Tags: why we're doing this

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Paramount Responds

Earlier this winter, the Media Action Network for Asian Americans publicly spoke out against Paramount's casting policy regarding The Last Airbender. They posted an open letter to the producers on their site as well as sending it through more direct channels, offering to help Paramount Pictures steer this project in the right direction.

Nearly a month later, Paramount responded. You can read their letter in its entirety here, but it says, in part:

Early casting includes an Indian actor, born in Mumbai and raised in the UK and the US; a Persian actor born in Tehran and raised in the UK, Switzerland and the US; a Maori actor born and raised in New Zealand; a Korean-American actor, born and raised in Chicago; an American actress of Italian, French and Mexican heritage; among several others of varied nationalities from around the world.

The four nations represented in the film reflect not one community, but the world’s citizens. These societies will be cast from a diversity of all races and cultures. In particular, the Earth Kingdom will be cast with Asian, East Asian and Africans.


We would like to take a moment, here, to speak briefly about the real world cultures represented within Avatar: The Last Airbender. The only written language represented is classical Chinese. The characters' journey through the Earth Kingdom and Fire Nation reveals a wide variety of distinctive East Asian cultures, including Chinese, Korean, Tibetan, Japanese and Vietnamese. The Water Tribe draws from Inuit, Yupik and Pacific Islander cultures. This world features astonishing diversity from all across the Asian continent and all along the Pacific Rim, which is a part of what made it so unique.

There are no equivalents to African or European cultures in the Avatar world. There are no medieval French castles. There are no Egyptian temples. There are no Viking long houses. There are no Malian mosques. Including African American extras in the Earth Kingdom was a deliberate decision, intended to mask the whitewashing of the principle cast.

The MANAA found Paramount's letter as pandering and transparent as we did. They have written a response, which you can read here on their site, but certain sections seem particularly important to point out here:

Thank you for your letter. Because it raises important questions regarding your perceptions of diversity, we are again requesting a meeting to discuss the casting and depiction of cultures in the movie (and your future projects) so this film can truly be the success we all want. We are interested, for instance, in how your ideal of including people from “all corners of the globe” correlates with your casting policies. Specifically seeking out white actors and casting four white leads for what M. Night Shymalan admitted was an “Asian fantasy world” does not celebrate ethnic diversity. Re-casting the sole villainous lead with an actor of color is a concession that results in three heroic nations going to war against an evil nation of color.

After dealing with Hollywood studios for the past 17 years, we are more than familiar with the justifications used to cast white actors instead of actors of color. Other film productions have previously used the same pretexts, touting diversity through the casting of supporting roles--but only after first discriminating in casting the lead roles.

[...]

How can you, in good faith, say you are trying to honor the integrity of the television series by taking a story written with Asian themes, settings, characters, and populating it with white leads—especially when there are so few Asian roles available in Hollywood? You are continuing a generations-long practice of racial discrimination where the opportunity for actors of color to be heroes for a change is taken away (this time in the name of “diversity.”).


The MANAA intends to pursue this matter, but they would very much appreciate any support the Avatar fan community can provide. If you live in the Los Angeles area, their next general meeting will be on May 21st, and they would love to have more fans concerned with this issue attend and share their thoughts.

If you don't live close enough to join them in person, we would encourage you to take a moment to write them a note sharing your thoughts and your support. If you aren't of Asian descent yourself, they would appreciate being told as much -- it's encouraging to know that people of all races are standing by them!

Finally: as we mentioned earlier, producer Frank Marshall has an account on Twitter, which many fans have used to contact him directly regarding this issue. Unfortunately, some fans have chosen to behave in a rude, unhelpful manner, which casts a bad light on all of us and makes our concerns that much easier to dismiss. We would therefore encourage you to use this platform to send polite messages and questions about The Last Airbender and its cast -- perhaps we can drown out the unhelpful negativity and show the producers that we're serious enough about this issue to write about it respectfully.
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Visual Essay: Inuit culture in The Last Airbender

Once again, we're presented with a case in which images are more eloquent than words.

The culture that Sokka and Katara hail from, the Water Tribe, is clearly modeled after real life Inuit cultures of the Arctic region. The Last Airbender's production designers obviously agree.

Here is a photograph of the film's set, from one of their locations in Greenland:



These are the Inuit skin tents that they're emulating:




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Making ourselves clear

First, we've set up another way you can help us make our voices heard! An online petition has been created, which will soon be delivered by hand to Paramount Pictures and the Kennedy/Marshall company. This is a great opportunity to let them know the scale of this movement, and we would strongly encourage you not only to sign it, but also to pass it along to friends and family you think may be interested.



We've also created a website, Racebending.com, with more information and resources about this movement, including a press release. Discussion of the issues surrounding The Last Airbender and its cast also continues at racebending.

There has been some confusion regarding the motivations and goals of this movement. As such we'd like to take a moment to make ourselves and our intentions absolutely clear.

We all very dearly love the original Avatar: The Last Airbender show. We want the live action adaptation of it to be successful, and for it to be a project we can wholeheartedly support. It has deeply saddened all of us to watch events unfold as they have. None of us want this project to fail.

However. We cannot support The Last Airbender if the production continues on its current path.

We believe the roles of Sokka, Katara and Aang -- the three heroes of this story -- should be recast to reflect the races and cultures of those characters. The current situation, in which three white heroes will be saving the world from a race of dark-skinned Firebenders, is one we cannot in good conscience support or endorse. On a related note, we would also urge Paramount to cast the remainder of the Water Tribe and Air Nomad characters with actors of Inuit or East Asian decent.

Ultimately, we would encourage Paramount Pictures to work closely with the Media Action Network for Asian Americans and the East West Players to find ways to make The Last Airbender a film we can all stand behind.
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Great news from the East West Players and new ways to support the cause!

Following the Media Action Network for Asian Americans' public announcement of their concern regarding The Last Airbender's casting -- which we spoke of in our previous post and encourage you to check out if you have not already -- we have more big news for you today!

As some of you may have heard, the East West Players -- an organization that works toward increased opportunities for Asian American actors in theater, film and television -- has written a letter to The Last Airbender's producers, publicly denouncing the existing cast and offering their services in helping to set things right again.

From that letter, which you can download in its entirety here, courtesy of jedifreac:

How exactly are the lead white actors going to represent ethnically and culturally diverse "nations," unless they resort to wearing makeup and/or prosthetics to try to appear "ethnic" [..] ? Or, if the lead actors will continue to appear white, what signal does it send that they are the leaders of darker-skinned and/or ethnic societies? And how can the casting of homogeneously Caucasian actors as three out of the top four leads possibly be consistent with a story whose overarching message is diversity and harmony between different cultures?

Given that AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER is so clearly based on and inspired by ancient East Asian, South Asian and Inuit civilizations, it is a major lost opportunity for the producers not to have aggressively sought out Asian talent for the lead roles. The face that Dev Patel apparently has been cast in one of the four lead roles is a positive step but it certainly does not excuse the filmmakers from being insensitive to the negative ethnic and cultural implications of using whites to either "look like" ethnic peoples or to inexplicably lead such peoples as if they are white saviors.

[...]

Given the serious concerns that have been raised about the casting of AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER, including furious debates that are taking place on the topic in cyberspace, we believe it would be beneficial for Paramount executives to meet with representatives of EWP and other Asian American organizations to discuss the matter.


For those unfamiliar with the East West Players, EWP is the nation's premiere Asian American theater organization and the oldest continuously operating theatre of color in the country. When EWP was founded in 1965, Asian Americans faced limited opportunities to play roles outside of stereotypical and often demeaning caricatures in mainstream American media, and many ethnically Asian roles were often given to white actors while Asian American actors were overlooked. In that respect, The Last Airbender is simply the latest page in a long Hollywood history of lost opportunities.

After experiencing first-hand the discrimination Asian Americans faced in Hollywood, the founding members created EWP to expand opportunities for Asian American actors, writers, directors, and producers. One of the founding members, and artistic directors, was Makoto "Mako" Iwamatsu--the voice of Uncle Iroh in Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Several members of the EWP family have performed in the animated series, including:

Dante Basco (Prince Zuko), one of the stars in EWP's latest play, IXNAY.
Tim Dang (Yon Rha in "The Southern Raiders"), EWP Producing Artistic Director
George Takei (The Warden in "Imprisoned"), Chair of the EWP Council of Governors
James Hong (The Mayor in "Avatar Day", an Air Nomad Monk in "The Storm"), EWP Founding Member
Daniel Dae Kim (General Fong in "The Avatar State")
Lauren Tom (Joo Dee)
James Sie (The Cabbage Merchant!)
Sab Shimono (Monk Gyatso, Master Yu)
Tayako Fischer (Lo and Li)
Tsai Chin. (The Fortuneteller)

The East West Players are currently hard at work at their newest play, IXNAY, which features actor Dante Basco. Southern California fans-- let's support these Avatar: The Last Airbender actors and the organization they belong to! IXNAY is running through March 15th; Tim Dang directs and Dante Basco is part of the featured ensemble cast, playing character Eric Galindo. If you're interested, you can find information on ticketing here.

For those of you who aren't local to Southern California but want to financially support either of the excellent organizations helping us with this fight, you can donate to the East West Players or to the Media Action Network for Asian Americans online. If you know of or belong to a similar organization dedicated to supporting Inuit or Native American actors, please let us know!

One further bit of news that more directly concerns all of you: someone has set up a livejournal community dedicated to news about and discussion of The Last Airbender's casting controversy: racebending! We encourage all of you who have been active here in the comments of this journal to join -- the community will provide a more relaxed format for discussion, as well as the ability to make posts of your own! Check out the community's profile for more information -- it's a big step toward keeping this conversation going in the fan community and providing a safe space for those who want to talk about this issue.
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A first step in the right direction...but we have a long way to go!

From day one, we've accepted that we may fail to change anything. We knew it was a long shot -- that we'd have to fight hard to be noticed at all, and that our efforts were as much about raising awareness of Hollywood whitewashing as they were about changing the cast.

But things are changing.

On Monday, Variety published an article announcing that Jesse McCartney, previously slated to play Prince Zuko, has withdrawn from "The Last Airbender." The role will now be played by Dev Patel, an Indian actor who recently starred in the film "Slumdog Millionaire."

From the article:

Patel, meanwhile, steps into a role that Jesse McCartney had all but locked up until the actor's second career as a musician got in the way.

"Jesse had tour dates that conflicted with a boot camp I always hold on my films, and where the actors here have to train for martial arts," Shyamalan said.


We have a lot to say about this.

First of all, we want to stress that we're very happy for Dev Patel. He's an excellent young actor and well-qualified for the role -- in addition to his recent film, he's a Taekwondo champion, and we're glad to see an Asian actor join the cast.

However, we are in no way satisfied with the current state of this production or its cast. This isn't the time to stop fighting. If anything, it's a sign that we should fight harder than ever.

• The reasons given for the casting change are dubious at best. As recently as January 30th, McCartney was giving interviews about his intensive Kung Fu training and his excitement about the project. His abrupt departure and immediate replacement with an Asian actor is an obvious reaction to the public outcry regarding the casting. Paramount is trying to pretend that they aren't reacting to your letters, your protests and your criticisms.

This move reeks of tokenism. Paramount thinks that by including one Asian actor, they'll derail our efforts to push for appropriate casting and to protest their whitewashing of the other three main characters.

• Their choice of Patel specifically -- the only young, male, Asian actor currently in the public spotlight -- displays a "one size fits all" approach to casting. Patel is Indian, whereas Zuko's culture puts him much closer to Chinese. This is not unlike equating Britain with Italy, and has angered and insulted many of our supporters.

• Assuming the rest of the Fire Nation is cast in kind, we're now presented with a world in which a race of dark-skinned South Asians are the villains. While Prince Zuko is later redeemed, in this first film Zuko is still very much the "bad guy," who will be chasing and threatening three white heroes.

We still have two white actors playing Inuit teenagers. And changing the appearance of those actors so that they more closely resemble their characters, which actor Jackson Rathbone has already suggested, would be offensive and completely unacceptable.

• While no confirmed photos of Noah Ringer have yet surfaced, we also appear to also have a film in which the world is saved by a white boy dressed up as a Tibetan monk. It's worth noting, as well, that we suspect that if Ringer were Asian then Paramount would have said as much by now.

- Staff associated with this production, including casting director Deedee Rickets, have made offensive and ignorant statements regarding this film and their casting policies for it. The lack of any apology whatsoever, for those statements and for those policies existing to begin with, is also unacceptable.



In short: White actors are still playing Asian and Inuit characters. Excuses and token casting are being used to try to avoid controversy without making an official statement or apology. The fact that Zuko has been recast in this way makes it crystal clear that Paramount knows there's a problem, that the cast is not as final as they would have us believe, that they are worried about the negative attention this issue is attracting, and that they want us to sit down and be quiet.

It's more important than ever that we keep talking, keep pushing, keep protesting. Now is not the time to back down. We've already pushed them to recast one of the four main characters. We have Paramount Pictures in a corner. Let's keep them there until they aknowledge what's going on, apologize for their actions and take steps in good faith to set things right.

If you're in the Philadelphia area and are free this Saturday, we encourage you to join the protest taking place that day. If you can't make it, we have some suggestions for other ways to broadcast your support for this cause.
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We'll let the show speak for itself.

Many people have been telling us we shouldn't be offended. And of all the arguments we've been presented with this past week, the most common is also the most surprising: "These characters look white to me."

We considered writing an essay about the ethnic makeup of Avatar: The Last Airbender, but then we realized we could never be as eloquent on this topic as the show itself was.

For those of you who're interested in this issue but not familiar with the show, and for those fans who want a reminder of what we're fighting to preserve: an essay in images, spanning the length of the series and ending as the show itself tellingly chose to.



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