Movement on 'Avatar' Casting

February 9, 2009

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:

  1. 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.)
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. 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?
  5. 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.
  6. 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!
  7. 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!
  8. 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.

Write a protest letter today.




Why not just do an Animated movie like Naruto?
This is a very simple case of "follow the money trail." M. Night Shyamalan is an extremely intelligent filmmaker who believes in creating films that address social injustice. His previous films contain a wonderful amount of peace promoting, thought provoking, material. If I had to take a guess, it would be that the studio heads presented him with an ultimatum; You can do the film with white actors, or not do it at all. Unfortunately this does not clear Mr. Shyamalan of any responsibility. The only choice that could possibly be worse is hiring white actors and making them up to appear Asian, ie black face for the Asian population. In either case this is a shameful display of hollywood racism, and though it is not surprising, it is heartbreaking. Imagine the parents of Asian children, (I'm adopted myself with German-Irish parents) sitting through the truly wonderful experience of the cartoon, Avatar series only to later have to explain to their ten year old son or daughter, why the characters who they've fallen in love with and who look like them have now changed race. Mr. Shyamalan, I know that from your previous works you are a person who believes in fighting the good fight. I would like to remind you of the words a wise man once said. Simply put, "Be the change you want to see."
I hell agree with you on this. In regards to #7, it could work, because Jackson Rathbone is WAY older than Sokka. Sokka is 14 and Rathbone is what, 24-ish?And plus, if the casting crew are going to show ANY loyalty to the series, Zuko is pale compared to Sokka & Katara.I suggest Aaron Yoo because every movie he has been in so far has rocked and it's about time he got a main role! Hehe.What they should do is throw the idea on the floor for a few years, then pick it up again and start again PROPERLY!
For the record, the members of the Water Tribe are not Native American, they are Inuit. While this doesn't change your point, it does remove a significant amount of your credibility.I'd rather hear this from someone that knows what they're talking about.
...I'm getting to the point where I'm just gonna have to just sit back, pray, and see how it turns out....
Good for you to not take this token offering to fans unhappy with the casting of to many whites to play non white roles. The most insulting is having the Avatar who is clearly based off of Buddhist beliefs in reincarnation and the concept of enlightened beings taking human form such as the Dali Lama still being played by a white person.
josh, sweetie, the inuit ARE native american. alaska is part of north america, and the inuit are one of the "first nations." but it's cute of you to not know that.
Also Alex, it's a very interesting note that Aang's Airbending mentor, Gyatso, is named after the Dalai Lama, as every incarnation of said position has the last name of Gyatso. *nod nod* Can we say double whammy?As to the article itself, HELL YES. I am so glad to know that there are more people still dedicated to the cause even through this. Hollywood needs to get the message that tokenism (especially of this nature) isn't enough anymore. Avatar is based on sources that have next to zero European influence. Thus, next to no European people should be in the cast. This movie is supposed to be a showcase of actors that aren't your usual blonde haired, blue eyed stars. But Paramount is failing horribly at this. I can only pray our efforts can get this casting right.
Claire Light said:josh, sweetie, the inuit ARE native american. alaska is part of north america, and the inuit are one of the "first nations." but it's cute of you to not know that.Well, I did some fact-checking and you're right, Inuits are indeed a part of the all-encompassing umbrella of Native American. I'm a big enough man to admit my mistake and apologize for being rude.However, take this with a grain of salt because I'm still not entirely sure why you didn't specify Inuit as opposed to Native American. While they are the same, not all Native Americans are Inuit and there could be some confusion.But, I've lost all credibility anyway, so w/e.
Just a note:"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.)"Dev Patel was on Skins, which is what prompted his being cast in Slumdog Millionaire. So it's not like he was unheard of before that. I don't think TLA is supposed to be his wagon, he's supposed to be TLA's.I agree that he isn't the right actor to play Zuko. You've already noted the reasons so I won't repeat them. I don't expect that they'll recast the leads for the movie. I'm hoping that the letter writing campaign and protests will prevent something like this from happening in the future, that Hollywood will take notice. But the only way I see that working is if the movie fails because the general public wouldn't stand for the racist casting.
josh, i'm not fussed if an actor of swedish and scottish heritage plays a german, and i'm not fussed if an actor of filipino and/or chinese, and/or indonesian and/or etc. heritage plays zuko. likewise, i'm not fussed if an actor of lakota and/or navajo, and/or ojibway heritage plays sokka. i wouldn't even mind if an actor of mongolian heritage played sokka or fact, i'm not even all that fussed if dev patel ends up playing zuko: i'm just super annoyed that the token asian is going to be the one asian who's ALREADY having a breakout year and doesn't really need this opp.why? for several reasons. the first is that we still work in broader racial categories in the US and, although within a "race" these categories aren't useful, in the mainstream organizing around race has helped create a power base for each racial category. so as long as we keep the casting of one ethnicity within the "race" it's giving opportunities to someone within our power base and that's a good thing.the second is that americans, within their races, are becoming completely ethnically mixed. the majority of white americans are from more than one ethnic background. native americans, or indigenous americans, are very multi-ethnic and multi-racial as well. and asians are starting to catch up. so given the racial and ethnic landscape of the country, it's fitting if someone from within a perceived "race" gets to play someone else from within that same perceived race.third, lack of opportunity has made the pool of talent of color much smaller than it has to be. so i'm happy to widen the field for casting directors ... as long as they're willing to honestly give an opportunity to a person of color appropriate to the role.also, josh, your credibility isn't all gone (and who cares if it is? this isn't meet the press): in canada the inuit and "first nations" people are classed together as indigenous people, but named separately. the inuit are part of a linguistic and cultural group around the arctic that includes folks from greenland and siberia, who migrated there from alaska apparently. so we could actually argue all day about it and neither one be wrong.
I would just like to Correct, the Fire nation is a mix of Han Dynasty Chinese, as you can see with the very distinct chinese hair dress, with Young Zuko, including the style chinese style waist belt worn by uncle Roku, The Fire Nation Army, is armoured in Thai and Chinese Styled armour the spikes being resembling quite similar to the thai style opera costumes, and the main armour more of that to Chinese Leather armour, a number of the weapons, such as the spear, mace and sword also very chinese.The only aspects of Japanese Culture are mainly found in Kyoshi Island, with the Gaint Koi, and Unagi, and also the Kyoshi warriors Make up and battle attire.I would also like to say, that though its nice to see Dev Patel from skins and Slum Dog millionaire int the movie, I would suggest the cast him as Sokka, since the character of Sokka is more Comical and his shape and even his looks are very similar the character, so he doesn't need the make up, and he already his the experience of comedy since Skins is a popular teen comedy drama with serious issues though funny.But I guess the reason they aren't doing this is because Katara will be white and covered in brown makeup, seriously if he doesn't find that offensive then... we just need to protest more and try to get Patels attention.
Inuit aren't Native American. The Inuits are recent transplants. Natives aren't.