Via Derek Kirk Kim's blog, I found out that M. Night Shyamalan and Co. have booted Jesse McCartney, who was set to play Prince Zuko -- the anti-hero of the series, and the teen representative of the Japanese-culture-based Fire Nation -- and replaced him with Asian Brit Slumdog Millionaire star Dev Patel.
There are a lot of responses tumbling through my brain right now, but foremost among them is: If they think this is going to shut us up, they have another think coming.
When my thoughts get all tumbly like this, though, I find it helpful to enumerate the breakdown, so here goes:
- I'm glad Dev Patel is getting his 15. Let's hope it he can parlay Slumdog's fame into 30 minutes, or possibly a career (although, comparing the career arcs of the two stars of Bend It Like Beckham -- the last humongous teenage English/South Asian hit -- a nice TV show might be the best he can hope for.)
- Zuko is Japanese-y. Patel is Indian. How hard can it possibly be to find a teenaged-looking East Asian dude who knows martial arts? There were, like, 30 of 'em in each Fast and Furious movie, standing around trying not to look bored. You mean to tell me Southern California's going begging for teenaged East Asian dudes with martial arts experience and a yen for acting? Where've you been for the last 30 years? Do the words "Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965" mean nothing to you?
- And seriously, are we only allowed to have ONE famous Asian dude per year? Now that Kal Penn's been off the radar for a while does that mean it's Dev Patel's turn? And since Dev Patel is IT, does that mean we can't field any more Asian dudes, much less the three required to cast Avatar as Asian?
- Does this mean, as Derek pointed out, that the whole Fire Nation now has to be Indian? How's that gonna work? Will it be a Japanese-y, South Asian looking nation? Or are they just gonna skip the ethnic specificity entirely and have the Fire Nation extras be mostly white?
- Or will they be creative with the casting a la the Brandy Cinderella? Argh! No! They can't do that! The Brandy Cinderella was cool for shock value and to point out that racially creative casting can work and is painless. But that only works with a show -- like Cinderella -- that otherwise was going to be all white. There are almost no films -- and certainly none of American provenance -- that take place in Asian milieux. To take the opportunity offered by one of the very, very few Asian worlds to get all creative with the casting ... I don't think so. That's a cheap out. It cheats Asian Americans AND it cheats other people of color, who should be getting more chances in movies with unnecessarily all-white casts, not in movies that should have Asian casts.
- Speaking of Cinderella, here's a good idea! Why not cast Paolo Montalban as Zuko. Hot! But too old. Oo! He can be the Fire Lord!
- Better yet, why not just cast Dante Basco, who did the voice work for Zuko in the cartoon? Yeah, I know he's too old, but he doesn't LOOK too old!
- They don't -- and here, "they" seems to include Shyamalan, who, let's be honest, is not the most diverse-of-cast auteur on the block by a long shot -- seem to understand why it's so important that the cast of The Last Airbender be Asian and Native American. I think their understanding has also been muddied by a lot of excessively "diversity" based language fans have been using so as not to seem Asian-centric. A lot of the fans say that the cast needs to be people of color in general, but that's not specific enough.
The reason it's important that the cast of The Last Airbender be Asian and Native American is that the CHARACTERS ARE ASIAN AND NATIVE AMERICAN. We don't need to be terribly strict about the ethnicity -- not all of the actors playing the English/Norse-analogous characters in Lord of the Rings were of English/Norse descent -- but let's be real: they need to read as Asian and Native American. Otherwise, what you're saying is that Asians and Native Americans can't carry a show, and they can't carry a show BECAUSE they're Asian and Native American. What you're saying is that exotic Asian and Native American cultures are good enough, but Asian and Native American PEOPLE aren't. It would be great to have, say, African American actors given more opportunities, but having non-Asian and non-Native American actors in these roles, whether they're people of color or not, STILL conveys the message that Asians and Native Americans aren't good enough.
Basically, their work in casting isn't done here, and that means: neither is ours. Our representation in the media is of the utmost importance to our self-esteem, our standing in society, and society's understanding of who we are and how much respect we deserve.