Director M. Night Shyamalan's upcoming movie, The Last Airbender (based on the animated TV series Avatar: The Last Airbender), has been a focus of controversy ever since its cast was announced, with Shyamalan being accused of racism in some quarters for casting Caucasian actors as the heroes in what were originally Asian roles while leaving the story's villains as Asians.
Shyamalan addresses that question in an interview posted at Indie Movies Online with a lengthy answer that starts out in very strange fashion:
"Well, you caught me. I'm the face of racism. I'm always surprised at the level of misunderstanding, the sensitivities that exist. As an Asian-American, it bothers me when people take all of their passion and rightful indignation about the subject and then misplace it. Here's the reality: first of all, the Uncle Iroh character is the Yoda character in the movie, and it would be like saying that Yoda was a villain. So he's Persian."
Shyamalan then adds:
"And Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire) is the actual hero of the series, and he's Indian, OK? The whole point of the movie is that there isn't any bad or good. The irony is that I'm playing on the exact prejudices that the people who are claiming I'm racist are doing. 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."
The director then gives a detailed breakdown of how he determined the ethnicity of each of the story's Four Nations, giving the Air nomads a mixed background, making the Fire Nation darker, defining the Earth kingdom as being primarily East Asian and having the Water tribe end up European/Caucasian.
Calling Airbender the "most culturally diverse movie series of all time," Shyamalan later sounds an angrier tone as he says,
"You're coming at me, the one Asian filmmaker who has the right to cast anybody I want, and I'm casting this entire movie in this color blind way where everyone is represented. I even had one section of the Earth kingdom as African American, which obviously isn't in the show, but I wanted to represent them, too!"
Shyamalan goes on quite a bit more, claiming he fought for the correct pronunciation of names in the movie and saying that the original anime artwork itself is racially ambiguous, among other things. What seems clear that he's either tired of talking about this or all the talk itself has made him particularly sensitive to these allegations.
The Last Airbender is a huge risk for the filmmaker. He's coming off two box-office flops (Lady in the Water and The Happening) and has gotten Paramount to cough up a huge amount of money—$280 million in production and marketing costs, according to the Los Angeles Times—for a big-screen, 3-D adaptation of an animated series for children. We're sure that the last thing he wants to hear right now is accusations of racism.
What do you think? Is The Last Airbender racially insensitive? Or are its critics overly sensitive?