(This is the second of two posts dealing with the question of whether The Last Airbender is discriminatory.)
M. Night Shyamalan no doubt neither wanted nor needed yet another headache, but the director—who could use a hit and/or a critically embraced move—stepped in it again with The Last Airbender. The upcoming film could be a box-office behemoth, and if the trailer is fully representative of the whole it just may earn Shyamalan reviews on a par with his best work, The Sixth Sense. Unfortunately, the stormclouds that formed early on in preproduction now threaten to rain on the director's parade.
The problem? Shyamalan chose Caucasian actors to play all the major characters, characters presented as Asian or Inuit in previous iterations of Avatar: The Last Airbender. There were accusations of whitewashing and "racebending," calls for boycotts and the like. Even when Jesse McCartney fell out of the project, people protested that his replacement—Slumdog Millionaire's Dev Patel—hardly solved the matter, as he was playing Zuko, a villain, an antagonist, meaning there were still no Asian or Inuit actors involved as protagonists.
To some observers, this is all old news. Other projects—Dragonball Z, 30 Days of Night and even the Broadway production of Miss Saigon quickly come to mind—have ignored or downplayed the ethnicity of the characters as depicted in their source materials. But could it be that Shyamalan is merely a whipping boy here? It might be the case for several reasons: in part for not casting Asian and Inuit actors; in part because The Last Airbender is such a well-known and commercial property and thus an important—and missed—opportunity; and in part because so many people dislike Shyamalan and A) hope to see him fail and B) are thrilled to see him embroiled in controversy.
For his part, Shyamalan told io9 that the casting fell into place organically, with one piece of casting affecting the next and the one after that. He talked at length about the subject, but the core of his thinking boiled down to his opening statement on the issue: "Here's the thing," he said. "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 chess game.'"
Shaun Toub, an Iranian-born actor who plays Zuko's uncle, told the Los Angeles Times that Shyamalan was damned if he did and damned if he didn't. "If they would have put all Asians in a certain nation, I think then there would be people who come out and said, 'Well, now you're stereotyping, saying that anything that has to do with martial arts has to do with Asians and chop suey and all that," Toub said. "So it's nice to mix it up and just do the unexpected."
So was it Shyamalan's responsibility to cast Asian and Inuit actors in The Last Airbender? It would have been nice. It might have been potentially groundbreaking. The Asian and Inuit communities would have been eternally grateful. But was it truly Shyamalan's duty to do what no one else has been willing or able to do?
He says no.
What do you think?