Controversial Casting in The Last Airbender

Every year, Hollywood comes out with the usual set of summer blockbusters. This year’s summer movies – from Inception to Despicable Me – have generally been high quality, well-made films. Inception has already been tagged by some critics as a classic.

Then there was The Last Airbender, M. Night Shyamalan’s latest film, which may earn the title of year’s worst movie. From its storyboard inception (pardon the pun) to its sorry release, Airbender has been dragged in the wake of its controversial casting decisions.

Shyamalan has been criticized for his use of yellowface – casting white actors to play Asian lead characters. The movie was based on the TV series, Avatar, which was set in East Asia. The evidence for the latter claim is fairly strong. Take, for instance, the following six battles in alphabetized order: the Siege of Ba Sing Se, the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the Battle of Han Tui, the Hu Xin Provinces Campaign, the Battle of Jinyan, and the Battle of Kapyong. Some are from Avatar and some constitute real-life events in Asian history. It’s fairly difficult to tell which battles are real and which are fake. As it turns out, the first, third, and fourth events are from Avatar; the rest are actual historical battles.

The puzzle, then, is why Hollywood does things like this – why it, for instance, continues the practice of yellowface more than half-a-century after blackface was rightfully ended.

Simple old-fashioned racism does not fully answer the question. Shyamalan himself is Indian, yet cast an Indian actor as the villain. Although their pool of friends may lack diversity (in this they are not much different from most people), most people in the entertainment business are not racists in disguise. Most probably view segregation or Japanese internment as tremendous wrongs in American history. Yellowface is not a likely topic of conversation at a swanky cocktail party.

The answer, rather, seems to involve economics and the faceless force of the market. Take supply and demand. It would not be unreasonable to assume that the majority of Hollywood’s available labor pool is white. Becoming a Hollywood superstar is something that appeals to a very specific demographic, and that demographic is probably paler than America itself. There are, moreover, not many Asian-Americans in entertainment. Choosing a white actor to play a non-white role may simply be the easier path.

Hollywood’s writers and producers also have families to feed and goals of blockbuster hits, necessities and ambitions which sometimes require principles to be sacrificed. Shyamalan and others in the industry want to make productions that sell. It’s their job. Maybe they think – or have been trained to think – that a sitcom or movie without a white male lead would be less popular. Directors or producers, locked into the mold, set white male leads because they know Hollywood can sell white male characters. They make films that they think audiences will accept. Ironically, this probably makes audiences even less accepting of non-white, non-male leads because they’re so used to the traditional version. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle.

Yet despite all the economic rationalizations, yellowface does not seem entirely justified. Shyalaman’s movie, after all, bombed at the box office despite his best efforts to appeal to white America. Race-discriminating hiring does not need to exist. Americans have proved willing to watch movies with black male leads. The success of the Harold & Kumar series would seem to indicate that the trend applies to other minorities as well. Movies such as Despicable Me and District 9, both box office hits, have cast main characters who speak in accented English.

Finally, there is the international market to factor in. Rich Asian countries like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan constitute an increasingly important audience. And then there’s China. China allows only 20 Hollywood movies a year to be released; because of Shyalaman’s controversial casting, The Last Airbender will almost certainly not make the cut.

If American entertainment industry wakes up, they might realize that banning practices such as yellowface would probably boost sales – and that it’s the right thing to do.

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