By Sasha Pohle-Anderson
For Northwest Asian Weekly
These days, many people think that cries of racism are false alarms — after all, we live in a society where race doesn’t matter, right?
Unfortunately, we’re not there yet. The popular animated TV series “Avatar: The Last Airbender” has been made into a live-action film by director M. Night Shyamalan. The original series is a beautiful homage to Eastern culture, set in a fantasy world heavily influenced by Japanese anime and founded in the philosophies, religions, and cultures of Korea, Japan, China, Tibet, India, and Inuit tribes. The movie adaptation, however, portrays whitewashing and outright racism. Each protagonist that has been cast is white.
Because of fan protests, some roles were recast, but only for the villains. In the original, the two main characters — heroes — are dark-skinned Inuits. All the characters are Asian. The main protagonist Aang was even modeled after the Chinese American son of Avatar’s martial arts director, Sifu Kisu.
To all movie-goers, I send out this request: boycott “The Last Airbender.” Send Hollywood the message that it needs. We will not fund racism, nor will we tolerate such contempt of Asian culture.
The casting is quite ironic. Mako Iwamatsu, one of the voice actors of Avatar, founded the East West Players, an Asian American theater organization that has a history of fighting discrimination. The organization also helped Filipino American Avatar voice actor Dante Basco begin his career. In other words, even the behind-the-scenes history of Avatar is one of fighting racism and helping Asian Americans break into mainstream media. There is no such objective for “The Last Airbender.”
Many argue that anime-style faces are racially ambiguous. And while this is true in some cases, culture and skin tone are always clear. Avatar’s creators explicitly stated that they wanted to create a mythology based on Eastern culture, and it shows. Regardless, the heroes of the film are white, while the extras and villains are Asian, Middle Eastern, or Latino. The Eastern cultures gave the original show so much beauty, and the film has cut this out.
Fans weren’t interested in Avatar despite its Eastern influences but rather because of them. Many Asian American fans are able to see themselves in Avatar’s characters. A 13-year-old Filipina American explained, “Katara was one of my favorite characters because she was … dark-skinned, and just awesome. Once I saw the casting for her, I lost that self-esteem.” Not only does whitewashing send a horrible message to Asian Americans, it deprives them of acting roles that were literally designed for them.
Some argue that in casting whites, the director is ensuring more viewership, but M. Night Shyamalan has enough fame for this to not be an issue. “Avatar” also has thousands of devoted fans who aren’t just willing to see Asian leads; they protest any other option.
I am a Caucasian high school student, and I don’t want to see only Caucasians in films. There are plenty of Asian actors and new talent that could have been used for this movie. People say it would be hard to find Inuit actors. However, “The Last Airbender” was filmed partially in Greenland which has an Inuit population of 88 percent.
It is clearly too late to change the casting, but there is still something you can do. Make sure that its creators don’t profit from the film. They have turned their backs on an Asian fantasy world that could bring so much hope to Asians and people of all races. This discrimination isn’t exactly surprising, but it doesn’t mean that we have to resign ourselves to it. Nothing will change unless we change it. Boycott, and spread the word. ♦
Sasha Pohle-Anderson will be a senior at Lakeside high school this fall. Her interests include art, philosophy, history, and language. She has taken six years of Latin and is beginning to teach herself Japanese.
Sasha Pohle-Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.