M Night Shyamalan’s new movie, The Last Airbender, is not getting much praise from critics or from audiences. As of this writing, it’s averaging 8% on Rotten Tomatoes, 20/100 on Metacritic, and a 4.7/10 user rating on IMDB. Those are seriously awful notices; even Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen had ratings of 20%, 35/100 and 6/10 respectively. GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra scored 35%, 32 and 5.8. Even Sex & The City 2 fared better.
The movie will probably perform well at the box office this weekend, even up against the titan of a new Twilight movie. It should even make its money back in the long run, and I wouldn’t completely rule out the possibility of sequels. Even so, Last Airbender will be hailed as one of cinema’s great critical turkeys, alongside Oliver Stone’s Alexander (15%/39/5.4), Halle Berry’s Catwoman (10%/27/3.2%), and John Travolta’s Battlefield Earth (still worse than Airbender, at 3%/9/2.3).
This critical floppage is The Last Airbender’s second claim to infamy. I talked about its first back in one of my first posts to this blog back in January of last year. The Last Airbender is based on the cartoon series Avatar: The Last Airbender, set in a fantasy world that draws heavily on Asian culture. None of the characters in the series are Caucasian, but all of the actors picked to play the four central roles were Caucasian. Fans were inevitably outraged, and they protested, and one of those four key roles - that of the main villain - was re-cast with an Anglo-Indian actor. This did little to quell the protests.
I don’t know to what extent the movie’s critical drubbing is informed by disgust at the cast whitewashing - it’s mentioned in many reviews, but the movie seems to struggle under a weight of other problems, including soulless performances and forced 3-D. At the very least, I suspect the race controversy preconditioned critics to be unsympathetic to the movie’s flaws, and served to ensure that many of the cartoon’s fans - who ought to be the movie’s greatest cheerleaders - would be its loudest opponents. This video from ReelzChannel shows people dressed as characters from the cartoon lining up to say that the movie “sucked”. (Fans can be notoriously critical of adaptations of their favourite works during production, but they usually come around when they actually see the movie, if it has any redeeming qualities at all.)
Shyamalan responded to the race controversy in an interview published at IndieMoviesOnline, opening with a familiar gambit; “As an Asian-American, it bothers me when people take all of their passion and rightful indignation about the subject and then misplace it.”
This is the minority author as the sole arbiter of minority identity. Last time we heard that response, it was from Torchwood writer Russell T Davies on the subject of Ianto’s death on that show, and that time it was even less elegantly expressed; “We’re talking about issues in my entire life here, not just one small television program. … [Critics] should simply grow up, do some research, and stop riding on a bandwagon that they actually don’t know anything about.”
Never mind that critics of Davies were often gay, and critics of Shyamalan have often been Asian; because Davies is gay and Shyamalan is of Asian-American, it is the audience’s ‘misunderstanding’ that’s to blame, and no reflection on the author or director’s insensitivity.
Shyamalan’s justifications don’t improve thereafter. He insists that the villainous character recast from white to brown is “the actual hero of the series”. Last time I wrote about Avatar: The Last Airbender, I admitted that I hadn’t seen the show. Now I have, and I loved it - I would say it is easily one of the best TV shows of the ’00s - and unless Shyamalan has changed the story radically, I know which roles the characters play.
When he says, “They immediately assume that everyone with dark skin is a villain. That was an incredibly racist assumption which as it turns out is completely incorrect”, he’s being disingenuous. Fans of the show know which characters are the villains, and it happens that all the major villains in the movie are dark-skinned, though all the dark-skinned characters are not villains. Some of the villains do go on journeys towards heroism, and ultimately commit some of the most heroic acts in the story, but they can’t steal the title of ‘hero’ from the guy that kids know is the hero; the one whose role is to save the world.
The second justification? “What happened was, Noah Ringer walked in the door – and there was no other human being on the planet that could play Aang except for this kid.” Ringer is the white actor picked to play the Tibetan-looking lead character. Judging by reviews, there are in fact other actors in the world who could have played Aang at least as well. Shyamalan’s hyperbole is not a convincing defence.
Third justification: There are four tribes in the series. Shyamalan cast three of them as non-Caucasian and one as Caucasian, so his world is one-quarter Caucasian, which he considers very fair and balanced. Of course, one of those tribes is extinct in the series, so his world is really one-third Caucasian. Eithier way, the real world is less than one-fifth Caucasian, so Shyamalan gave white folks an upgrade. More crucially, his defence here is that he cast the background characters as non-Caucasian. As a response to the criticism that he made the three heroic leads Caucasian, it’s hopeless. Aang should appear Asian; Katana and Sokka (below) should appear Inuit. All three are played by white Americans.
Shyamalan also says, “The Last Airbender is the most culturally diverse movie series of all time.” Well, that’s nonsense; I doubt there’s an ethnicity you can name that James Bond hasn’t run through a crowd of.
Fourth: “The art form of Anime in and of itself is what’s causing the confusion.” Here, Shyamalan has a point, sort of. Avatar isn’t anime, but it is influenced by Japanese animation, and the simplicity of character design in animation - and in line drawing in general - does allow people to see themselves in characters regardless of ethnicity. They can say that a character is ‘just like me’, and pretend to be him or her in the playground.
Movies don’t allow for that sort of ambiguity, so Shyamalan had to pick a side - and he picked white kids. This was a movie that kids from non-white ethnicities rightly thought they would be able to own, to identify with without having to reach for it, and Shyamalan chose to take that gift away from them and give it to the white kids. Non-white kids have long had to look for heroes they can identify with regardless of skin colour, because they’re not being served and they don’t have a choice. White kids, it seems, will never be asked to stretch themselves in that way.
Shyamalan also says, “If there’s an issue with why Anime does not put particularly specific Asian features from the PC Asian types that people think should be there … take it up with Anime animators. It has nothing to do with me.”
This is not right at all, but it’s a common enough trap, and one that I’ve fallen into myself in the past, before learning more about anime and manga. Because drawings are easy to identify with, we tend to see the familiar elements and ignore the unfamiliar ones. Many people have said that the lead character, Aang, ‘looks white’. His skin is pale and his eyes are wide.
Aang does not ‘look white’ if you’re Asian. Anime characters do not look Caucasian if you’re Asian, unless they’re meant to be (in which case they’ll probably have big ugly noses, because that’s how Caucasians are often viewed by Asians).
It’s ignorance and presumption to say, ‘if I can see my race in this character, this character can only be my race’. This video brilliantly (but rather hurriedly) skewers that presumption by pointing out exactly how Anime characters look Asian if you’re Asian. Anime characters have rounded Asian faces and Asian bone structure; their round eyes are an animation convention that doesn’t signify any particular race; and plenty of Asian people are pale-skinned.
Japan does prize pale skin as an aesthetic ideal, but that has nothing to do with aspiring towards a Caucasian look, any moreso than white people getting tans is due to ethnic insecurity in the West. Sailor Moon is not white. Ryu from Street Fighter is not white. Aang is not white.
But Aang is also not Tibetan. None of the characters in Avatar: The Last Airbender are actually Asian, or Indian, or Inuit. Avatar is set in a fantasy world; the characters could look like any ethnicity, so why shouldn’t they be white?
This is the most willfully pig-headed justification anyone could offer for the movie’s casting, and Shyamalan is wise enough not to lean on it, but others have made the case. The setting of the series is explicitly inspired by Asian (and Inuit and Mesoamerican) cultures, from buildings to clothing to calligraphy to iconography to hairstyles to weapons to fighting styles to codes of conduct to matters of faith. This isn’t a secret, and it isn’t disputed, so you would need to make a compelling case to explain why the culture should be heavily Asian but the people should not be. That case has not been made.
The case against making that change is simple; Why take heroes away from minority kids in the West who don’t have a lot of heroes in Western culture that they can aspire to? Why make that change at all? There isn’t even a sound business explanation, as none of the actors cast have any box office cachet. The business argument may simply be that audiences are inherently racist, but that will surprise the makers of the hugely successful new Karate Kid movie, with its black and Chinese leads.
It’s true that sometimes characters in fiction are changed from Caucasian to another race, and few people complain, but the clear difference is between adding to the diversity of our entertainment culture, and taking away from it. Caucasians have little cause to protest the former; non-Caucasians have good cause to agonise over the latter. That pained reaction is exactly what we’ve seen from the whitewashing of The Last Airbender, and the outrage is entirely merited.
A lot of fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender will be celebrating the movie’s critical excoriation this weekend, and praying that it under-performs at the box office. Even if the movie meets expectations, the message has been sent that fans and minority groups will not take this sort of thing quietly, and movie studios will do well to show more sensitivity in future. Hopefully the studios and the filmmakers will listen. More likely, they’ll just keep making poor justifications.