Derek Kirk Kim has been raising a big stink over the controversial casting of caucasian actors for thefeature film version of Avatar: The Last Airbender. While I am a little disappointed with the decision, I'm not really that surprised. For those of you who don't care that much about animation, Avatar takes place in a fantasy world modeled extensively after East Asian culture, with its myriad fighting styles prominently featured. Think of it as the quasi-eastern equivalent of Middle Earth, but a lot more hip. For all it's Asian trappings, Avatar is the creation of two White guys for Nickelodeon. This work, however respectful, was ultimately done in the service of entertaining an American television audience. The fact that Avatar's visual style was strongly influenced by Japanese animation, and voiced in english by a multi-ethnic cast, has only served to further confuse the issue.
The portrayal of Asian characters by White actors has a long tradition in Hollywood that is second to, and almost as embarrassing as, the portrayal of those with African descent. And yet this practice doesn't get as much attention from the media, which may be why it has persisted long after blackface has been buried in shame at least within the U.S. In this historical context the woefully ignorant remarks of Jackson Rathbone, one of the prospective actors, has had the unfortunate effect of reinforcing the entertainment industry's image as culturally insensitive to Asians.
Setting aside the present controversy, I found the choice of M. Night Shyamalan for director to be a pretty dubious decision when it was first announced. What makes someone think this hack can direct an epic fantasy aimed at children? Perhaps The Last Airbender will prove to the world that this is the genre Shyamalan has always meant to direct. But the oppressive tone found in many of his films contradicts the lighthearted effect needed for this kind of story. My doubts about his artistic sensibilities have been more a central concern than who gets to play what. But the casting compounds those doubts because it seems to indicate that he was unable, or simply unwilling to challenge pre-existing studio directives or the prevalent Hollywood culture. If this is true, then it's sad that one of Hollywood's most prominent Asians can do so little to change it.
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