Thursday, January 29, 2009

Haang on a minute.

Above, left to right, the three principal characters of the Nickelodeon animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender: Sokka, Avatar Aang, and Katara. Lately, there's been quite the controversy about the casting of the upcoming live action film that M. Night Shamalyan is set to make- seems that they have cast caucasians in these roles (and one other to date, that of adversary Prince Zuko) and it has many in the Asian community, not to mention those of other backgrounds who are sympathetic to this concern, very upset at what is perceived to be yet another case of "Yellowfacing" by Hollywood. Korean writer/artist Derek Kirk Kim (Same Difference and Other Stories) fired an impassioned salvo or two on this matter, Gene Yang (American Born Chinese) followed it up a few days later, and I've seen this referred to all over the Net. There's even the inevitable web site,

HowEVah (as Stephen A. Smith would say).

Take a look at the above pic, a Nick publicity illustration of some sort, of indeterminate date. Look at Sokka, Aang, and Katara. Do they look Asian? Do they even really look Inuit? I don't think so. Avatar was created to be a Western approximation of certain Anime styles, which apparently includes the odd decision that Anime filmmakers and designers often opt for, that of making all their characters look more Caucasian than anything else. And therein lies the rub, which has my devil's advocate tendencies in full flower.

Now PLEASE don't misunderstand me. I am NOT saying that Kim, Yang, and others are wrong to be upset by this. The show, from the outset, is and was steeped in a blend of Asian, Western, and Eskimo culture, mysticism, and mythology. It seems disingenuous at best and stupid at worst to ignore the cultural underpinnings of the source material.

But I'm not so sure that the filmmakers and casting directors are to blame for this. I'd lay money that many of the people involved in this decision haven't even seen an episode of the Nick series. You'd think that would not be the case, but my instinct tells me that they were probably given a guidebook full of promo art like the above picture, and by looking at the representations therein, thought that it wouldn't be a problem to cast Caucasians in these roles. If I wasn't as versed in the series as I am, I think I would make this mistake as well. Shamalyan himself probably knew better, but after his recent string of box office flops, I wonder how much say-so he has as far as these kinds of decisions? Regardless, if anyone should be blamed, I would venture that the final responsibility must go, perhaps, to the series creators- the people who came up with the character designs and concepts: Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Oh, but they have little or nothing to do with the movie, you say...but they were responsible for overseeing the initial look and feel of the series.

This is odd, given that usually Hollywood bends over backwards to maintain the facade of diversity, which is how we get black Kingpins and the like. It will be interesting to see how the casting process goes for the other supporting characters, such as Uncle Iroh or Toph Bei Fong, if they use her. These, and other less prominent characters (personal favorite Suki, Jet, etc.) were actually given a more Asian appearance than the leads, to my eyes anyway. I'd be surprised if the casting people didn't try to throw the disgruntled a bone, which would probably make things I suppose they're damned if they do and damned if they don't. I'm not 100% convinced that it would be fair to fire a couple of the actors they've already cast, and I'm also dubious that they'd want to appear to be caving to pressure from special interest groups.

For my part, I'm not really even sure if it matters to me, since I really had every intention of skipping this one anyway, like another wrongheaded attempt to bring a beloved-by-me fiction to the screen, The Spirit. I really enjoyed the Avatar animated series (especially season two, which was a high point of character and drama), and am highly dubious of the viability of preserving what made it unique in the first place in a live-action format.

Again, I have nothing but admiration and respect for Kim and Yang, and I'm not trying to pick fights with either of them, or anyone else who is outraged by this. However, as I said before, while I sympathise, I have devil's advocate tendencies at times, and I'm just not convinced that Paramount is being racist- nor should they bear the brunt of all the blame for this apparent oversight.

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