Photo Credit: Zade Rosenthal/Paramount Pictures
Picture this: The front page of Variety reads: "Hollywood studio announces $50 million Barack Obama Bio Pic Starring George Clooney and Nicole Kidman!" Huh? Sound ridiculous, right?
Well, maybe not. I'd like to think that by 2010 we've reached the age of a post-racial and more diverse Hollywood, but recently two child-friendly films have brought to the surface the controversy over what is being labeled in the entertainment industry as "whitewashing." Summer movies Prince of Persia and The Last Airbender (which opens July 1), have both been accused of engaging in this whitewashing phenomenon by casting white actors as characters "of color."
In the past few weeks, this politically incorrect practice has affected me personally. My 9-year-old daughter, a huge fan of Nickelodeon's animated television series Avatar: The Last Airbender, had been anxiously awaiting M. Night Shyamalan's live action film version. Confused, she approached me after finally seeing the movie preview wanting to know why the main characters, who are Asian in the series, looked white. Unclear of what to tell her, I decided to investigate.
Upon researching the movie, I was surprised to find that Shyamalan, a self proclaimed Asian-American, had chosen an unknown white young man, Noah Ringer, to play the lead character Aang. I can almost understand Prince of Persia using Caucasian box office hit Jake Gyllenhaal in the lead, but this is Noah's first film so he won't exactly be a huge box-office draw. I decided to see what the director himself had to say about his film's racial controversy, which is now being documented on a site devoted to the topic, Racebending.com
I found answers -- well sort of -- in an interview Shyamalan did with The Washington Post. The director is sort of vague when asked about those "expressing their concerns about the lack of Asian or Asian-American actors cast in the film." Shyamalan's response? "They're misguided… They're aware I'm Asian, right?" He adds, "Anime is based on ambiguous facial features. It's meant to be interpretive. It's meant to be inclusive of all races."
Renowned film critic Roger Ebert weighed in on the whitewashing controversy last December before viewing or writing his Airbender review, calling Shyamalan's casting decision "wrong" and adding that "there are many young Asian actors capable of playing the parts." And, when Ebert did see the movie, he wrote a scathing review, calling it "an agonizing experience." Ouch! Ebert went on to criticize everything from the 3-D format to the weak special effects to the lackluster storyline to, of course, the casting. Ebert rants, "Shyamalan has failed. His first inexplicable mistake was to change the races of the leading characters; on television Aang was clearly Asian, and so were Katara and Sokka, with perhaps Mongolian and Inuit genes. Here they're all whites."
So how did I explain the casting choices of Airbender to my daughter? Did I tell her that as the director, Shyamalan has creative license and sees the actors' race as irrelevant? Did I just say "no" to the film and blame it on Roger Ebert, the Oprah of all things cinema? Or did I simply pawn it off on her father and let him decide whether to take her or not? So far, I've gone with none of the above. Considering I have no choice but to actually see the film -- my daughter already planned a movie play-date opening day that I must chaperone -- I've decided to wait until after seeing it to have the discussion. Maybe she'll think the casting changes were a problem. Or, maybe the movie will be so bad that even if the characters had been green, it wouldn't make a difference. After all, have you seen the reviews!?
What's your take on the whitewashing in The Last Airbender? Chime in below!