Activist/Comedian Margaret Cho posted a set of emails from her fans about the casting of M. Night Shyamalan's film version of Avatar: The Last Airbender.
She frames the problem very well:
I am never surprised when Hollywood takes a story with Asian characters and casts white people instead of Asians. This is so typical and happens with such frequency! I always thought that in order to make our presence known in entertainment, we should be writing, bringing our dreams and realities to the cinema, but now even telling our own stories isn’t even enough.
Why is it better to have white actors play the roles of Asians? I don’t understand. Because it sells more tickets? I am not white and I have had no trouble selling tickets. Maybe the powers that be should ask me what to do. I would tell them. “The Last Airbender” is the last straw to a lot of people (Margaret Cho Blog):
We were initially excited about the movie, and the idea of a trilogy, but were given pause when we saw the cast.
It is hard to understand what M. Night Shyamalan was thinking when he cast this movie.
I have said for a long time that Speculative Fiction is one of the most racist film genres. It is not uncommon for white actors to be cast in the role of other ethnicity. It is hard to get an SF movie cast if the main character is non-white (take Green Lantern for example).
All of my books have non-white leads, and my latest book, Shine Like Thunder has a Gay Persian as the main character.
I have received a frightening amount of hate mail and personal confrontations about the ethnicity of the characters from white readers.
You would think SF readers would be more open minded.
Why would M. Night Shyamalan do this?
To me, that is the big question.
I think the casting was intentional. They believe the film will attract a larger audience with a white cast of heros and a brown cast of villains than it would if they followed the example of the series.
This is all about money. Hollywood consistently underestimates the intelligence of the American people, and almost always aims for the lowest common denominator. This is less a sign of racism on the part of Hollywood as it is an sign of Hollywood's belief about how racist the American people are.
I would love to hear your opinions about this.
If you are interested in getting involved with the movement to effect the casting, check out: