Hollywood’s big whitewash

June 10, 2010

The film industry seems to think it's good business to cast white actors to play ethnically Asian characters. Sarah Levy explains how antiracists are responding.

AT THE same time that the state of Arizona is making being non-white a crime, Hollywood is essentially endorsing an all-white America with two new films, The Last Airbender and Prince of Persia. But grassroots struggles are emerging to challenge these "whitewashing" efforts on behalf of the film industry.

Opening July 2, Paramount Pictures' movie The Last Airbender is based on the popular children's cartoon television series about a group of Asian and Inuit martial artists, Avatar: The Last Airbender.

The series is noticeable for its widespread and genuine incorporation of Inuit and Korean culture, including (animated) costume design, written language, landscapes, philosophy, spirituality and even eating utensils--many fans see it as an "evocative...re-imagining of ancient Asia."

However, when it comes to the movie adaptation, more noticeable than its feature length or use of actors instead of animation is the film's choice of cast: dominantly white, as opposed to the ethnically Asian characters depicted in the cartoon.

M. Night Shyamalan's The Last Airbender
M. Night Shyamalan's The Last Airbender

In fact, three of the four main characters in the movie are white--Noah Ringer, Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone--and while the fourth is played by Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire, the directors had originally wanted Jesse McCartney (white) to play the role. Patel's character also happens to be the antagonist.

Rightfully outraged, a largely Internet-based grassroots coalition (mainly consisting of fans of the TV series) has organized to challenge Hollywood's attempt to erase the face of minorities from its screens. For starters, they are calling for a boycott of the film.

"People need to realize that recasting Asian actors as white actors is institutionalized discrimination," said Loraine Sammy, public relations coordinator for Racebending.com, a Web site that has attracted over 6,000 supporters since it was formed in 2008 with the intention of spreading the boycott.

As of now, the petition to Protest the Unethical Casting of The Last Airbender, directed to the president of Paramount Film Group, has upwards of 8,500 signatures.

It's particularly harmful to minority children, said Sammy, who are being told that "white [i]s the norm, even in a [fantasy] world that is Asian-based."

Asian American artist Derek Kirk Kim, author of Same Difference and Other Stories, created a petition of industry professionals who plan to boycott the film. In a 2009 blog entry, Kim wrote:

What if someone made a "fantasy" movie in which the entire world was built around African culture? Everyone is wearing ancient African clothes, African hats, eating traditional African food, writing in an African language, living in African homes, all encompassed in an African landscape...but everyone is white.

How offensive, insulting and disrespectful would that be toward Africans and African Americans? How much more offensive would it be if only the heroes were white and all the villains and background characters were African American?

UNFORTUNATELY, WHEN it opens, Airbender will not stand alone in its fashion of "whitewashing"--the new term for having white actors play the roles of non-white characters. This past week saw the release of the video-game-turned-feature-film Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, starring Jake Gyllenhaal as, fans claimed, the clearly and should-have-been Iranian main character.

Amid the current Obama era of "colorblindness," this seems to be the new form of blackface--it's as if Hollywood is thinking, "Rather than have white people pretend to be other ethnicities, let's just pretend that everyone is actually white."

In this bipolar time, when race is supposed to no longer matter, but you can simultaneously get pulled over for "looking illegal," Hollywood's blatant racism makes clear that they don't just want viewers to look past a person's race, but to look past the non-white races entirely.

As Gene Yang, National Book Award nominee and author of the graphic novel American Born Chinese, described it, the casting is like "a white Asian fetishist's wet dream. All the Asian culture they want, without any of the Asian people."

Luckily, the power of Internet organizing makes it look like by the time the movie hits theaters, Airbender will be met with a loud voice of dissent. As Racebender.com states:

We know we cannot change the casting of The Last Airbender, but working on this project [will not be] the end of our movement. We will continue to monitor other projects in Hollywood and advocate on behalf of artists of color. This is a pivotal moment. We can help Hollywood see that Americans care about treating everyone fairly--and about showing our children that prejudice shouldn't profit.

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