M. Night Shyamalan plays B!NGO: Racebending & The Last Airbender

(I’ve been writing and re-writing and re-writing my piece of mind about this controversy for over a year now, but due to various circumstances this is my first formal word on the matter. As such, I sort of just let loose. By that I mean I fired almost every relevant cannon in my arsenal.  Happy reading.)

io9 finally posted the interview with M. Night Shyamalan for the upcoming The Last Airbender film, followed by another from UGO. As expected, he decided to play Racebending B!NGO in defense of the casting. Naturally, it was either respond or explode for me, so I chose the former.

Where he won, why he won, and why I’m angry:

(1) Where it concerns anime:

Here’s the thing. The great thing about anime is that it’s ambiguous. The features of the characters are an intentional mix of all features. It’s intended to be ambiguous. That is completely its point. [io9]

There are plenty of arguments to the contrary.

Anime does, in fact, have methods of indicating racial and ethnic differences, either through art or the story. Many artists use exaggerated features, particular clothing, names, plot, or the environment of the story itself to indicate the racial backgrounds of the character. Black people are often drawn with heavy lips, and white westerners with harsh jaw lines and tall physiques. Large eyes are often used to represent youthfulness, narrow ones for old age or villains. Hair and eye colors are often used to enhance certain aspects about the character: their unique powers, personality, or affiliations in the show (just like A:TLA, where clothing and eye colors were use to enhance the visible connection of a character to their nation of origin).

There is an excellent piece on how our ability to understand racial markings depends largely on our social context: what we think it means in the U.S. is not necessarily what it means in Japan.

Furthermore, Japanese animation, which has influenced A:TLA’s style, is not made by a mass mind, but by the ideas and talents of many different individuals who represent Japan, the Japanese people, and other races, in any number or variety of ways according to personal preferences. So if in fact there are some anime which use intended racial ambiguity, they do not represent the workings and intentions of all anime as a whole.

(2) Now for this business about casting the best actor:

[...]I always go for the actor.

When I was doing Sixth Sense, if you literally read the script he [Cole Sear] has dark, hair black eyes. I always pictured the kid from Searching For Bobby Fisher as the lead for Sixth Sense. And I said, “We are not hiring any blonde LA kids, ok? Don’t even bring them in.” Then Haley [Joel Osment] came in and I said, “You’ve got the part.” How can you not have him play this part? [io9]

Changing a dark-haired white boy to a blonde-haired white boy is not the same thing as changing two dark-skinned (and not by way of an impressive tan) siblings into white people. Changing hair-colors is not the same thing as changing the races of characters into white people, because the latter is whitewashing. Whitewashing marginalizes and renders invisible minorities in mainstream media, and it will continue to do so in the present era whether you intend it to or not. People of color have far less visibility in Western media than white people, and the visibility they do receive is limited to specific outlets that “suit” them, forcing their image into stereotypes, supporting characters, antagonists, and “the Other”. By changing three people of color (no, Noah Ringer does not get a pass for Aang because he maybe looks “more Asian” than other white folk) into white people, you have removed a chance for visibility and positive imagery for anybody but white people.

No, it doesn’t matter that some of the baddies become goodies in the end. Even if all four leading characters were good, it would not change that three of them are white, including the title character. Just like practically every other movie out there.

Even if the one white kid who auditioned was better than all the people of color who auditioned, that really doesn’t change that you are contributing to the racism present in the entertainment industry. I’m actually at the point where I really don’t see someone’s acting chops as any excuse to perpetuate the kind of racial imagery that the media spews out and reinforces every single day. And even if one white kid was the best actor for the job (assuming visual likeness is not important), am I really meant to believe that among the rest of the non-white people who auditioned, not one could have still done a good job? Not one could have carried the part believably, if not as powerfully as white people who were cast?

(3) where it concerns diversity:

And there’s a section of the Earth Kingdom that’s African American. Because it’s such a big country and land I thought you could have some diversity in there as they travel through the cities. So more so than the show, it will have a much more diverse ethnic backgrounds to it. [io9]

Well, it is the most culturally diverse tent-pole movie ever made. And I’m proud of it. It’s part of what drew me to the material, to see the faces of our whole world in this new world. And only time will assuage everyone and give them peace. Maybe they didn’t see the faces that they wanted to see but, overall, it is more than they could have expected. We’re in the tent and it looks like the U.N. in there. [UGO]

See, both TLA crew and supporters keep talking about how much more diverse TLA is compared to the original cartoon, and it makes me crazy because it panders to Orientalism. Because, you see, Asia does not view itself as a single ethnicity, and in fact has its own severe issues of racism to deal with. China recognizes 56 different ethnic groups amongst its people, and those differences are not just flashy names for show, but have real differences in custom and history, and have an effect on ethnic relationships in China. Japan also deals with racism between designated “true” Japanese and other groups such as the Ainu, the Pacific Islander cultures, and the native Korean and Chinese populations.

Asia does not consist of only Korea, Japan and China, either. There are plenty of very distinguishable cultures in South-east Asia as well. The TV show not only accurately represented a variety of these different cultures, but also went on to prominently include Inuit culture, and even provided an important role for people likely inspired by certain pre-Colombian Mesoamerican civilizations. Rather than exploring that diversity and illustrating it within the film, you’ve undone one of the important things that A:TLA did well, mashed the cultures together into a pan-Asian experience, and ignored the sentiments of people who enjoyed seeing their own traditions represented as something unique, and that uniqueness being something worth celebrating.

And yet for some reason East Asia and the other include cultures from the show were just not diverse enough for you? I cannot help but see that you are homogenizing Asian cultures and impressing your own ideas about Asian identity upon them (Orientalism!).

It’s no wonder minorities get angry or suspicious every time Hollywood makes a film about them, because look at what happens. White people are inserted and become the center of the adventure; people of color lose out on minority roles to white people; people of color are antagonists; people of color suffer typcasting; people of color are relegated to background and supporting roles.

In this case, Avatar‘s largely Asian fantasy world is just not diverse enough for your liking (disrespect), so you have to go in and add more cultures and white people in order for the film to fit your ideas of ethnically diverse. Yeah, minorities rarely do get to see the face they want to see, where they want to see them, and it’s no wonder why they want to see them.

(4) Jordan Hoffman (of UGO) and Teddy Blass (founder of LastAirbenderFans.com) try to help Shyamalan and Paramount get another B!NGO square, when they address the magical powers of intent:

One of the complaints is this: you have Inuit actors playing the background of the water bending tribe, yet the two leads, Sokka and Katara, are white, so people looking for conspiracy will point to this. (here)

To many, The Last Airbender is a missed opportunity, to others, despite protestations to the contrary, it is a simple business decision on how to cast for a multimillion dollar movie.  I take Shyamalan at his word that he cast the film based on the best actors he could find, but the image from the trailer of Jackson Rathbone and Nicole Peltz (Sokka and Katara) as “leaders” of an Inuit tribe seems a little off. (here)

“It’s a legitimate concern,” Blass said, “but I find that the argument of intentional racism does not seem like the case. No one went in saying ‘only white kids.’”(here)

[emphasis mine]

Racebending.com is naturally suspicious of the true intentions behind the casting decisions, given Hollywood’s history (and why shouldn’t we be?), but any one member could probably tell you that the presence of Intent just makes it worse; and the lack of Intent does not make the problem go away.

When I hit somebody with my car, I may not have Intended to do it, but that doesn’t change or excuse the fact that I did. Whether or not I meant to hurt somebody doesn’t change the fact that I have hurt somebody. Intent may lessen the degree of punishment and scorn, but it doesn’t excuse me from being responsible for my actions and how they have affected somebody.

Whether a conspiracy exists or not, whether anybody meant to do this or not, it happened, and the effects of it are addressed in great length across the blog-o-sphere.

Furthermore, and I see this argument a whole lot: saying that Katara and Sokka may be indisputable POC, but Aang could pass for white, is incredibly insulting as well. In the real world, you see, many Asians have pale skin and large eyes, and yet for some reason we almost never say they can pass for white. But when it’s a cartoon character being transformed into a live-action hero, suddenly people willing to stretch our ordinary definitions to the furthest extent possible, ignoring all of the various environmental indicators of Aang’s ethnicity and deciding that if he doesn’t look Asian enough by personal standards to dispute it, then he can be white.

Really, I have to wonder if this is not a case of “white people need to be a part of everything or they start pouting and get anxious” syndrome. As if some people have to find the white person in everything, because they just can’t stand it when it’s not about white people. I’m seeing An Attempt to Rectify Missing Privilege. This very behavior speaks volumes about Institutional Racism and conscious/unconscious social though in our society.

(5) On the topic of identification:

So when we watch Katara, my oldest daughter is literally a photo double of Katara in the cartoon. So that means that Katara is Indian, correct? No that’s just in our house.  And her friends who watch it, they see themselves in it. And that’s what’s so beautiful about anime. [io9]

The fact that people of different races can see themselves in a character of only one race isn’t surprising, and it’s downright heartening, in fact. In the same way, women are able to sympathize with men, men with women, and real people can cry over a fictional character in a book. It’s part of recognizing the humanity of something, and that is a very important thing.

But at the same time a real person sympathizes with a fictional character, that person is still aware that she and the character are not one in the same. A woman can sympathize with a man, and vice verse, but they are still able to tell each other apart and recognize the things that make them different. I see a piece of myself in Katara, too, but I am still aware that my skin is paler, my eyes browner, and my hair more curly than hers.

Understanding those differences isn’t so bad, except that, because of real world history, there is a lot of social baggage attached to these distinguishable characteristics: racism and sexism (to name a few). These two things may be human inventions, but they were invented nonetheless, brought into existence, and they affect the way we see ourselves and each other every day.

In the real world we are constantly bombarded with messages that tell us what we can and cannot do, who we can and cannot be, based on race and sex and a variety of other identifications. When women, when people of color, are represented in the media in the same ways over an over again, they are placed in boxes which they cannot leave because people (sometimes even they themselves) will not believe it, will not give them the opportunity, or will scorn them if they do so.

The characters of A:TLA were important to people because it was a chance for many different social groups to break free of those boxes: the characters were not one-dimensional stereotypes of the cultures and peoples they represented, and the story was about those under-represented peoples; they were the heroes for once. Changing those heroes into white people removes the opportunity to expand how we identify ourselves and others, and it sends these minority groups back into their boxes. It does this because it joins with many other films and stories of its kind and sends a message that people of color cannot have leading, protagonist roles.

People are going to look at what happens in this film, look at the role light-skinned people play as opposed to dark people, then compare it with all the other instances of dark and light-skinned people in society, and form social boundaries based on race precisely because of that. When people, especially children, see this film and the break down of racial roles, they’re going to compare it to other instances of race in media. From that collection, we as people learn that there are some roles which are not transient: black people cannot be this, but are allowed to be this or this, and Asians cannot be that, but are welcome to be that or that.

But white people can be anything.

The point I’m trying to make is that you’re operating this casting as though we are in a post-racial world where race is transient. In fact, however, this is not a post racial world, and treating race as something transient in such an environment has instead the opposite effect because you are being careless and not thinking about what your actions will say and do in the real-world environment. The casting for this production narrows the ability of people to escape social boundaries, forcing people back into boxes which dictate who they can and cannot be. It is separating, rather than unifying.

(6) And really, what we’re talking about here are the problems of colorblindless:

When we were casting, I was like, “I don’t care who walks through my door, whoever is best for the part. I’m going to figure it out like a chessgame.” [io9]

[According to Hoffman:] As such, once casting started happening (e.g. Dev Patel as Prince Zuko) moving the look of the different Nations around was like a puzzle board where all the pieces needed to fit. [UGO]

To start this off, I’ve said it a billion times, but the problem with this movie has less to do with which race is which in a fantasy world, and whether or not white people can believably exist there, and more to do with the conditions of world that we, the viewers, and you, the movie makers, actually live in. People are taking issues with this fantasy cartoon, because of the social conditions of the real world, because of what the casting choices for The Last Airbender say about those social conditions, and because of how they further serve to promote the status-quo which places white people at the pinnacle of the social hierarchy.

By social conditions, I’m talking about this, and this, and this, and this, and this, for starters. It all is all connected to the danger of a single story.

Because where perhaps you, and Paramount, and everyone else involved with this film may not care who walks through the door so long as they fit the bill you’ve outlined (and let me tell you, that’s a very questionable bill), millions of minorities across the US, and in other countries where they face similar situations, do care, because it affects them.

You can’t just put whoever you want in these roles without regards to race because it has an effect on the rest of the in-world scenario and it means something different depending on placement. Literally, by placing white people in three of the main roles, you effectively whitewashed an entire nation that was not even based on white culture to begin with. It is whitewashing, and it matters to people for very good reasons, and as we established earlier Intent is irrelevant. By putting white people in these roles, you left all opportunities for non-white characters in the supporting cast and the background, and even then some of those roles have been cut for them by the need to include more white people (Ben Cooke playing good-guy Avatar Roku? If he’s not white, please, enlighten me). You are contributing to the pattern of white-people only at the center of a film, and especially white protagonists.

When Hollywood puts out movie after movie highlighting the same social, racist stereotypes about one group or another, it affects the way other races see them, treat them, and to some extent even the way in which they see themselves (unwanted, or only good for “this”). So when you put white actors in the leading, protagonist roles of this fantasy, while delegating everyone else to supporting cast and/or villains, it affects society’s unsophisticated social understandings about race, about who is what and who can be what in film. It matters not because this is a single film where people of color have been kept out of protagonist roles, and where white people have been inserted into what is explicitly termed an Asian fantasy, but because this kind of crap is part of a pattern of discrimination that has occurred in Hollywood films since the days when even you would probably admit filmmakers were racists. And you are continuing it. That is why we are angry.

When we say “race matters”, we do not mean that we enjoy the racial boundaries, tensions and separations and want them to continue. Rather, race matters to us because it has to matter to us, precisely because those boundaries and tensions exist and affect us all the time. (And by “us”, I very much do mean all people). It would be wonderful if race wasn’t an issue, but course of human history to the present has made it one. To say, in the face of that history, that race doesn’t matter, is to deny our history; is to deny how that history is affecting all people today; and is to deny people the recognition of their suffering, both then and now. When we deny these things, we cannot address them, we cannot fix them, and we cannot move forward into a world where we no longer suffer from them.

13 thoughts on “M. Night Shyamalan plays B!NGO: Racebending & The Last Airbender

  1. Well said. Very nice. I have to say that you have hit the nail on the head here. Many of us who fell in love with the show due to what set it apart from the rest of the shows out there are just downright mad about what’s been done here.

    Admittedly, I’m a white woman and haven’t felt the marginalization like other minority groups have in popular media, but I had to see my cousin, adopted from Korea, deal with it. I saw how he had to struggle with identity and not having people who looked like him to look up to. Having role models like his father is great, but there was always that sense of being different.

  2. Well written essay Ringo. It’s good to read what my thoughts are on this whole situation, and in such a way that my peers will be able to understand why I don’t support this film. I’ll be posting the link to my facebook, LJ and DA, therefore, thank you so much!

  3. I was directed here by the Racebending community on LiveJournal, and I have to say, as a Chinese-Canadian fan of the series who is absolutely livid about the racism and discrimination happening with the film and beyond (and how many people think it’s acceptable, not a big deal, or a ‘conspiracy’), thank you so much for writing so eloquently, powerfully, and clearly about this, and for giving such well-explained rebuttals to each of M. Night Shyamalan and the others’ dismissive arguments; I will definitely be sharing this with as many people as I can, both for those who are already on this side of the debate and for those who aren’t entirely convinced yet.

    So, thank you so much once again! I hope more people will come to understand this after reading what you wrote, and wrote so well — if anything good came out of those interviews, it’s pieces like this and others that are bringing more light to the problem and raising awareness than ever before.

  4. Nice post. Really enjoyed reading it as it explains exactly how I feel about what they have done. I am black but nevertheless this to me was just as bad as hearing a film being made with people in black face. Seriously if these people are capable of doing this to an TLA, they are capable of casting a white person in blackface to portray Shaka Zulu a Zulu warrior. Despite the fact that I don’t see any series made or as future projects of stories that appreciate the African cultures as well as this series does for the Asian cultures, I feel really disappointed that when it came to making the live action they even had the nerve to do this. I always saw it as automatic that the characters would obviously be of Asian origin and when I saw the first teaser I thought that must have been some kind of joke. Now it turns out to be even worse than that and the more I see about this film the more I really am disappointed. I find those people who brush the race issue aside saying it’s just a movie to be ignorant and really annoying. The fact is colorblindness doesn’t do anyone any good. It’s like communism, an ideology that can easily be manipulated to exploit others. The only way of moving forward is being well aware of who we are and our origins, our races and to acknowledge all these things for in the end we are all different all the way down to the individual. Sadly people seem to like categorizing each other in groups and stereotyping.

  5. A very powerful, yet eloquent message to the movie making industry. Thank you for writing this. I will definitely be sharing it with as many people as I can.

  6. this was a fantastic article! i cannot imagine anyone reading this whole thing and still not understanding why we’re angry. you did an extraordinary job.

  7. excellent.
    i am a black man, not african-american, and there is a difference.
    someone that is truly african-american will be black, but a black person will not always be african-american.
    avatar was a great show. i enjoyed watching it. i enjoyed not seeing a white person in every episode. i enjoyed the representation of different cultures that were treated with respect. i appreciate the fact that the only group that you could arguably call white were the swamp-benders.
    i liked that there was an asian main character. oh, what was that? is that another main character, and he’s asian too? wait, are you telling me that every group in the show is based on one of the many plethora of “asian” cultures ?
    wow, and you’re saying it’s one of the most successful shows ever? loved by all?
    and they’re making a movie?!
    this is going to be great, they couldn’t possibly f*** this up!
    got my hopes up to high.
    i am saddened greatly by this betrayal to avatar:tla fans.

  8. What pisses me off even more is the fact the director is a “person of color” himself who was born in Asia. And the funny thing is that even if they felt that they needed to overlook the race factor to “pick out the best actors for the movie”, this is exactly what spoiled the movie for millions of Avatar fans. I was a huge fan of Avatar the show and I was excited when I heard they were making a movie of it, but was hugely disappointed when I saw the trailer. It ruined the movie experience for me. Another interesting thing to note is the fact that Dev Patel is in the movie. I don’t know but Dev Patel and a movie based on anime just don’t go together. May be it’s just me. Think Shamalayan pulled some strings here? Most probably not, but it’s still something worth to note.

  9. I find the comments of those for the casting hilarious and ironic. Certainly if this was the 1950′s we would hear this from them: “What the big deal? its only the back of the bus, why can’t you accept siting there? Your all alike anyways, its makes the bus nice and organized, why if we had to give seats up front to you people then some white people would have the sit in the back and that would be a crying shame.”

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