian or SE Asian; the heroic, oppressed Air and Water Tribes will be white.

March 13, 2009

Aasif Mandvi, Shaun Toub and Cliff Curtis have joined the cast of M. Night Shyamalan's THE LAST AIRBENDER as Fire Nation characters, thereby confirming that Fire Nation will be the dark-skinned enemy against white-skinned heroes.

March 15, 2009

Filming begins in Greenland. Photo confirms that the Water Tribe's villiage is Inuit-based, which means the entire canonically dark-skinned, heroic tribe has been white-washed for the movie.

March 25, 2009

More than a month later, Paramount Pictures Producers decide to respond to MANAA.

April 9, 2009

MANAA writes back, requesting another meeting with Paramount and explaning to Paramount that they will not be distracted by supplementary roles being cast 'ethnically'.

April 14, 2009

Protest videos created for new YouTube racebending channel. Over 20 protest videos are made in the span of a month.

April 15, 2009

Zazzle.com removes racebending protest products from the storefront, citing 'copyright infringement' on Viacom's 'intellectual property, despite the fact that the merchandise used no images from the cartoon and the words were protected under Fair Use protest purposes. Nickelodeon is owned by Paramount Pictures, which is owned by Viacom.

May 3, 2009

BoingBoing.net reports: Viacom uses copyright to censor racism protest. Viacom responds, claiming that they did not tell Zazzle to remove the products. Zazzle restores racebending merchandise.

May 21, 2009

Paramount releases photos of the lead character Aang as played by unknown actor Noah Ringer. Also releases image of Dev Patel as the antagonist Prince Zuko.

July 2, 2010

Projected release date of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender.


The Water Tribe

The Earth Kingdom

The Air Nomads

The Fire Nation

from the animated series: Avatar: The Last Airbender
More images from the show: An Essay in Images

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