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Avatar Movie Casting - Let's Take Action

H/T Hoyden About Town:

I know that several of you have seen the Nickelodeon show "Avatar: The Last Airbender." For those who haven't, it's a really charming and well-done cartoon/anime series based on Asian and Inuit legends. I was initially happy to hear that it's being made into a live-action film, until I learned that they've cast the main characters - all with white actors. Why oh WHY does Hollywood keep feeling the need to erase people of color from films? This is such incredible bullshit, and I won't pay money to see the stupid film if they screw it all up like this.

There is a movement to protest these casting choices - hopefully they're not yet set in stone. An article on LJ has a lot of details, and a boilerplate for a letter to the producers. I intend to write and protest this, and I urge anyone else who loves this show - or who would like to see the Asian characters and settings NOT be stripped away just because this is "Hollywood" - to do the same.



( 23 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 18th, 2008 05:32 am (UTC)
I'm going to play devil's advocate here (because I'm so good at it). I can see why you would be annoyed if they are casting ALL white actors. (OTOH, I'm not familiar with the series at all - are they normally ALL Asian actors?) But I'm reminded of the time that Whoopi Goldberg auditioned for the part of ... Oh, I think it was the part of a white man for some movie or play or something. People looked askance at that, but her rationale was, "If I'm a good actor, then it shouldn't matter what color or gender I am." And that's how I feel about these sorts of uproars -- shouldn't it be the ACTING that counts? And if the acting is good enough, shouldn't the actor be good enough to make the viewer "believe" what is being acted?

<--stirring the pot ;)
Dec. 18th, 2008 06:16 am (UTC)
Um, no. The entire show (at least the parts I've seen, and definitely the main characters) are based on Asian and Inuit mythos and legends, the settings are Asian and Inuit, and the characters are definitely not caucasian.

The "If I'm a good enough actor" falls short, IMO, when you look at the systematic racism in our country. Sorry, but white actors are not systematically given the short end of the stick when it comes to being cast in films; people of color are. Why the hell did Natalie Wood play a Puerto Rican woman in "West Side Story?" She didn't even do her own singing? (And yes, that is an example from many years ago, but times haven't really changed all that much). Hollywood still insists on almost exclusively making movies that trivialize women, people of color, and lesbians and gays. White men (with a few notable exceptions, but almost all of those exceptions are still men) get the best roles; everyone else is relegated to side kicks and love interests, or tragic or comedic relief. And I'm sure you can quote me a few examples of films that aren't like this, but the VAST majority are. So, no, I'm not buying the Devil's Advocate argument here. Seriously, I don't want to see white faces playing these roles, no matter how good the acting. There are plenty of non-white actors out there with talent, and I'd prefer to see them get a shot at these roles, considering the flavor of the original show.
Dec. 18th, 2008 07:25 am (UTC)
I agree with this comment - in a perfect world I'd have no problem with Whoopi's statement and even encourage it (at least in theory) because that IS what acting is all about. But that's not the world we live in.

Things like this are why films such as Dances With Wolves made some ground - Native American actors playing Native Americans - what a concept!

Dec. 18th, 2008 03:52 pm (UTC)
Well, that pretty well illustrates the difference in our thinking. I'd like the pendulum to swing down into a plumb position and have a color-blind society. You're looking for payback by having it swing to the opposite side for a while. :)

Correct me if I'm wrong.
Dec. 18th, 2008 04:19 pm (UTC)
You are wrong. :D

I don't want the pendulum to swing to the opposite side. I'm still hoping it might start moving even slightly toward center. (Because you do realize that our society is nowhere near being "post racist." Racism is alive and well in 2008, and to believe otherwise is just delusional). Also, I don't understand this concept of "color blind society." I don't want that. Why the hell would we want that? Cultural differences, people of all races and colors are BEAUTIFUL - why erase them? I prefer to celebrate diversity, instead of trying to ignore it. Besides, I've never heard anyone talk about "color blind" who didn't really mean "everyone acts and is treated as white." (If you mean it otherwise, somehow, please do explain. But I've never heard a legitimate explanation along those lines). I don't want to be color blind. I want to see all colors valued, and treated as equals.

Also, I'm seriously not sure why you seem to think it's unreasonable to cast Asian actors in a show about Asian culture. This isn't about payback, or overcompensating in a different direction. It's about appreciating other cultures, and people who don't look like "we" do, and acknowledging that there are talented people of ALL colors. I guarantee you that the white actors cast weren't selected solely on their acting ability. Hollywood, and "America" (in general) is more comfortable with whiteness, so that's how they cast films. Would you really try to argue that there are no talented Asian actors who could have portrayed these characters?
Dec. 18th, 2008 08:37 pm (UTC)
Okay, now we've got an interesting discussion going! :)

Compared to where the pendulum was when our parents are born, and even when we were born, it has definitely swung at least a bit toward center.

Yes, racism is still alive and well.

My idea of "color blind" is mostly with respect to employment - if there are two applicants for a job, equally qualified, then race/gender/religion should not enter into the decision to hire one or the other. (This, of course, flies in the face of affirmative action.)

Diversity is fine. I just don't want it shoved down my throat. I cook Italian things for holiday dinners. I don't require other people to do so. Chinese people can serve dim sum at their holiday dinners. If I ate at their house, I would expect no less. I *accept* diversity, but I don't want it forced upon me. And I do think that a certain amount of "majority rule" and assimilation is necessary for us to have some kind of unified society. And I don't think that necessarily means "everybody act white." The army recruiting slogan "an army of one" is directly contrary to the idea of an efficient fighting force. You can't have a million people all doing their own thing and expect them to be effective in fighting a war. (I don't mean to ramble incoherently here - I'm typing things as I think of them.)

I don't think it's unreasonable to cast Asians in a movie about Asians. I just don't think it's something to get all up in arms about. It's easy enough, as you have stated that you are inclined to do, to simply refrain from seeing the film, which gets them right where it hurts - in the pocketbook. If enough people opt not to see it - for whatever reason - it'll flop. On the other hand, what if it were a really well made picture despite having a bunch of actors who were the "wrong" race? It seems to me that the quality of the film should be more important than the race of the actors.

That said, I'm sure there are Asian actors who would fill the roles in fine fashion. But should they be given *preference* for those roles based on their race? I don't think so. What about Will Smith, who had the lead in "I Am Legend"? Do you think Richard Matheson wrote the book with a black man in mind for the protagonist? Let's say, for the purpose of argument, that Matheson was picturing a white man when he wrote the book. Does that mean the producers should have cast a white man? I'd say not necessarily. I think they should have picked the actor who they thought would do the best job. (I'm a bit biased - I like Will Smith. But still. I haven't even seen that movie. :) )
Dec. 19th, 2008 04:00 am (UTC)
Part 1
Okay, you're right that times have changed somewhat in the past couple of generations, but not nearly enough. :)

I totally agree with what you're saying about "color blind," as regards employment (although I'm not sure how that related to our original discussion). For the record I don't like affirmative action at all, because it stigmatizes people of color; recall Obama being called the "affirmative action president" which is utterly fucking ridiculous, but there are people who buy into that shit nonetheless. But even though I don't like it, I also accept that as of this moment, American society is not yet "color blind" in the way you mean, so we still need affirmative action, or the reality is that people of color would be denied jobs and opportunities. Same holds true for women. As it is, we (women) are still payed only 77 cents on the dollar, nationally, as compared with men. There is no parity in this country; we still need to fight for these rights. Hopefully, this will change in the not-too-distant future.

Back on point, I don't understand why casting Asian actors in a film about Asian culture and mythology qualifies as "shoving" diversity down your throat. You suggested that I should just not see the film if they cast white actors; well, you, also, are welcome to avoid seeing it if you feel that Asian actors are being shoved down your throat. (Heh, there's a strange mental image. Maybe I'll quit with the throat-shoving metaphor :D). Maybe I didn't make clear the reason I'm "up in arms" about it: because it is a deliberate attempt on the part of Hollywood (who, let's face it, drives a lot of cultural stuff for all of western society) to "whitewash" this product. And yes, I absolutely feel that Asian actors should be given preference for a project like this.

(TO be continued; too long for a single comment)
Dec. 19th, 2008 04:00 am (UTC)
Part 2

I haven't seen nor read "I Am Legend," so I don't know enough about the main character to know if his racial identity was important to the character or plot. Probably not, since they cast Will Smith. (Plus, you seen to have missed my whole point about systematic racism. That Will Smith got the part is FANTASTIC - and also, in the grand scheme of things, unusual. I knew you could find examples, but since they are the exceptions, they really only prove the rule). In the case of "Avatar," I do think it matters. The main character, Aang, is the current incarnation of a spiritual leader who has been reincarnated many times through the ages (like the Dalai Lama). I would consider this sufficiently Asian in character, and sufficiently "important" to the plot, to make casting an Asian actor far more appropriate than finding someone white. Especially since, in this case, we're talking about the casting of children (where "acting ability" is far less of an issue). Do you think there is any way in the world that a black actor would have been cast as Harry Potter? Or a tall, husky blonde actor, for that matter? Of course not, and it would have been stupid to do either of those things. There is absolutely no reason to avoid casting for physical "type" when it matters to the story. "Best actor" and all that is fine, but filmmakers are trying to create a product that helps us believe in the people on-screen. Unless the "Avatar" film changes the character of the show entirely (which is possible. Heaven knows they've done it often enough in the past), I simply won't believe white actors in the settings and situations portrayed in this show.

Another issue here is that "Avatar" was a product of Asian culture, and to strip that part of it away not only detracts from the integrity of the story, but it also deprives people from getting that particular glimpse at a culture which may be foreign to them. I don't know about you, but I would really prefer that Connor not be exposed only to media that features people who look and behave like him. I want him to learn about other places, about the way other people live. Even though Avatar is fantasy, it can be a cultural "window" of sorts, and I think this is ONLY a good thing. Damn Hollywood for trying to take that away from us. (Or maybe I just like having diversity shoved down my throat. I don't want to just "accept" diversity. I really would prefer to celebrate it).

My whole point is that, when it doesn't matter, Hollywood reverts to type, and makes the main characters of a vast majority of its films white men, marginalizing everyone else. I'm not going to get up in arms about that (even though someone should). But when they add insult to injury, and when race DOES matter, and they STILL make the main characters white and male, yeah, that makes me really angry. In our society, diversity isn't the thing being shoved down anyone's throat, Deb. The hyper-normalization of whiteness (and maleness, and thinness, and richness, etc.) as the ONLY acceptable standard is the thing that is being shoved down MY throat almost every time I go to the movies. (And just about everywhere else I go, too). So, maybe we'll have to agree to disagree, but I honestly don't see how diversity has become some out-of-control issue in this country, to the point where you'd say it's being "shoved down your throat." Also, there's a difference between "a million people doing their own thing" in a legal sense, and every family in the country being free to follow and even promote their own cultural traditions. From where I'm sitting, the only people trying to force anyone to do anything are the ones already in power. And we all know what they look like.
Dec. 19th, 2008 04:04 am (UTC)
And now . . . OMG! I have to start studying for my physics final!

:D :D :D
Dec. 19th, 2008 06:07 am (UTC)
Dang, these little reply windows are getting really narrow! Next thing you know, it'll be one letter per line, and then how are we gonna read that? LOL!

It's after 10pm and I still have to wrap gifts for tomorrow's office party, so I'm just going to make one brief comment for the moment: Harry Potter was cast as he was because Rowling insisted on retaining control over her intellectual property. If the creators of Avatar did not insist on having that written into the movie contract, then of course the producers are going to do whatever they want. As you know, that's the way Hollywood works. So I think at least a part of the blame for the casting should probably be placed on the Avatar creators.

Agree to disagree - yeah. I keep a lot of friends that way. ;)

Nighty-night :)
Dec. 18th, 2008 04:45 pm (UTC)
I wish the articles had linked to sources--I had to google extensively before I found any cast names or pictures. :\ But find them I did, except the kid playing Aang. This strikes me as really stupid because the diverse cast is such a big draw of Avatar.

I found a piece of the casting call for Aang and they even asked for "Caucasian or any other ethnicity." I mean, if you're doing that, can't you just say "any ethnicity" or not mention it at all?

Oh and if it's true that Jesse McCartney wants to play Zuko? This fan of Zuko may just need to go throw up a little now. ;P Not that I had high expectations for the film anyway because I can't stand M. Night Shyamalan anyway.
Dec. 18th, 2008 05:09 pm (UTC)
ARCK!!!!!! I didn't know who Jesse McCartney is, so I googled him. HE wants to play Zuko? I get that he *wants* the part. That's lovely, and he's more than welcome to dress up as Zuko and recite lines in front of the mirror at home to his heart's content. But actually play him in the film? Please no.

I've never seen any of Shyamalan's films, so I have nothing to compare, but doesn't he mostly do creepy horror things? That seems like an odd choice.
Dec. 18th, 2008 05:35 pm (UTC)
He does usually do creepy horror films, but he prides himself on the twist. It worked all right in Sixth Sense, maybe just because that was the first one? But all the other films of his I've seen have just been really pretentious... sort of "HEY! HEY LOOK HERE AT MY SYMBOLISM!!" kind of movies. XD And the twists usually ruin the creepy factor of the movies for me, which isn't good... I like creepy movies.
Dec. 18th, 2008 05:39 pm (UTC)
Oh, I didn't know he was the one who did "Sixth Sense." I did see that film, and liked it. But yeah, my impression of his films is that there's all this BIG TALK about the creepy. Which, sometimes, destroys the creepy. Also, I don't particularly want "Avatar" to be creepy. Eh. Chances are I won't go to see the film anyway, if they stick with their craptastic casting choices, so it doesn't really matter. *sigh*
Dec. 18th, 2008 09:57 pm (UTC)
Unless he's saying different things to different people, actually he gets angry when people associate him with "the twist" just because the first movie everyone knew of his had the Bruce Willis twist. His latter movies were supposed to be more supernatural and fantasy than creepy horror. Probably why so many people keep saying it sucks when they go in expecting it to be creepy horror with a twist and that hasn't really happened since "The Sixth Sense."
Dec. 18th, 2008 09:55 pm (UTC)
As I mentioned on FB, this is just like what happened to Bruce Lee when David Carradine was cast for Kung Fu (which Lee thought up and had named The Warrior instead). Decades later and it's the same ol' shite. Things created by Asians which should star Asians are being ignored in the casting.
Dec. 19th, 2008 04:01 am (UTC)
Things created by Asians which should star Asians are being ignored in the casting.

EXACTLY! I just used a whole lot of words trying to explain this to Deb. *points up* I should have just pointed her to your comment. :)
Dec. 19th, 2008 07:17 am (UTC)
Bah humbug. I know nothing about this series, but stuff like this annoys the socks off me. It's why I didn't go see Memoirs of a Geisha, even though I really liked the book. What, they couldn't find a single Japanese actress to play a geisha? Not a one? Had to go with the famous Chinese one, eh? Since Asians are all the same anyway. ;)
Dec. 19th, 2008 08:19 pm (UTC)
Yeah, and you have totally picked up on one of the things that annoyed me even about my own comment - I've lumped all Asians together (partly because Avatar has elements of several different Asian cultures - there are things that seem Chinese, loads of Japanese things, and some things I'd think of as being Tibetan, maybe, plus probably things I'm missing), but still. It is not really all that helpful lumping people together, ever. At this point, I just don't want to see white actors, which is a far cry from trying to correctly cast the characters based on their actual ethnic heritage. Bah humbug is right.
Dec. 19th, 2008 10:05 pm (UTC)
Well, I suppose I should've been "happy" that they were doing that. Your point is fine - with this, they're not even TRYING to be "correct" about it.

Why can't we all just get along?! :)

(Done with your finals? I'm done administering, but not grading.)
Dec. 19th, 2008 10:15 pm (UTC)
YES! I took my last one about two hours ago. I'm hoping for about 75% (which will hopefully be a B and not drag my overall grade down from the A I've been able to maintain all semester. We'll see, though. I did have to guess on a few problems). :D

Ooh! Grading! I so do not envy you. :D I'm done completely with school until January 26th! *happy dancing*
Dec. 29th, 2008 08:00 am (UTC)
And??? How did you do?! Or are your professors slackers and haven't posted grades, yet? ;)

Long breaks are da bomb. We *all* need them, trust me. :)
Dec. 19th, 2008 04:11 pm (UTC)
Jason Isaacs as General Zhao?


I *love* Jason Isaacs, and he's very, very good at being very, very bad, and I would like him to do very, very bad things to me. ..

but he's not General Zhao.

If Jesse McCartney is cast as Zuko, I'm boycotting. Who the hell is casting this thing? Even if they were going to whitewash it, couldn't they have done it better?

I object to the characters being white just because, well, they AREN'T. That show is beautiful and well written, and I think that stripping the story of it's culteral identity does it a grave disservice.
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