VOLUME 28 NO. 11 | MARCH 7- MARCH 13, 2009

'Avatar' Whitewashed?

Last updated 3-5-09 at 1:34 p.m.
Image by Stacy Nguyen.

By Amy Phan

The latest pan-Asian, anime-inspired series, “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” has generated a lot of early buzz despite the fact that the first film— of a possible three — won’t be released until July 2010.

Why? One reason may be because “Avatar” isn’t just a cartoon. As an Emmy-award winning series, “Avatar” has, in the blink of 61 episodes, become a huge franchise, where fans invest in action figures, trading cards, and stuffed animals.

The other reason for the buzz — which is mainly debated online — is due to “Avatar” fans being critical of the recent news that three of the four principal characters will be played by white actors despite the obvious use of Asian characters in the original series.

The casting directors initially planned to use four white actors to play the main roles; however, Variety magazine reported earlier this month that singer Jesse McCartney dropped out of the movie, and he was replaced by Dev Patel (“Slumdog Millionaire”).

Paramount, Nickelodeon, and the movie producers have yet to release a statement about their casting choices.
The silence hasn’t stopped a group of dedicated fans from protesting what they believe is the studio’s attempt to “whitewash” the film.

A step in the right direction

“[Patel is] an excellent young actor and well-qualified for the role. And we’re glad to see an Asian actor join the cast,” read the latest post on “Aang-Aint-White” (AAW), the online group protesting the cast of “Avatar.”

Despite the praise, the group also criticizes Patel’s casting as ethnically incorrect, as the role he will portray has cultural roots more closely related to China than Patel’s Indian background.

“[Patel’s casting] is a sign that the cast is not set in stone,” said Michelle Ikemoto, a member of AAW.

As an Asian American student majoring in animation in San Jose, Cali., Ikemoto said she hoped the “last decade of Hollywood’s rediscovery of Asian culture and the remakes of Asian classics” would provide more roles for minority actors in the film industry.

She found the film’s principal cast to be “especially loathsome.”

Ikemoto isn’t alone in her disgust.

With nine official postings, AAW has generated more than 1,600 comments so far — all in the span of two months.
AAW was created a few days after initial casting decisions were made public, in an attempt to “provide info and basic points to help set the tone of the protest and discussion of the cast in ‘Avatar,’” said Lee, the co-creator of AAW, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Lee works for the “Avatar” franchise. She said revealing her full identity may put her job in jeopardy.

The group’s message has generated national and international support from fans. The group’s name refers to the protagonist of “Avatar,” Aang.

What began as an attempt to provide basic information for those interested in the casting has quickly turned into a formalized letter-writing campaign. According to Lee’s estimates, about 600 letters have been sent to Paramount Pictures objecting to the casting. A few hundred more were sent to the producers of the movie.

A complicated issue

To be sure, the cast of “Avatar” is much more complicated than a simple racial debate. The original series showcases an array of talents not exclusive to Asian Americans. The show’s creators, Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, are both white. Many of the voice actors are white as well.

M. Night Shyamalan, one of the few high-profile Asian American producers, is spearheading the film, which leaves some thinking that an all-Asian principal cast is irrelevant.

If two white creators can create such a well-researched beloved series, why can’t a white actor have an equally authentic performance with proper research?

Fans on both sides of the argument have tossed these points back and forth.

“It would be like taking ‘Lord of the Rings’ — a very Eurocentric story — and casting Asian people in the heroic lead roles,” said Loraine Sammy, a video game developer in Vancouver, B.C. “‘Avatar’ is culturally specific,” she added.
What’s the big deal?

As Nickelodeon president Cyma Zarghami said to the San Francisco Chronicle, “[‘Avatar’] could become our ‘Harry Potter!’”

Like “Harry Potter,” “Avatar” is a profiting machine. The show’s franchise generates a good portion of Nickelodeon’s annual $250 million revenue, according to the Chronicle.

But to many, “Avatar” is more than a commercial success. To some, it’s a world where fans can follow character development, form an “Avatar” lexicon, and become deeply entrenched in the storyline.

Sammy said “Avatar” is a rare case where “a well-done American cartoon was immersed in Asian and Inuit influences.”

“It’s another perfect opportunity,” she said, “to showcase minority actors to an American audience.”

Sammy said she believes the show’s popularity among children is an important factor in reconsider the casting, as kids could learn more about Asian, Inuit, and Hindu cultures.

Spreading the message

As the first “Avatar” film is in its early production stage, no one is more surprised at the support for AAW than its creator.

“It just exploded in a way I never saw coming,” said Lee. “I was excited to see other people, who weren’t hardcore fans of the show, protest the cast, too.”

She said it’s an indication that people are no longer turning a “blind eye” to Hollywood’s “irresponsible decisions.”
Another AAW site organizer, Marissa Lee, agreed.

“The lack of diversity is a big deal,” said Marisa Lee, who is not related to AAW’s creator. “The public has demanded that the studio should seriously consider their casting decisions.”

If casting decisions have not changed in a year, the creator of AAW said that the group will “help whoever is organizing a boycott.”

“We want to make sure they aren’t financially rewarded for these decisions,” said Lee. (end)

For more information, visit aang-aint-white.livejournal.com.

Amy Phan can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.


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