By Guest Contributors Mike Le and Marissa Lee, originally published at Racebending.com
Last week, Frank Marshall released “original” casting documents for Paramount’s The Last Airbender film to UGO.com. He announced that a third-party “local extra casting entity” inserted the “Caucasian or any other ethnicity” casting breakdown language that was used in August 2008 on the production’s official audition materials–including the website and fliers–as well as on Actors Access and other casting call databases.
Marshall calls the casting language “poorly worded and offensive” and writes that Paramount and the production “take responsibility for not doing a more thorough job monitoring these frequently used third-party agents.” He also reports that Paramount has been “in regular dialogue” with Asian American advocacy groups “to ensure that such a mistake does not happen in the future.”
Almost a year ago, Marshall dismissed repeated fan concerns about a discriminatory bias within The Last Airbender’s casting process: “The casting is complete and we did not discriminate against anyone. I am done talking about it.”
A year later, comes Marshall’s justification: The production didn’t “intend” to discriminate–and these documents, pulled from the producer’s private files, are the proof.
Unfortunately, Marshall again misses the point. This isn’t about the “intentions” of the production – it’s about what actually happened: The production’s concrete actions.
We can absolutely discuss the production’s actions and the impact of those actions:
In 2008, regardless of who drafted the language, the production released casting sheets for the principal roles with a clear preference for Caucasian actors. “Wanted: Caucasian or any other ethnicity.”
The language used varies from standard ‘colorblind casting’ breakdowns which typically read “please submit all ethnicities.” Despite the fact that the characters in Avatar: The Last Airbender were all ethnically Asian and Inuit, the wording choice otherizes “other ethnicities” and specifies one ethnicity above all others. The casting breakdown impacts what actors are submitted and vetted for the lead roles.
In December 2008, the production announced an entirely Caucasian lead cast to play Asian and Inuit characters.
This casting decision emphasized to actors of color and the communities they represent that even when there are roles for lead characters of color in a film like The Last Airbender, productions will cast actors who are white to portray them.
In January of 2009, the production actively ignored hundreds of letters from fans concerned about the casting–going so far as to send mail back unopened. The production also ignores an industry professional petition submitted by Derek Kirk Kim and Gene Yang.
These actions demonstrate the production of The Last Airbender clear disregard for public concern regarding the film’s casting processes.
From February 2009 onward, the production of The Last Airbender cast actors of color are cast in villainous, secondary, and background roles.
Regardless of the production’s intentions, their actions reinforce a Hollywood glass ceiling where people of color can play secondary roles in films – but white actors are preferred for heroic leads, even if the characters were created to be Asian/Inuit.
The production of The Last Airbender advised applicants for background roles to look more ethnic. Casting directors: “We want you to dress in traditional cultural ethnic attire. If you’re Korean, wear a kimono,” and “it doesn’t mean you’re at a disadvantage if you didn’t come in a big African thing.” A casting director is also quoted as describing the background extras being cast as “authentic Asians.”
Despite the casting controversy and widespread critique over the wording of breakdowns, the production continued to demonstrate a stunning lack of cultural competency.
In February and March 2009, the production refused to respond to Asian American advocacy organizations repeated requests for a meeting. These advocacy groups received a canned letter weeks later–after filming started it was logistically impossible to change the casting–signed simply: “The Producers.”
The production displayed and continues to display a lack of interest in communicating with Asian American advocacy groups over their concerns about The Last Airbender. In their response to the Asian American community, the producers of The Last Airbender did not even bother to sign their own names.
When the groups responded to the producers’ letter in April 2009, again requesting a meeting, they were completely ignored.
The production ignored advocacy groups, taking no action to address the Asian American community’s concerns over the language of the casting breakdown, the resultant cast, the production’s cultural competency, and cultural appropriation, etc.
The production of The Last Airbender was made aware of the biased casting language and the discriminatory impact of their casting decisions over a year ago.
Finally responding to concerns over specific casting language is a start, but the production has yet to demonstrate that their actions are anything more than damage control. We hope the production will begin to address the impact of the casting decisions as well.
Although more than a year has passed since Asian American advocacy groups and members of the public began expressing concerns, the production of The Last Airbender has yet to speak to the impact of their decisions and actions.
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