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M. Night Shyamalan defends his “Last Airbender” casting decisions

By Sean O’Connell
Hollywoodnews.com: Is M. Night Shyamalan’s new film, “The Last Airbender,” racist? It seems like a ridiculous charge to level against a director of Indian descent. Yet more than enough negative buzz surrounding the “Airbender” casting had forced the director to respond.

The “Airbender” characters, based on an animated television show, are of Asian descent. Shyalaman selected a few Caucasian actors. Then he cast darker-skinned actors as villains, leading to this minor outcry. The story exists in a fantasy realm, so leveling racist accusations seems silly. Yet Shyamalan, speaking to Indie Movies Online, felt compelled to answer his critics.

“The whole point of the movie is that there isn’t any bad or good,” he said. “They immediately assume that everyone with dark skin is a villain. That was an incredibly racist assumption which as it turns out is completely incorrect. They irony that Im playing on the exact prejudices that people who are claiming I’m racist are doing.”

Again, the accusations seem completely unfounded, but we can’t know for sure until we’ve seen the film in context. Judge for yourself when “Airbender” opens in theaters July 1.

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About Sean O'Connell

Sean O'Connell is a nationally recognized film critic. His reviews have been published in print ('The Washington Post,' 'USA Today') and online (AMC FilmCritic.com, MSN's Citysearch) since 1996. He's a weekly contributor to several national radio programs. He is a longstanding member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS), and the Southeastern Film Critics View all articles by Sean O'Connell Association (SEFCA).

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  • June 28, 2010 | Permalink |

    I agree with what M. Night is saying; initially, a Caucasian actor was cast to play the lead villain. After Dev Patel replaced him, M. Night had to reconfigure the Fire Nation demographics to match the royal family. Noah Ringer is a martial-arts champion with acting potential. Rathbone is supposedly there to draw the crowds, and matches Nicola Peltz playing his sister.

    Additionally, I dislike the whole stigma of the Fire Nation as being ‘evil’. They’re definitely the antagonists, but throughout the entire series the point is that all people are connected. The royal family of the Fire Nation is portrayed as misguided by generations of tradition and expectation that have led to an unstable self-perception The different nations eventually reconcile their misconceptions and realize that they are one people, united in their similarities rather than divided in their differences.

    I watched the series for its plot, characters, and message, not race or color. The story was designed around beautiful, universal morals and endearing protagonists. Please don’t break it down into some ridiculous racial controversy.

  • June 28, 2010 | Permalink |

    “It seems like a ridiculous charge to level against a director of Indian descent. ”

    Yeah, who cares that he made the main heroes white?

  • June 28, 2010 | Permalink |

    The way that the casting process was done was offensive. Even the studio apologized for it. So the controversy wasn’t unfounded.

    And the series itself draws heavily from East Asian motifs and tradition. The Earth Kingdom doesn’t figure in until the second season, which I’m assuming will be the second movie, but the Fire Nation is CLEARLY East Asian based which is the reason there was an outcry over Jesse McCartney’s casting as Zuko. Dev Patel is an improvement but still, the way it was handled initially was bad.

    The Water Tribe is also clearly Inuit based which probably would be more challenging for casting but to get two white actors and just ‘tan them up’ leaves a bad taste and I’m old enough to know why it leaves that bad taste.

    So again, the ‘controversy’ isn’t unfounded. It has a reason for existing.

  • June 28, 2010 | Permalink |

    I really don’t think that the casting is racist at all. All I care about is the next good movie, and when the movie is good, then I care about the actors.

    BTW, wasn’t the creators of The Last Airbender two American guys?

  • June 28, 2010 | Permalink |

    I do agree the Zuko role early on was handled bad. Thank goodness it went to Dev. This is all irrelevant because the show is American made, American written, American drawn, American voiced, and so forth. Its not even a true “anime”. I understand being upset over all the influences in the show being taken from Asian culture the characters even wrote in Japanese, but c’mon, this is silly people. To me Aang looks white in the show anyway. Also Zuko is not a pure villain. If you’ve seen the show you know how that turns out. I do believe when this is all said and done it will be one of the most diverse casts ever in a movie. Can’t wait for it. I guarantee you Toph will make this all better!

    If it matters I’m Korean.

  • June 28, 2010 | Permalink |

    This movie shouldn’t be called the last airbender. The major changes that were made do not reflect the cartoon series at all. The fire nation is supposed to be East asian, Aang is supposed to be a reincarnated Tibetan monk and the water tribe folks in the film are too pale compared to the cartoon!!!

  • June 28, 2010 | Permalink |

    Are you geeks STILL complaining? It’s a movie, not plan to help stop world hunger, or to turn the entire world eco friendly, or to help the poverty stricken, it’s a MOVIE….from a freakin’ CARTOON!

    What are you people? 12?

  • June 28, 2010 | Permalink |

    You have to take into consideration that in the TV series the ENTIRE world of the Avatar was Asian but Shymalan decided not to take that route and make the entire world mixed races (even going so far to change chinese calligraphy from the series to fictional writing and adding Roman influences to the fireneation).

    At that point the Whitewash argument becomes completely null and void because now all previous races of the characters no longer matter due to the internal cultural structure of the entire world has been altered.

    I repeat that this is NOT whitewashing, this is an alteration in adaption. This is a change the director made to the fantasy of the world

    If Shymalan kept the entire world asian but cast white actors then yes, that would be whitewashing, but he didn’t. He completely changed the cultural demographic of the entire world.

    That being said if you wish that he had kept it all asian instead of mixed, that’s fine, but just don’t go throwing around the word racist and whitewashing without knowing what they really mean.

  • June 29, 2010 | Permalink |

    I, as a Chinese, am glad the movie has changed Fire Nation from East Asian to Persian.

    In the anime, the Chinese-looking Firebenders destroyed and exterminated the Tibetan-inspired Airbender monks. All the annoying hippies insist the story is a parable for the “genocide” of Tibetans by Chinese. That offends me.

    If the movie has cast East Asians as Firebanders, and the movie becomes a box office success, it will undoubtedly unleash a tsunami of discussions and debates over Tibet. The movie will become the biggest propaganda for the Free Tibet movement.

    Now it won’t. The Firebenders in the movie are Persian and Indian instead of Chinese or East Asian. Thank goodness. I won’t have to suffer the Free Tibet nonsense when the movie becomes a hit.

  • June 29, 2010 | Permalink |

    I hope the movie is good. People are so worried about the race of the characters that they are missing the most important part of the series and hopefully the movie. There is good and bad in each of us and we can choose to be one or the other. All our mistakes and strives can teach us so much about ourselves and each other. We have stopped appreciating the world around us and in turn have lost our way. I hope that we can stop spending so much time pointing fingers and accusing others of malicious wills.

  • June 29, 2010 | Permalink |

    5% of Americans are Asian yet only 1.7% of main protagonist roles go to Asian in Hollywood films, this movie was an opportunity to place Asian protagonist in an Asain based fantasy world, instead as in almost all Hollywood films minorities are limited to nameless background characters, token roles and villains (Arabs and Indians especially as the latter, as this movies does), only white people can be heros and the central characters of a film.

  • June 29, 2010 | Permalink |

    Is it a ridiculous argument?

    Consider the fact that this sort of thing has happened MANY times before, like with Ursula Le Guin’s ‘Earthsea’, where her described NON-Caucasian character was cast with a Caucasian actor for the live-action Sci-Fi film (which did horribly). She wasn’t happy with it and stated so in this article.http://www.slate.com/id/2111107

    Neil Gaimen, renowned author, refused for years to sell the rights to his book ‘Anansi Boys’ to be made into a film; largely because any studio he brought it to.wanted to either remove the magical element from the story (which was important to the plot) or change his leading protagonists who were Black to Caucaisan. For those of you not in the know, the main characters were the sons of the AFRICAN God, Anansi.

    It’s exceptionally rare to see a film script written with Asian actors in mind. There are VERY FEW opportunities for them in Hollywood because Hollywood execs are of the mindset that people won’t go pay to see a starring Asian lead (despite the recent success of the new ‘Karate Kid’ film starring Jakie Chan and Jaden Smith, son of actor Will Smith).

    The casting call, for starters read ‘Caucasian or any other ethnicity’. Right away it shows a preference for Caucasian actors. Every casting agent we a racebending.com have spoken to have stated that when a casting call reads like this, they don’t bother calling their non-White clients because it would be a waste of time; while they MAY get seen, they won’t be offered a role. If they wanted to be inclusive, it would have read ‘All Ethnicities may apply’. Yet despite the claims, for over a year Paramount and Frank Marshall (the casting agency who put out the call) denied any racial discrimination took place and Marshall himself stated in a Twitter convo that he was ‘done talking about it’.

    Well, a year goes by, the movement gets attention and Marshall claims that the wording WAS discriminatory and was ‘handled by a third party’. Okay, what? A third party is to blame? He was made aware of the problem MONTHS AGO and just then admits it was discriminatory? Sorry, but unless they can prove this happened, I’m calling BS. They are passing the buck to take the heat off themselves.

    @Tony, ‘Full Metal Alchemist’ , which stars Caucasian characters, was written by a Japanese woman. Are you saying that two White guys from the U.S., despite the extensive research and care they took in creating this and the numerous consultants they had on staff to aid them, can’t write a fictional Asian world?

    @Katara lover, ‘American’ =/=Caucaisan. Being American does not mean you can’t respect the cultures, histories, mythologies, etc of another place. This world was set in a pan-ASIAN world, NOT American. THAT is what matters here. Also remember, Dev Patel was SECOND CHOICE. The role originally went to Jesse McCartney, a Caucasian. Dev Patel recently stated i nan interview that he doesn’t have many opportunities in Hollywood and he fears ‘Slumdog’ will not only be his debut, but his ‘swansong’. And the language was NOT Japanese, it was traditional Chinese calligraphy, which has been replaced by a made up fictional language ‘inspired by Asian language’ What is the point of replacing a REAL language with a fictional one?

    @dragonking555, adaptions are very tricky. A director should take great care when taking an existing property (with an already large fanbase) and turning it into something else entirely. Otherwise it ceases to be what people loved. Look what happened with ‘Earthsea’ when Sci-Fi Channel turned it into a film. The characters in the book were described by Ms. Le Guin as being non-White, but they cast Caucaisan actors to play nearly all of these roles, keeping only ONE actor the described ethnicity they were in the book. The changes that have been made were completely unnecessary because the animated series PROVED to be profitable. In short, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’.

    @Pat, this movie is symptomatic of a larger issue and that is the prevalence of racial discrimination and marginalization of ethnic minorities in western media. How many films in the past decade have starred an Asian lead that was NOT riddled with commonplace stereotypes and was NOT shoved into the background/to the side to make room for the White hero?

    @Evelyn, it seems you are missing the point. Hollywood operates on what they think sells. In their view, Caucasian leads are more profitable than Asian leads, hence why they cast Caucasian actors as the leads.heroes for this film. Any POC (person of color) was regulated to either non-essential, non-speaking background, unnamed side roles or villain role. The Caucasian actors, the HEROES of the story, are front and center. THEY are the ones the audience follows and roots for. THEY are the central focus of the story, despite the fact that the characters they play are NOT Caucaisan, but East Asian and Inuit.

  • June 30, 2010 | Permalink |

    ok to the comment by KT Chong, that has got to be the most ridiculous comment ever

    come on now, are you serious?
    all of the nations are connected; it doesn’t mean that the fire nation is evil
    even aang had friends in the fire nation

    doesn’t look like you looked into the plot and idea around ATLA
    all of the nations are connected spiritually and set aside their differences to come together to live in harmony

    however, the fire nation had other plans because of the royal family and the fire lord had other plans…

    and its east asia, not just china…

    dang, this movie would have been better if it had like jett li as the fire lord or something
    and rain as prince zuko

    maybe chuck norris could be king bumi lol

  • July 8, 2010 | Permalink |

    KT chong…what the hell are you talking about? don’t always try to find a way to bash tibet.
    Go spread your brain-washed pathetic rhetoric somewhere else.

  • July 11, 2010 | Permalink |

    The actual genders and races of what the elements represent are in Rodney St.Michael’s book, Sync My World: Thief’s Honor GA SK. (myconnected.webs.com)

    Air = Yellow “race” = Males = Scholars.

    Water = Small Browns = Females = Shamans.

    Earth = Blacks = Lesbian = Social Ubuntu Business Class.

    Fire = Whites = Gays = Military, Militant Business Class.

    Ether or Metal = Big Browns = Bisexuals = Working Class, Bi-military

    (females & bis go together like Katara & Sokka or brown females and males).

    Therefore Aang should be Chinese.

    Katara should be a Malay like a Filipina.

    The Earth Kingdom should be African.

    Zuko should be White like Hitler, Alexander the Gay or Gen. Arthur McArthur.

    The Fire Nation’s army should be like the fiery Sacred Band of Thebes (an ancient elite gay army that Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell troops would be envious of) or the Sturmabteilung, the much-feared homosexual stormtroopers of Hitler.

    And the Slumdog Millionaire (casted as Zuko) should be Sokka.

    This film is just as messed up as the movie Angels and Demons. The branding of the priests were incorrect.

    But anyway, from the guy who gave you the Sixth Sense, which did not portray childhood schizophrenia accurately or anywhere near the real world, what do you expect?

    Bisexuals love horror and terror. They also scam people, just like the Wizard of Oz. The old Oz film which is also about the Elements is understandably all-white because they were ignorant back then. People have higher standards now, and realism is a must.

    But M.Night, the Wizard of South Asia also has lessons for everyone after conning them:

    1) Clearly, when people don’t play roles that fit them, everything is messed up. (e.g. “male” clergy in what should be a female realm, forbidding gays in the military which is their territory)

    2) Whites are not fit to play the leading roles of Air and Water in the world scene. Leave that to the ASEAN+3 (China, Japan, Korea and South East Asia).

    3) Arabs are not necessarily the greatest evil in the world. Occasionally, they float like Ether to the ranks of Water. It is fiery whites that fit the role of Lucifer or Satan.

    4) By acquiring objective reviews from leading critics, they have agreed themselves that these are all factual objective realities.

    Thus, the Wizard, even if he is a con man, is also an accidental pseudo teacher. Partly, it’s called sunyata or “emptiness.”

  • July 13, 2010 | Permalink |

    First off the movie was terrible and race does not even come to play. As for M. Night’s decision to make each tribe a different race does not hold water. The water tribe with the exception of Katara, Sokka, and their grandmother in the film did not appear white at all but all the firebenders did look indian. I do not know who he trying to fool but M. Night shows his contempt of the series fan base by lying.

    I can understand why many whites in this country feel apathetic to the whole race issue in the casting of the film but imagine if you will if Peter Jackson cast for the main roles of the “Lord of the Ring” trilogy unknown Black actors. Like Avatar, the world in LOTR is pure fanatasy and race is not clearly defined so why not?

  • July 22, 2010 | Permalink |

    About kt-chong comment i agree with bob ur pathetic writing that was shameless and brainwashed like the worst chinese clichee i can imagin.
    Honestly, i could have forgiven the characters colour for me it’s secondary in a good movie.
    And even the localisation of the countries in an immaginary world that doesn’t matter.
    Now even the fact that such rich and awesome content as the first book was resumed in 85mn i let go. But the end omg the damn end made me feel like i just got scamed… there’s no room for boudhistic interpretation when it’s originally that good dear Mr. Night. For me you had your new summer hit with this movie at least until you decided to change the end to turn it into this pityfull demonstration of pacifism instead of beeing true to the original scenario. Disapointed… i am.

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