I was relieved to discover that “The Last Airbender” received terrible reviews, for a variety of reasons (the cartoon was just about the perfect format to tell the full narrative), but particularly because the characters which were, in the series, ambiguously Asian or Native became, in the film, all white.  Except the villains.  The good guys are all white, and the Fire Nation is now Indian. 

NPR’s television blog, which I normally find very insightful, disappointed me on this matter, making a couple of deeply disingenuous points.  First of all, the entire issue has been complicated by the fact that the film is directed by M. Night Shyamalan, who is, of course, one of the biggest-name non-white directors in Hollywood.  Mr. Shyamalan has, in the past, made such radical casting decisions as… Bruce Willis.  Mel Gibson.  That Indian guy — oh, wait.  Mr. Shyamalan’s films have never starred minority actors in the lead roles.  M. Night Shyamalan is not exactly the Asian-American Spike Lee, people.  His past work makes it clear that he is more interested in commercial success than expanding opportunities for other people of color. 

Second, and more crucially, NPR’s Linda Holmes claims that “On yet another hand, not all actors want the benefit of the “you need to cast an actor of the same general ethnicity” approach to casting anyway; plenty of them are not only content to compete equally for every role with everybody else from every other background, but wouldn’t have it any other way.”  On its face, there is nothing wrong with this argument — except that it misrepresents the facts of the casting of “The Last Airbender,” which was, contrary to any other claims, NOT color-blind.  The casting notices did not request actors of any ethnicity, full stop.  They explicitly asked for “Caucasian (or other ethnicity)” — placing whiteness clearly ahead of any other ethnic category.  And that’s where a serious structural problem still exists in Hollywood; it’s fine to claim that everyone should compete on a level playing field, if a level playing field existed.  Unfortunately, for too many people responsible for these decisions, ‘white’ remains the default position for most characters, and actors of other ethnic backgrounds are perceived to be too Other-ized to appeal to a mainstream audience.  (Witness: the recent, unsuccessful campaign to cast Donald Glover as Spider-Man).  In short, “colorblind” casting seems, for now, to justify white actors occupying non-white roles vastly more often than the other way around. 

If I seem particularly impassioned on this topic, well, I am.  Recently, in my very liberal and well-educated city, amongst a group of very liberal and well-educated theater people, there was an idea to cast an iconically black character in one of my sketches with a white actor, perhaps with some bronzer.  There were attempts to justify it, but the bottom line is, blackface is blackface, and just because Obama is our president, racism — and race — has not disappeared.  The color of people on stage and on film has been a highly politicized issue throughout history, and to claim that we are now past that history — and can act without regard to it — is either ignorance or hubris or both.  The decision to cast characters with names like “Aang” and “Sokka” in “The Last Airbender” with white actors is not some revolutionary act of race-neutral color-blindness — it is an active repression of minority expression.  The fact that M. Night Shyamalan is behind it doesn’t excuse anything; it merely makes him complicit.

For excellent further analysis, please read this post.