M. Night vs. The Internet: The Airbender Mash-up

Compiled by Site Lead Arturo R. García

Recently M. Night Shyamalan, director of The Last Airbender, provided another lengthy response, though not by name, to the concerns raised by the Racebending campaign. While it’s good to read both sides of the story, of course, it’s unfortunate we never got to see the issue discussed in the most fitting manner: a public debate. As an experiment, though, here’s Shyamalan’s comments laid out alongside some notable posts about the film’s casting issues by Q. Le, Gene Luen Yang, Angry Asian Man and Derek Kirk Kim.

Q. Le: Perhaps the greatest offense that the “heroic” characters are portrayed by lily White actors while the “villainous” characters are portrayed dark-skinned Indian actors in lieu of the fact that all the characters have distinctly Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian and Inuit characteristics regardless of their “good” or “badness.”

M Night Shyamalan: Well, you caught me. I’m the face of racism. I’m always surprised at the level of misunderstanding, the sensitivities that exist. As an Asian-American, it bothers me when people take all of their passion and rightful indignation about the subject and then misplace it. Here’s the reality: first of all, the Uncle Iroh character is the Yoda character in the movie, and it would be like saying that Yoda was a villain. So he’s Persian.

And Dev Patel is the actual hero of the series, and he’s Indian, OK? The whole point of the movie is that there isn’t any bad or good. The irony is that I’m playing on the exact prejudices that the people who are claiming I’m racist are doing. They immediately assume that everyone with dark skin is a villain. That was an incredibly racist assumption which as it turns out is completely incorrect.


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Gene Luen Yang: … but then how do you explain the original casting calls, which clearly indicated a preference for white actors from the get-go?

Shyamalan: There are four nations, and I had to eventually make a decision about what nationality each of them are. What happened was, Noah Ringer walked in the door – and there was no other human being on the planet that could play Aang except for this kid. To me, he felt mixed race with an Asian quality to him. I made all the Air Nomads mixed race – some of them are Hispanic, some of them are Korean. Every monk you see in a flashback, in that world, are all mixed race because they’re nomadic. I felt that really worked as a culture. OK, so that’s one-quarter of our world population. The second group is the Fire Nation; when Dev was cast as Zuko, I said, OK, I have to cast an Uncle Iroh that looks like his uncle. We’re going to go from Indian/Persian to Mediterranean, all that group with all its darker colors including Italians.

So now we’re at one-half of the population of the movie which is not white. Moving on to the third group, which is the Earth Kingdom (which is the biggest kingdom in this fictional world): I liked a bunch of the people who happened to be Japanese, Korean, Philippine, so I decided to make the Earth kingdom Asians. Now we’re at three-quarters of the world. Now I have the brother and sister left. If you don’t have an edict of “don’t put white people in the movie” then the Water Tribe can be European/Caucasian. So that’s how it ended up.

earthnobles1 Angry Asian Man: But this is not about a bunch of fanboys being upset about how you’ve messed with their favorite cartoon. This is about an absolute failure to acknowledge and understand the broader context of race and representation, and how it’s being played out, once again, in this movie — a project many believed would be an unprecedented opportunity for Asians in a major Hollywood project.

Shyamalan: Here’s the irony of the conversation: The Last Airbender is the most culturally diverse movie series of all time. I’m not talking about maybe one Jedi, maybe one person of a different color – no one’s even close. That’s a great pride to me. The irony of this statement enrages me to the point of … not even the accusation, but the misplacement of it. You’re coming at me, the one Asian filmmaker who has the right to cast anybody I want, and I’m casting this entire movie in this color blind way where everyone is represented. I even had one section of the Earth kingdom as African American, which obviously isn’t in the show, but I wanted to represent them, too!

And I fought like crazy to have the pronunciation of the names to go back to the Asian pronunciation. So you say “Ahng” instead of “Aaang” because it’s correct. It’s not “I-rack,” it’s “ee-Rock.” I’m literally fighting for all this. And who’s getting blamed? ME! This is incredible. And so it’s infuriating, this stigmatization, that the first word about the most culturally-diverse movie of all time is this accusation. And here’s the irony of it, this has nothing to do with the studio system. I had complete say in casting. So if you need to point the racist finger, point it at me, and if it doesn’t stick, then be quiet.

Derek Kirk Kim: Everything from to the costume designs, to the written language, to the landscapes, to martial arts, to philosophy, to spirituality, to eating utensils!—it’s all an evocative, but thinly veiled, re-imagining of ancient Asia. (In one episode, a region is shown where everyone is garbed in Korean hanboks — traditional Korean clothing — the design of which wasn’t even altered at all.) It would take a willful disregard of the show’s intentions and origins to think this wouldn’t extend to the race of the characters as well.

zuko1Shyamalan: Whenever we’re on set, it’s crazy, I love it. We’re in our cafeteria, it looks like the United Nations in there! And you’re not supposed to be thinking about this because it’s so diverse. And again, this is what really frustrates me, when we get to the second movie (hopefully), since its based in the Earth Kingdom, suddenly the movie will seem entirely politically correct Asian, and the accusers will feel like they won. YOU DID NOT WIN! YOU DID NOT WIN! That’s not what happened, you were wrong. As you can tell, it’s a frustrating thing. Look at the movie poster with Dev Patel in it. I’m not understanding … he’s not politically correct? I could go on for half an hour on that subject … in the end it’s like that saying, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

Angry Asian Man: Okay, so you can’t definitively argue that anyone on Avatar’s anime-inspired fantasy realm is actually “Asian.” But all signs certainly point there. I never really watched show, but I always assumed those were Asian kids doing the martial arts. I’m willing to bet if you showed the cartoon to anyone, it’s likely they’d come to the same conclusion.

Shyamalan: At the basis of this, a fascinating thing, it didn’t even occur to me until the first mention of this came up: The art form of Anime in and of itself is what’s causing the confusion. The Anime artists intentionally put ambiguous features on the characters so that you see who you want to see in it. It’s part of the art form. My daughter looks identical to Katara; I saw my family in that series when I was watching it, I saw them in the faces. I’m sure that every household feels the same way in that they see their own families in them. It’s a fascinating thing about how people perceive it. If there’s an issue with why Anime does not put particularly specific Asian features from the PC Asian types that people think should be there … take it up with Anime animators. It has nothing to do with me.

Coming up tomorrow: Michael Le from Racebending on why this issue matters.