Shyamalan Responds to "Airbender" Accusations

April 6, 2010

Shame on Shyamalan!

Hollywood's most successful director of color embarrasses us all with some lame-ass excuse-making about the whitewashed cast of his new Airbender movie.

A recap: It all started with a little TV show called Avatar: The Last Airbender, a manga-style anime series made in the U.S. by two white guys at Nickelodeon. The creators wanted something a little more interesting than the usual European-based fantasy worlds, so they did their homework and created the world of Avatar: The Last Airbender, a pan-Asian-cultured world with northern Inuit-cultured tribes.

In this world there were no non-Asian/non-Inuit cultures or people, anywhere, and the main characters are generally brown or tan-skinned and dark haired (eye color has to do with elements, so there are blue, and green, and grey eyes as well as brown.) Basically, the characters are supposed to read as Asian-y and Inuit-y. The series ran for three seasons, then, as might be expected from a very popular children's cartoon, it was set to be remade as a live-action film trilogy.

But here's where the story gets weird. The engine driving the live-action remake was actually M. Night Shyamalan. According to him, his kids turned him on to the series, and he was the one who actually got the ball rolling on it. He has been very open about being a fan of the series himself and wanting to make it for his kids and other kids like them.

So then why, oh why, did the casting calls for the main characters go out primarily for Caucasians? Why, oh why, did they cast white actors for all the lead roles, characters from Inuit, Tibetan, and Japanese-influenced cultures? Why, when a controversy heated up over this casting, did they change one of the lead actors to Indian Brit Dev Patel ... but only the main villain character?

(Go to Race Bending to read more about this whole debacle.)

The usual excuse-making has been spouted: they only chose the best actors for the roles (meaning that there are no truly good Asian/Inuit actors,) anime is racially ambiguous so the characters weren't any race, Shyamalan wanted to reconstitute the different elemental tribes so they were each a different race (but then, why are all the leads white?) etc. You can see the problem in the trailer below, especially in the twilight frame with a bunch of Inuit-looking people in Inuit-looking costume, fronted by two white teenagers in Inuit-looking costume.



Anyway, the irony has been lost on no one, that the "good" version was made by white producers, while the whitewashed version is being made by Shyamalan. But no one ever said successful Hollywood directors of color are necessarily self aware or enlightened. Shyamalan has certainly done little enough in his career to promote Asian actors, or depict Asian cultures, in film. But that's a whole other ball of wax than actively whitewashing an Asian cast.

Inquiring minds have been wondering for a while what Shyamalan has to say for himself. He recently gave a series of interviews on just this topic, and the results were eye-stabbingly-scalp-grabbingly horrific disappointing to say the least. In this one from io9, he says:

The great thing about anime is that it's ambiguous.  The features of the characters are an intentional mix of all features. It's intended to be ambiguous. That is completely its point. So when we watch Katara, my oldest daughter is literally a photo double of Katara in the cartoon. So that means that Katara is Indian, correct? No that's just in our house.  And her friends who watch it, they see themselves in it. And that's what's so beautiful about anime.

When we were casting, I was like, "I don't care who walks through my door, whoever is best for the part. I'm going to figure it out like a chessgame." Ideally we separate the nations ethnically — ideally. I didn't know how or what it was going to be. And it was so fluid.

... I was without an agenda, and just letting it come to the table. Noah is a photo double from the cartoon. He is spot on. I didn't know their backgrounds, and to me Noah had a slightly mixed quality to him. So I cast the Airbenders as all mixed-race. So when you see the monks, they are all mixed. And it kind of goes with the nomadic culture and the idea that over the years, all nationalities came together.

...Dev ended up being my choice for Zuko, and I looked for an Uncle that could be in that realm, for a moment I thought about Ben Kingsley. But Shaun Toub, I just loved him in Iron Man. I thought this takes us into a Mediterranean kind of Arab and Indian world, and I can go as far as that, that will be the breadth of the Fire Nation, that kind of look.

... And there's a section of the Earth Kingdom that's African American. Because it's such a big country and land I thought you could have some diversity in there as they travel through the cities. So more so than the show, it will have a much more diverse ethnic backgrounds to it. It's not an agenda for me, but it's something I'm super proud of. That when my kids or any kids look at it they will see themselves.

Wow, he hit nearly all the bullshit points Airbender defenders have been hitting all along. It's almost like he read them off a talking points memo. Dude, anime isn't intentionally racially mixed. Have you seen Japanese people? They do actually dye their hair crazy colors and wear those clothes! Just because your Americanized ass thinks that Japanese kids all must have straight black hair and slanty eyes to be Japanese, doesn't mean that they do.

And seriously? Your daughter is "literally" a "photo double" of a cartoon character? Does she have, like, three lines on her face and no shadows? Do you even know what "literally" and "photo double" mean? And Noah Ringer kinda looks mixed race to you? How about David Carradine? If we paint his eyelid corners with some loop-de-loops, does he kinda look mixed race to you?

Plus, you just happened to make the villain nation "a Mediterranean kind of Arab and Indian world?" When you last visited Pondicherry, did you sail there via the Mediterranean? Or did you just buy a ticket to The Orient and trust you'd land somewhere recognizable? Or did you just not go in the first place, not trusting yourself not to blow up the plane with, like, a nail clipper or someshit?

Oh, and is that section of the Earth Kingdom "African American" (like, do they dance the Lindy Hop or go to historically black colleges) or "African-influenced" or just containing black people? 'Cause, dude, it would be really weird to import "Americans" into this secondary fantasy world. Or are you among the intelligentsia who think that all black people are politicallycorrectly called "African American" whether they've ever been to the U.S. or not?

*Deep breath*

There's more idiocy there, like stuff about how he almostkindasorta cast a brown dude as the lead in The Sixth Sense, but didn't, 'cause ... Haley Joel Osment! Q.E.D. Mofos! There's a reason, you see, why all the leads -- in fact, the vast majority of speaking characters -- in all of his films are white. And that reason is happenstance ... coupled, of course, with overwhelming talent. Not racism at all.

*Second deep breath*

Anyhoo. I think I've made my point. I'm hoping to see The Last Airbender for free when my friends get press passes. If I do, I'll bag it right here in Hyphen blog for y'all. If I don't get press passes, though, I'm not seeing it. They'll get not one yellow cent of my good-enough-to-bleed-but-not-good-enough-to-cast money.




"Or did you just not go in the first place, not trusting yourself not to blow up the plane with, like, a nail clipper or someshit?"

You basically just compared shyamalan to a terrorist.

This whole article is bullshit.


Yes, anonymous. The joke lay in insinuating that Shyamalan has so internalized an orientalist point of view, that he conflates India with the "Middle East," and consigns the whole to villainy. Which would mean, of course, that he himself is a villain -- most likely a terrorist.

I apologize for offering complex sarcasm on the internet. I know it's a dangerous tactic.

I like to point out that the actress portraying suki is of filipino descent, the actor playing haru is of korean american descent, and the actress playing princess yue is of hispanic descent.

These are not background characters these are lead characters.

Please respond to my comment.

I dont understand the criticism. There is no evidence indicating that the world CREATED by two guys directly relates to the specific non-fictional cultures. Sure, there are traces of different cultures in different tribes, but the water tribe, for example, doesnt equal x real culture. Shamalamadalamalana's rendition of the cartoon is HIS rendition of the story, not the rendition that the creators intended. He could interpret certain tribes as certain cultures and select actors based off that, OR he could have picked actors based off i dont know their ability to act or their ability to effectively transpose their cartoon character to its live action version. (But, youre right, directors do use race to determine one's ability to act...*sarcasm*)

I have one more thing to say about your criticism: derpa derp da derp derppppppaderpp

I'd also like to note that Noah ringer is half-Asian, for what it's worth. Moreover, he's a championship-winning martial arts specialist. I do have a problem with Jackson Rathbone and Nicola Peltz, but doesn't it seem discriminatory in and of itself to demand a certain ethnicity of actor? I agree that Shymalan should have made a greater effort to cast Asians, but in the end I hope that the best actor for the character got the part. Nicola Peltz may have that. Jackson Rathbone, it seems, was recruited for being in Twilight. Whatever.

Shyamalan did us a double diservice - he organized racist casting calls and he made a what looks like a total cr*p film. I guess you could call this Karma? My entire family watched and continue to re-watch the series and all of us - including my 9 year old son - have vowed to never see the movie.

In my experience, Indians have a lot of internalised colorism.  It was very frustrating when I was in India and there were ads all over the place for skin lightening creams because being "fair" is very important, especially for women.  I feel bad for his daughter.

Malini, while I think that Shyamalan may have some internalized racism issues, I would be very careful about applying that to all Indians. There's pretty much nothing you can say that would apply to all Indians, except that they are all Indians.

In the future, folks, please don't generalize about anyone in these comments based on their race or ethnicity. Not doing that is the whole point of this post.

Also, I've been getting a few comments here or there saying, basically, "This post is stupid/laughable!" and nothing else. If you're here just to tell us that we're silly or that we shouldn't be talking about this, you'll be deleted.

And any more substantive post that contains these elements will be deleted as well.

I've been looking on the internet and I've found no solid information that Noah Ringer is actually Asian. One anonymous person on a discussion board claimed to know him and said that he "had some Asian relatives" but wasn't "50%." (I guess we're already playing blood quantum games here. How much Asian is enough for Aang?) And someone actually cited this video as "evidence," I guess because he "looks mixed."

If he is Asian (was raised by Asian parents/family; gets clocked as Asian out in the world; has some Asian culture in his upbringing, etc.) then that changes the complection (pun intended) of part of the argument. But if he is Asian, why hasn't anyone said so during this past year of argument and excuse-making? I'm suspecting that this is a similar case to that of Summer Glau in Firefly, who was rumored to be mixed during debates about the strange absence of Asians in that supposedly Asian-dominated world ... but then turned out not to be.

And that still leaves Sokka and Katara ...

What's all this fuss about ?C'mon.... It's just a movie!! Never heard of serious matters like financial crisis, war and so on!?!? It really looks like people have nothing better to do... Honestly, this is the most useless fuss I've ever read about.

You've just broken Moff's Law, Anonymous.

I was waiting for it to happen and, sure enough, it has ... 12 comments in.

This will be the last Moff's Law comment allowed. Debate is great; Derail is fail.

Good heavens, there's some weapons-grade apologist bullshit already showing up in the comments.

Well, I for one have come to praise you for not only writing a smartly scathing dissection of Shyamalan's befuddled, discriminatory quotes, but for making me laugh out loud while I read it!  As a person from the Indian diaspora myself, his internalized racism issues are really painful to watch and even more painful to see expended all over a show as awesome as Avatar.  So it's nice to see them soundly trumped in a wryly sarcastic way.  *g*

Thanks for tackling this, despite the amount of uninformed, thoughtless braying you'll now be forced to deal with.

not only is this article on point, but it is also hilarious! you said some things that i could never say when describing my issue with this movie, at the risk of sounding like an 'angry black chick'. fantastic job!

First, great article! It's about time that these kinds of practices are brought to attention and the people behind them held accountable. I'm not understanding how so many people can think of Japanese anime/manga is ambiguous; it is created in Japan for Japanese readers the default is Japanese unless otherwise stated and the reason they have diversified features is because Japanese people do NOT all look the same and they do not stereotype themselves. Seriously, what is so difficult about this that people like M. Night cannot understand?

Second, I'm sorry about all the ignorant people that your post has already attracted and will continue to attract. You would think that more than five million years of hominid evolution would have gotten rid of the capability of such idiocy, but alas....

Really? I mean really now?! You sound just like all those other boycotters out there. You guys judge base on race AND assumptions, that's all you ever do!!! How the hell do you know Noah Ringer is not part Asian hmm? You can't ASSUME anything about his race until he actually SAYS it, but since he's under aged he probably isn't allowed to say what he is. Have you ever thought of that?! And lol, did you indirectly call Shyamalan a white-loving racist? You're really ridiculous, you know that?! How could he be racist towards people other than white people?! He's freaking Indian for crying out loud!!! And no, he does NOT idolize white people. And wtf, why did you go so far as to call him a terrorist?! Wow, you're really shallow by using that fail example frm the other comments of yours. Don't you understand that he's tryng to make this as diverse as possible? Each nation has its own specific type of people. And you should know that Katara and Sokka have Northern Water Tribe ancensty in them, which is why they're white for the film, because he casted the Northern Water Tribe people as white, durrrr. Look at the facts before claiming this to be a shitty movie dumbtwit. The creators of the sow never said the characters were of races fromour world, tey were 'Water Tribe', 'Earth Kingdom', Fre Nation' and 'Air Nomads'. Period. If you still don't comprehend this then you really need to watch the show again. Race shouldn't matter for movies, only acting ability should. I hope you don't judge people in real life stereotypically based on their race, because if you do then you really need to stop. THAT is offending. Not this movie.

"And seriously? Your daughter is "literally" a "photo double" of a cartoon character? Does she have, like, three lines on her face and no shadows? Do you even know what "literally" and "photo double" mean? And Noah Ringer kinda looks mixed race to you? How about David Carradine? If we paint his eyelid corners with some loop-de-loops, does he kinda look mixed race to you?"

This quote of yours right here shows your stupidity. He meant to say that his daughter's features resemble more closely to his daughter BECAUSE she's dark-skinned like cartoon Katara. That's what he meant, dumbtwit. And the thing you said after that is just so stupid I don't know what to say, actually, wtf are you trying to say really? That makeup can make people look like someone of another race? I'm sorry but that's just dumb, because Noah Ringer doesn'thave freakin makeup on him for his role in The Last Airbender. That's a bad example if I ever sa one.

P.S: It seems you don't watch alot of animes...because alot of them actually DO have people of other races in them besides Japanese people! And also, Japanese people in real life DON'T have real colorful hair dumbass, they paint it like that. ANYBODY from ANY part of the world can do that, if they have the right supplies for it. Learn to educate yourself on stuff before blurting out things like this.

I wasn't gonna post this, because name-calling isn't allowed in our comments section. But I decided to post it as an example of what you all aren't going to be doing in my comments section anymore.

Please take this seriously, folks! NO NAME-CALLING, or I will delete you! And I'll have been kinder to you than I was to this hapless commenter, whose belief that people of color cannot internalize oppression will live on in the internets forever and ever! Cackle!

The Avatar: last air bender cartoon has such a great story and I was excited to see the story move from cartoons to "real life", meaning a motion picture. But it has to be that, a motion picture depiction reflecting the cartoon, including the cultures, tribes, and people. I have no issues with directors putting their "spin" on things, but then don't call it under the same name.

What I would like to see is the actual creators of Avatar getting involved in the process to put into "real life" their creations and vision. I'm sure when the creators of Avatar thought of the Aang, they didn't picture a little white boy, no, they decided to go with a buddist monk, honestly, if you save a buddist monk in real life, I sincerely doubt he would be white.

I might still see this movie, but in all honestly, I think a director like Ang Lee could make a better movie which would be honerable to the Avatar phenom.

I seem to be the only one so far concerned about this, everyone's too busy fretting about the racist issue on this instead of paying attention to the simple basics. M. Night Shyamalan has a tendency to make depressing, dark films. If you've watched the show you know that there's a certain amount, well actually a huge amount of humor in the movie and in everyone's characters. I'm really worried this movie is going to go from a light hearted dooms day, to a super serious everyone's got a stick up their ass film.

"It's just a movie" and " they just cast the best actors for the part".

omg what bull. the things is, it wouldn't be as big of a deal if hollywood didn't do it ALLLLLL THE TIME. especially that downright modern "black face" of a motion picture A Mighty Hear when they cast angelina jolie as half white, half black woman.



Uh, anonymous, I believe that part about the nail clippers is criticism of how Shyamalan is discriminating against Asians/Asian Americans while he himself is likely to be discriminated against at an airport due to the racial profiling that goes on in airports. 

Claire - awesome post - I totally agree and was pulling out my own hair when I read Shyamalan's response.  One things I recently talked about with my partner is that regardless of whether or not Shyamalan cast the "best actor for the job" or not, he never gave Asians/Asian Americans a chance as the casting call SPECIFICALLY CALLED FOR A WHITE ACTOR. 

Also, it's not about whether or not Asian/Asian Am folks get lead roles, it's the fact that all the villians/antagonists are asian and the protagonists are white.  End of story. Really, if you're doubting the racism here, please go over to and ACTUALLY READ THROUGH IT ALL before you come over here spouting some ignorance.

Also, Claire has the guts to post her name here, why so many anonymous dissentions?

@the kewwl guy I don't understand how you're not seeing the real culture the live action was taken from.  Just about everything in the animate series and the live action movie has real bases from Tibetan, Inuit, and East Asian cultures.  First let me explain about the Tibetan culture.  In the movie and animated series, Aang talks to the old man in the temple and the old man tells him about reincarnation of the avatar by selecting certain items, which is the same story about the Dali Lama.   Second, in the live action movie, Inuit people are seen in the beginning of the film living in igloos, but the actors who portrayed by Sokka, Katara, and their grandmother were the only non Native Americans while everyone in the background were, this doesn't seem fair to me.  Third, Fire Nation people are of East Asian ancestry.  You can tell what they are by their martial arts, the way they eat with chopsticks, and East Asian designs with their costumes and ships etc.  Dev Patel has Indian ancestry (Hindi), which is not the same as East Asian ancestry, they're related but different.  Sort of like the difference between Mediterraneans and Scandinavians.  Now, I'm not trying to point fingers and complain that the film has to be politically correct, however, there have been very few or hardly at all any American films that starred Asians or Native Americans as the heroes.  The only ones I see Asians as heroes are martial art films, and some period films, but that' about it.  I don't see any way this The Last Airbender film is fair, considering there have already been a lack of Asian representation as the protagonists in American movies.  If anyone is going to counter my argument, don't give me those exceptions, because they are very, very few.  What these filmmakers like Shyamalan and the Dragonball Evo director are doing are stealing.  They are taking someone else's cultural story all to make a profit, which isn't anything new, considering David Carradine in Kung Fu was really the help of Bruce Lee.  Instead of trying to represent Asians, these filmmakers like Shyamalan and the Dragonball Evo director (even though they're Asian) have made things worse.  All they've done was get people riled up and angry.  We should be supporting filmmakers like Justin Lin, Clint Eastwood, Fred Weintraub, filmmakers of Harold and Kumar, and Ninja Assassin, and not this The Last Airbender crap.  Lastly, I saw the movie, it was a waste of time.  3D viewing sucked, there was absolutely zero character development, they left out some key characters, the names were all wrong even though M Night tried to be more authentic with the names, but this doesn't make any sense considering the actor's ethnicities are not of those descents.  He totally screwed it up, and I really don't see how he can continue the franchise with his terrible filmmaking that he even mentions to Vulture magazine saying he didn't know how to adapt it to live action without being him.
Many have speculated that Noah Ringer had non-white background, and M. Night stated he thought Noah Ringer was mixed.  It has finally been confirmed that Noah IS mixed, he's part Native American.  (See: Entertainment Weekly)
heard that noah ringer was part-native american. i always thought he looked mixed and at first i felt he was part asian but when i saw him next to other asian people and other mixed asian people his features didn't quite look the same. then i thought about it more and with him being from texas it was pretty clear and obvious noah has a large portion of native american in him, just look at his high cheek bones. it's sad that there aren't more people of native descent represented in hollywood!
And I have to say I wasn't impressed by it. Honestly I saw it because of Dev Patel. I love him :D, he still has a way to go in Hollywood but I remember him from Skins (which I love) and Slumdog Millionaire (which I love), this movie didn't do his talent any justice. First off, he can't really do an American accent and he kept going back and forth between his natural British and a fake American one. Also he doesn't villian very well. He radiates too much good really to portray the stereotypical Asian roles that he's complained about, such as being a terrorists, or cab driver, etc. But I fear the "racist rant" may hurt him anyway in his career.
Personally, I disagree with this article. I'm not going to say "this is dumb", because that would be immature and everyone has the right to their own opinion. However, I don't think that directors specifically say to themselves "hm, I think I should make the bad guys Indian!" The movie is based on the show, and the director can interpret it however he wants. I don't understand most of the people who call movies "racist" because honestly, why would someone do that? In English classes, many people argue that teachers look for symbolism and details that the author probably didn't even mean to write in. I think it's the same way here. People are becoming TOO sensitive to racism, and looking for it in places where it isn't. Don't get me wrong; I have no problem saying that I hate racists, homophobes, sexists, people who hate other religions. It might seem slightly hypocritical, but I guess you could say I'm intolerant of those that can't be tolerant of others. I don't look for movies to exactly match the books or shows that they are based on. I know that they will be different, and I look forward to seeing new interpretations, the same way I look at music covers. I'm welcome to a discussion, as long as no one tells me "You're dumb" or some nonsense like that. A debate is fine; biting comments are not.