Race and Identity in 'The Last Airbender'

Friday, July 02, 2010

“The Last Airbender” is the live-action feature film based on the highly successful animated series on Nickelodeon. It’s also the center of a growing controversy about casting and race. The series features Asian settings, costumes, architecture, and character and location names that incorporate Chinese, Japanese and Southeast Asian phonemes — such as “Aang,” “Fong” and “Sing.” And yet, when casting the motion picture, the studio chose four white actors to play the leads. When one of the actors dropped out, he was replaced by Dev Patel of “Slumdog Millionaire” fame, but it’s still the case that three of the four leading actors are white.


Mike Le, whose organization, racebending.com has been leading a boycott of the film since 2008, explains why race is not incidental in the film. And  Jeff Yang, who’s been writing about “Airbender” for several months for the San Francisco Chronicle, explains the complications of race in a movie whose characters were originally animated and created by two white men.

Is casting white actors for non-white rolesoffensive or just colorblind casting?

Comments from Facebook:

"It would arguably be color blind if an ethnic actor was hired to play a role that traditionally goes to a white actor. I think casting white actors in 'Prince of Persia' and 'The Last Airbender' may be an attempt to pander to the presumed mainsteam audience that will see it, which is strange considering how much negative attention a fanbase can generate nowadays and how succesful movies like 'Lord of the Rings' or various comic book movies have been when they placate fans." —Mark Hershberger

"I find it annoying on one hand as you have black and ethnic actors/actresses who are worthy of the role, fit the part (in terms of genuine looks) and DESERVE the opportunity. On the other hand, a good test of an actor's/actresses ability to morph into character and act any part (a la 'Soul Man' and 'Tropic Thunder'). So I'm a bit conflicted on the issue." —Tyrone Thorpe

"I wonder why this even matters. As long as one can play the part well it really does not bother me who is in the role." —Carrie Perez

"I think when it really come down to it, if we are going to get upset about a white actor playing a non-white role, we need to get upset about a Japanese actor playing Chinese, or an Arab actor playing Persian, or a Mexican actor playing Colombian. As hokey as it sounds, true art transcends ethnicity, and if a white actor can portray a non-white character, getting upset about it is myopic. I agree that Downey Jr.'s role in Tropic Thunder actually went pretty far in bringing this topic to a mainstream conversation. Which we're obviously still having." —David Ring


Mike Le and Jeff Yang

Produced by:

Kristen Meinzer

Comments [13]


How can you compare it to West Side Story? West Side Story isn't Romeo and Juliet; it's its own separate entity. West Side Story was a modernized version of Romeo and Juliet and the characters were SUPPOSED to be Puerto Rican. It'd be much more accurate to point out that Natalie Wood, who is white, was pretending to be Puerto Rican. And although I love West Side Story (and Natalie Wood), it was distracting since she obviously was white.

The voice acting comparison doesn't work either. Many cartoon characters are voiced by people of the OPPOSITE GENDER. Bart Simpson and Ash from Pokemon were both voiced by middle aged women. And well, in general, a lot of voice actors don't look ANYTHING like the characters they voice. But I think it goes without saying (but i'll say it anyway) that you would not cast it the same way in a live action adaptation.

Jul. 13 2010 12:46 AM
Danielle from Bowie, MD

I think the comparison given was a bit unfair. Romeo and Juliet is a story that could exist anywhere. Love, violence, prejudice, hate, and tragedy are sewn into the streets of any city in any country in any time period, whether it’s Shakespearian Verona, modern New York City, or Tokugawa Period Tokyo. Avatar: The Last Airbender, on the other hand, is a narrative defined and enriched by the care and precision the show’s creators gave to authentically represent and celebrate Asian and Native American culture. To pick up this story and place it in any other time or place would destroy the heart and soul of the characters and their fundamental belief systems.

I honestly feel offended when people claim racial blindness. Race is part of who we are. It ties in with our history, geography, and culture. It’s something that should make us proud of who we are and motivate us to explore our world. It astounds me no one on the project looked at the cast and worried about the potential message. It doesn’t matter that it’s fantasy. It’s a fantasy that celebrates a set of diverse and colorful historical cultures.

Jul. 06 2010 03:40 AM
Jonathan Valdez from San Diego, CA

In your reference to West Side Story, the Puerto Rican female lead Maria is played by Natalie Wood (born Natasha Zacharenko) daughter to Russian immigrants. This is an example of the same kind of casting practices reflected in The Last Airbender back in 1961. You may argue that its against Latinos but its the same kind of white washing practices that occur today.

Jul. 05 2010 03:35 AM
Paul from Norwalk, CA

Celeste mentions that the people who voiced the characters were White... well, they're voice actors, that doesn't matter... they're lending their voice... what are Asian people suppposed to sound like? That's a whole other issue... why is it that when Asian's are on screen, there's this assumption that they can't speak English? It's because that's how they're constantly portrayed on film. Asians speak English. Russell Crowe wasn't expected to be able to speak Latin when he did Gladiator, Jake Gyllenhaal wasn't expected to speak Farci, so why must Asians speak with broken English or in an "Asian" language? What this does is it continues to reinforce the stereotype that Asians can't speak English unless it's a White person playing an Asian role. This is complete nonsense. The characters are Asian... what makes me so sure is because the characters in The Lord of the Rings were White/Euro-centric. If Aragorn was cast as an Asian person, White people would throw a fit. But when Asians are cast as White folks, it's okay. How does that make any sense? Casting in the Last Airbender is 21st century yellowface. Plain and simple. If two White kids were cast in the principle roles for the animated show the Boondocks, African-American people would be in an uproar... of course, Hollywood wouldn't have the guts to do that... Hollywood seems to think that it can push Asian-Americans and Asian culture around... and we've had enough.

Jul. 04 2010 05:29 AM
Joshua from Southern California

No one seems to have brought this up here, but the original casting call read, "Caucasian or any other Ethnicity," for all four of the main characters. This means that the filmmakers did NOT look for the Best Actor, but instead favored Caucasian actors first, in roles specifically written to be Asian or Inuit. If you don't believe me, see for yourself:

Jul. 04 2010 12:38 AM
Amy Poon from Earth

The whole 'chose the best actor' thing is a fraud. They obviously didn't choose the best actor, they chose a nobody with some fighting ability as the lead. AND HE CAN'T ACT. He's never acted before, so why did people magically expect him to give the performance of a lifetime? The rest of the white kids couldn't act either. I've seen them in previous movies, and they couldn't act in those either. Paramount and its 150 million dollar budget couldn't find a couple of good asian actors out of the 400 million or more that is out there? This is what is wrong with hollywood.

Jul. 02 2010 09:40 PM

The creators and animators HAVE mentioned that the most characters, including main character Aang, were modeled after real Asian-American staff members and their families. So to say that the original source material was "ambiguous" is a total cop-out. Recently, the voice actor for the character Prince Zuko (who is Filipino American) has spoken out against the whitewashed cast. So not only are the fans conflicted, but people who were involved with the original series have complaints.

Plus, I find it hard to believe that they couldn't find Asian American actors to play these parts. Especially with the negative reviews about the acting from critics and the general public. So were these Caucasian actors really the most talented actors they could find? I doubt it.

Jul. 02 2010 03:54 PM

The problem with that argument, Pete, is that it pretends like "business decisions" are entirely unrelated to racism. I do not agree with this assessment. Maybe the studio was not motivated by racism in and of itself (something you assume with no evidence, by the way), but so what? The net result is the same. If you're pandering to people's racist reactions to Asian actors, then you are participating in racism.

Jul. 02 2010 03:05 PM

Thank you for bringing up this issue.

Jul. 02 2010 02:23 PM

"If the historical financial evidence showed that the product would be more successful with green-skinned androgens in the leading roles, then that's what we would see on the big screen."

Obviously this movie was not a success. We are trying to change what Hollywood deems "marketable" and "successful." Why should we give them money and success if they don't bother to return the favor?

The Last Airbender was a disappointment in all aspects. Casting, a very important factor in this movie, aside, the movie was just miserable.

Thank you so much for covering this issue, The Takeaway. What some people don't seem to realize is that for every one white role that goes to a minority, there are millions of white roles still available for them. That one non-white role for a non-white does not come around as often, and so we will yell a little louder when we see injustice.

Jul. 02 2010 12:42 PM
Peter from Stoneham, MA

I believe such casting choices are purely business decisions driven by the research, analysis and beliefs of the producers, who are making a commercial product for a target audience. If the historical financial evidence showed that the product would be more successful with green-skinned androgens in the leading roles, then that's what we would see on the big screen.

Jul. 02 2010 07:15 AM
Ken from Minneapolis

Sure, it's possible to get too nit-picky, but the historical refusal to use non-whites to play non-whites is absurd, both in premise and in result.

Jul. 02 2010 07:06 AM
Dave from New York City

The Last Airbender controversy is a fraud. Everyone knows that he is actually Jewish!

Jul. 02 2010 06:59 AM

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