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Old 05-26-2010, 11:16 AM   #1
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Whitewashing

Critics: 'Airbender' & 'Prince' were 'whitewashed' (AP) Tue May 25, 2010, 12:10 pm EDT

NEW YORK - The hopes of many are resting on the shoulders of 12-year-old Aang.

Ever since he first came out of a block of ice in the Nickelodeon cartoon series "Avatar: The Last Airbender," the other tribes in his fictional, Asian-inspired world saw Aang and his power over the elements as their last chance for peace after a century of conflict.

Now Paramount Pictures and director M. Night Shyamalan also have high hopes for Aang: that he will attract audiences to see their big-screen — and big budget — version of "The Last Airbender," opening July 2.

Yet fans of the original TV series say whatever hopes they had for the live-action movie have been dashed by what is known as "whitewashing" — the selection of white actors to fill the main hero roles instead of the people of color they say the source material requires.

"To take this incredibly loved children's series, and really distort not only the ethnicity of the individual characters but the message of acceptance and cultural diversity that the original series advocated, is a huge blow," said Michael Le of Racebending.com , a fan site calling for a boycott of the martial-arts fantasy.

Paramount defends the film's casting, noting more than half of the credited speaking roles were filled by people of color.

"Night's vision of 'The Last Airbender' includes a large and ethnically diverse cast that represents cultures from around the world," Paramount said in a statement.

That doesn't impress the movie's critics, who claim most of that diversity is found among secondary characters and background extras.

They say "Airbender" casting is just the latest example of a long history in Hollywood of demeaning people of color — from having white actors in makeup portray minorities to sidelining them in second-tier roles to replacing them entirely, as they say is the case with "Airbender."

They point to examples like the 2008 film "21," which was based on a book inspired by the true-life story of a mostly Asian American group of card players, yet was cast with mostly white actors in the main roles.

They also note this weekend's release of "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time," a live-action adaptation of a video game that stars white actor Jake Gyllenhaal in the title role instead of an actor with a Middle Eastern background.

"This part really needed to go to someone who's Persian," said Jehanzeb Dar, a blogger and independent filmmaker who is a fan of the video game but has no intention of supporting the movie.

"It's not only insulting to Persians, it's also insulting to white people. It's saying white people can't enjoy movies unless the protagonist is white," he said.

Disney did not return an e-mail asking for comment on the casting.

"It becomes very clear that it's part of the historical pattern of Hollywood and it's not an isolated incident and it's not because they happen to be fictional characters," Le said. "It's because this is the standard procedure for Hollywood films, and it really shouldn't be. It's 2010."

But 2010 is also a time of huge stakes in the movie business — when only a small fraction of the films that are released make the vast majority of the industry's profits, said economics professor Arthur De Vany, author or "Hollywood Economics: How Extreme Uncertainty Shapes the Film Industry."

Because of the financial risk, studios try to control anything that goes into a movie before its release in an effort to maximize box office receipts — from the storyline to the cast to the marketing, De Vany explained.

"They're trying to control the initial conditions of a chaotic process," he said. "There's only so much room at the top."

During the era of segregation in this country, Hollywood routinely considered race when making and releasing a film. For example, actress Lena Horne, who died May 9 at 92, saw her parts in movies cut out when those films were shown in the South.

Over time, "it's what has become habitual practice," said Chon Noriega, professor of cinema and media studies at UCLA. "I think it's the default setting and it takes a conscious choice to change," he said.

"Airbender's" creators, Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino, have said they purposely chose to base their cartoon in an Asian-inspired setting as opposed to a European one, incorporating different kinds of martial arts, as well as other cultural elements like Chinese calligraphy. At least some of the main characters were drawn as people of color.

Yet when it came time to cast the movie, unknown Noah Ringer was picked to play Aang. Nicola Peltz was chosen to play Katara, the girl who finds Aang in the ice, and "Twilight" actor Jackson Rathbone was named for the role of Sokka, Katara's brother. Jesse McCartney was originally slated to play the anti-hero Zuko, but dropped out due to scheduling reasons and was replaced by Dev Patel of "Slumdog Millionaire."

That the initial casting had four white actors in the main roles, and that the three heroes are still all played by whites, is an outrage, said Guy Aoki of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans.

"It speaks volumes when the initial casting decision was to cast four white leads," he said. "For them to be comfortable with that ... it's embarrassing, it says a lot about their attitudes."

Le said Racebending.com has organized a letter-writing campaign to Paramount, but has received no response. Aoki said his organization had sent a letter asking for a meeting, but was ignored until filming had already started. The group met later with Paramount president Adam Goodman, who offered a prescreening.

But that hasn't happened yet, Aoki said, even though Paramount has expressed confidence that people will embrace the film once they see it.

"The filmmaker's interpretation reflects the myriad qualities that have made this series a global phenomenon," Paramount said in its statement. "We believe fans of the original and new audiences alike will respond positively once they see it."

Yet Harvard journalism instructor Martha Nichols said that while there are times when the case can be made for a movie to change something from the source material, this isn't one of them. She's the mother of an adopted 8-year-old Asian boy who is a big fan of the cartoon series, in part because of its homage to Asian cultures and characters.

The moviemakers "seem to have no clue that there's this huge fan base of young Asian-Americans who were delighted to see themselves" on screen," said Nichols, who blogs at Athena's Head.

She said her son would have loved to see a hero on screen who looked like him. "It could have really been groundbreaking. That's what is so sad about this."
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Old 05-26-2010, 12:40 PM   #2
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But the anti-hero role went to a person of colour!
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Old 05-26-2010, 12:40 PM   #3
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It has struck me as strange why they don't pick people who are the best description of a character (like finding American people to play English people. What, are we out of English actors?). But on the other hand, if they did pick an Asian person for an Asian role or a black person for a black role, or whatever, then there'd be people complaining because they'd feel they were being stereotypical or something, too.

I guess what I want to know is this: all the time I hear about how TV and movies shouldn't be your kids' role models, and yet now people are upset because they look at the TV and movies for their kids and can't find a...role model. Huh? Certainly I understand the parents' issue and don't disagree with their position, but at the same time, if you've instilled some confidence and self-worth in your child, if a movie doesn't advertise that, so what? It doesn't mean your child still can't go on to achieve great things.

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Old 05-26-2010, 01:14 PM   #4
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Most movies need a big name to be lead character, so they will look for someone whose name will be enough to get people into watching the movie. For the other roles the freedom to chose is a bit greater.
You are right, people will always find something to complain if they want to. But if the context of the movie asks for an Asian, African or European person it will be more difficult for anyone to bring up the argument that it serves stereotypes.
I've never heard anyone complain about e.g. The Wire being racially insensitive or anything like that (though it doesn't mean it didn't maybe happen, because I didn't follow it when it was fresh on TV). And it would have been pure nonsense to make it any other way just to avoid such claims.
With this Avatar series, to me it seems like they didn't put too much effort in casting for character who'd been more apt for the roles. They don't have taken big name actors for the roles, so that's not an argument. I wouldn't be surprised if it just didn't cross their mind, and once they were set with actors for each role they thought it would be too late to change it and just went with it. If there is really intention behind it, thinking that only whites could fill those roles, I can't really imagine. But of course it doesn't look good on them.

A few decades ago it was normal for a German actor going to Hollywood being cast for the bad guy only. That has changed a bit, thankfully.

TV shouldn't be the sole role model, and parents need to be responsible first. When their child misbehaves they can't blame tv for it. TV is not the one in charge to raise children. But I do think that movies and such should be considerate that would they portray does tend to be of influence especially on children. It doesn't form them as much as some may attribute it to, maybe, but it's never without some effect. And after all, many people working in Hollywood, be it directors, producers, writers or actors, do have the intention to also change and influence society with what they do. But by taking that responsibility upon themselves, they also need to consider that they cannot pick up this attitude when it suits them and drop it when it doesn't.
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Old 05-26-2010, 11:42 PM   #5
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Most movies need a big name to be lead character, so they will look for someone whose name will be enough to get people into watching the movie. For the other roles the freedom to chose is a bit greater.
It's a vicious circle. Directors don't give minorities big roles in movies in general, and then when they cast a movie that would naturally call for minority actors (such as when the source material is something like Avatar: The Last Airbender TV show), they say they can't because they need to cast "name" actors in the leads to draw an audience. I think that's a bogus excuse. Think of that other recent movie with "Avatar" in the title. I think it made a few dollars. Who ever heard of Sam Worthington before he was cast as the lead in it? How come it's OK to cast an unknown white lead but not a minority?
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Old 05-27-2010, 02:10 AM   #6
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Maybe they could get Robert Downey Jnr. after his star turn in Tropic Thunder.
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Old 05-27-2010, 04:51 AM   #7
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Mickey Rooney's still kicking, isn't he?
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Old 05-27-2010, 04:59 AM   #8
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Mickey Rooney's still kicking, isn't he?
and getting crazier.
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Old 05-27-2010, 05:05 AM   #9
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It's a vicious circle. Directors don't give minorities big roles in movies in general, and then when they cast a movie that would naturally call for minority actors (such as when the source material is something like Avatar: The Last Airbender TV show), they say they can't because they need to cast "name" actors in the leads to draw an audience. I think that's a bogus excuse. Think of that other recent movie with "Avatar" in the title. I think it made a few dollars. Who ever heard of Sam Worthington before he was cast as the lead in it? How come it's OK to cast an unknown white lead but not a minority?
From what I read, this movie doesn't have a big name actor either. Only in one of the minor roles might be one, this Twilight actor.
The Avatar had a big name director and quite a few big actors in lead roles.
I agree with you that it shouldn't be of too much concern, and especially that in cases like this it's stupid not to cast minority actors. But many decisions aren't being made by the director or the creative minds themselves, but some business people who have as much knowledge about movies as the big label figureheads have about music.
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Old 05-27-2010, 05:30 AM   #10
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and getting crazier.
he pooped in my chimney
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Old 05-27-2010, 05:58 AM   #11
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Honestly though, I've been semi-following this issue for a while now, and there isn't really much to say. It's just wrong and it's ludicrous that such a thing still happens in the 21st century, and no amount of pissweak Hollywood defence can prevent that. However, at the end of the day this controversy will probably be the only thing the movie is remembered for. The same thing happened with that terrible Dragon Ball movie that was released last year, and nobody gives a damn about that film now.

And hey, hopefully this brings enough attention to Hollywood's subtle but still prominent racism that we can expect to see more than just tokenism and anti-heroes when it comes to casting Asian-Americans in future films.
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Old 05-27-2010, 07:56 AM   #12
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Because of the financial risk, studios try to control anything that goes into a movie before its release in an effort to maximize box office receipts—from the storyline to the cast to the marketing, De Vany explained.
That may be, though Shyamalan claimed to have made all these disputed casting calls himself, and defended them (in typically rambling and convoluted fashion) at a promotional function for the film a couple months back:
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Shyamalan Addresses Airbender's Race Controversy

"...Here's the thing. The great thing about anime is that it's ambiguous. The features of the characters are an intentional mix of all features. It's intended to be ambiguous. That is completely its point. So when we watch Katara, my oldest daughter is literally a photo double of Katara in the cartoon. So that means that Katara is Indian, correct? No, that's just in our house. And her friends who watch it, they see themselves in it. And that's what's so beautiful about anime.

When we were casting, I was like, "I don't care who walks through my door, whoever is best for the part. I'm going to figure it out like a chessgame." Ideally we separate the nations ethnically—ideally. I didn't know how or what it was going to be. And it was so fluid. For example if you found a great brother, [but] he didn't go with my favorite Katara, then we couldn't use him. Theoretical things like that. There was an Ang that we really loved, but he was like 5'10." There's all kinds of issues that come to the table physically. And I had a board of all the people that I was considering, the seven or eight. There was, at one time, a Chinese Sokka and Katara, and they were over here. One of them was a better actor than the other, and so I was gathering my pros and cons. I was without an agenda, and just letting it come to the table. Noah is a photo double from the cartoon. He is spot on. I didn't know their backgrounds, and to me Noah had a slightly mixed quality to him. So I cast the Airbenders as all mixed-race. So when you see the monks, they are all mixed. And it kind of goes with the nomadic culture and the idea that over the years, all nationalities came together.

The Fire Nation was the most complicated. I kept switching who was playing Zuko. It was such a complicated and drawn out thing, about practical matters. But the first person that I was considering casting for Zuko was Ecuadorian. So I started thinking that way. Then when that person couldn't do it, the next person who came in was much more Caucasian. And then we had to switch everything around. The Earth Nation was always the issue as well, because the second movie is so dominated by that group, and it will represent most of the movie. But it has a small, small part in the first movie. So that was important in thinking about it in the long term. Then Dev [Patel] came into the picture, he was really early on. He had auditioned for me in London. He was a sweet guy, but he did such a great reading...I always go for the actor...Dev ended up being my choice for Zuko, and I looked for an Uncle that could be in that realm, for a moment I thought about Ben Kingsley. But Shaun Toub, I just loved him in Iron Man. I thought this takes us into a Mediterranean kind of Arab and Indian world, and I can go as far as that, that will be the breadth of the Fire Nation, that kind of look.

For me, Nicola [Peltz, who plays Katara] had a lot of Russian qualities, European and Russian qualities. So that was the direction we went there. Whoever I ended up with, I went that was their nationality. Suki was Jessica [Andres] who is a mix of Filipino. And now the Earth Kingdom is all Asian so Toph will have to be Asian. Suddenly I was looking at the board and I thought, this works for me, because everything was represented. And there's a section of the Earth Kingdom that's African American. Because it's such a big country and land I thought you could have some diversity in there as they travel through the cities. So more so than the show, it will have a much more diverse ethnic backgrounds to it. It's not an agenda for me, but it's something I'm super proud of. That when my kids or any kids look at it they will see themselves."
Shyamalan sounds sincere to me; he also sounds like he doesn't really get the nature of the discontents being expressed here. Yeah, anime-style characters have some 'intentional ambiguities' physically (though that's hardly "completely its point"?--whatever that means) but, it only takes 5 minutes on Google to see that this series wasn't "ambiguous" in the slightest about drawing the bulk of its faces, landscapes, epic themes, music, calligraphy, fighting styles, etc., etc. squarely from the East Asian classical world. As interpreted from Hollywood by two white guys, who don't profess to be anything more than enthusiastic armchair students of it all, sure, but that's part of the point--it's a fun, inspired homage that clearly struck a similar chord with many of their fans, most of whom aren't from that cultural world either (though the show was very popular in SE Asia) but enjoyed the change of pace of an accessible, well-conceived exploration of it in the form of a highly acclaimed children's adventure show. No one was expecting an all-Asian cast or anything, but it just seems like this was such a major component of what made the series special and fun and different, especially for Asian-American kids but for many other fans too. I think it's a shame Shyamalan et al. chose to neglect this dimension of it so completely.
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Old 05-27-2010, 03:49 PM   #13
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Vincent Vega View Post
Most movies need a big name to be lead character, so they will look for someone whose name will be enough to get people into watching the movie. For the other roles the freedom to chose is a bit greater.
This is true, sadly. I just wonder then how those movies that got big with people that weren't well-known managed to do it.

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Originally Posted by VincentVega View Post
You are right, people will always find something to complain if they want to. But if the context of the movie asks for an Asian, African or European person it will be more difficult for anyone to bring up the argument that it serves stereotypes.
It'll be more difficult, but people will find a way. "Oh, look, all they think Asian people do is martial arts" or complaints if it's a movie where the black people are in gangs or whatever. If it isn't the characters, it's the story, if it isn't the story, it's the language and the way they speak, etc. I remember people getting all upset over 'Tropic Thunder' because of the way it presented a mentally disabled person (I've not seen that movie, but I'm pretty sure the creators didn't intend the portrayal to be insulting).

But I fully agree the movie studios shouldn't use that potential problem as a reason to shy away from embracing more diversity and realism. You can't please everybody, after all.

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Originally Posted by VincentVega View Post
've never heard anyone complain about e.g. The Wire being racially insensitive or anything like that (though it doesn't mean it didn't maybe happen, because I didn't follow it when it was fresh on TV). And it would have been pure nonsense to make it any other way just to avoid such claims.
I don't recall hearing any complaints about that show, either. Sometimes you're lucky enough to escape the "hard to please" crowd. I've never seen that show-someday, when I'm able to, I'll check it out. Nothing but praise-rarely do you find TV shows that get that kind of acclaim.

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With this Avatar series, to me it seems like they didn't put too much effort in casting for character who'd been more apt for the roles. They don't have taken big name actors for the roles, so that's not an argument. I wouldn't be surprised if it just didn't cross their mind, and once they were set with actors for each role they thought it would be too late to change it and just went with it. If there is really intention behind it, thinking that only whites could fill those roles, I can't really imagine. But of course it doesn't look good on them.

A few decades ago it was normal for a German actor going to Hollywood being cast for the bad guy only. That has changed a bit, thankfully.
Indeed. I think you're right, this wasn't an intentional thing on their part. Just an unfortunate set of events.

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TV shouldn't be the sole role model, and parents need to be responsible first. When their child misbehaves they can't blame tv for it. TV is not the one in charge to raise children. But I do think that movies and such should be considerate that would they portray does tend to be of influence especially on children. It doesn't form them as much as some may attribute it to, maybe, but it's never without some effect. And after all, many people working in Hollywood, be it directors, producers, writers or actors, do have the intention to also change and influence society with what they do. But by taking that responsibility upon themselves, they also need to consider that they cannot pick up this attitude when it suits them and drop it when it doesn't.
Point taken. Very true. Hopefully we will start to see more positive changes in the movie industry-our nation's a melting pot, it's worth embracing and discussing the good, the bad, and the ugly of all aspects of that in our lives.

Angela
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Old 05-27-2010, 05:26 PM   #14
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This is true, sadly. I just wonder then how those movies that got big with people that weren't well-known managed to do it.
Well, they had something that is called quality?

No, sure some make it. There's no absolutes. Movies, as anything else, can be a great success for a variety of reasons. Great plot, intelligent marketing, a famous novel they are based on, or whatever.
But in many instances, producers or the managers of the studios are looking to get one of those money-makers, as they are often the safest bet. Sure, it can still become a flop, but chances are much lower.

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It'll be more difficult, but people will find a way. "Oh, look, all they think Asian people do is martial arts" or complaints if it's a movie where the black people are in gangs or whatever. If it isn't the characters, it's the story, if it isn't the story, it's the language and the way they speak, etc. I remember people getting all upset over 'Tropic Thunder' because of the way it presented a mentally disabled person (I've not seen that movie, but I'm pretty sure the creators didn't intend the portrayal to be insulting).

But I fully agree the movie studios shouldn't use that potential problem as a reason to shy away from embracing more diversity and realism. You can't please everybody, after all.
Some people live off complaining about whatever things. Some of these "action groups" also need the outrage to remain relevant and receive publicity, also for donations etc. That's one reason why they become increasingly ridiculous. If there's nothing to complain, no one needs them. But those who run the organisations need to remain relevant.
Others are just getting a rise out of it, and in the end everything you do publically will draw the attention of a great variety of people where there'll be some who object.
Business is about cost-benefit, and as long as the benefit of casting all-white outweighs the costs it remains the option of choice.

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Originally Posted by Moonlit_Angel View Post
I don't recall hearing any complaints about that show, either. Sometimes you're lucky enough to escape the "hard to please" crowd. I've never seen that show-someday, when I'm able to, I'll check it out. Nothing but praise-rarely do you find TV shows that get that kind of acclaim.
I haven't seen a better series when it comes to portraying such a diverse and multi-layered issue, with so much detail, atmosphere and the sense that this is not based on some fictional ideas of some author. Currently, I'm watching Treme with a friend, which is also written by the writers of The Wire. Though totally different from the plot of course, it's as brilliant. Seriously one of the best shows ever made.

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Indeed. I think you're right, this wasn't an intentional thing on their part. Just an unfortunate set of events.
From yolland's quote I'd think the director was just naive enough to think that his criteria for casting would matter much.


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Originally Posted by Moonlit_Angel View Post
Point taken. Very true. Hopefully we will start to see more positive changes in the movie industry-our nation's a melting pot, it's worth embracing and discussing the good, the bad, and the ugly of all aspects of that in our lives.

Angela
That is certainly true, and it should be reflected in movies in more ways than just including the token female, black and Asian character.
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