Is M. Night Shyamalan's Last Airbender Casting Racist?

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Jul 4, 2015, 6:10 PM EDT

M. Night Shyamalan can't catch a break, even with something as seemingly innocuous as a live-action film based on the popular animated Nickelodeon television series Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Shyamalan--the love-him-or-hate-him director of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, The Village, Lady in the Water and The Happening--has raised hackles by casting white actors as the main characters in his big-screen take on Avatar. The problem: Avatar, the TV show, featured a decidedly Asian world with predominantly Asian characters, including Aang, the title character, the Chosen One who must unite four warring worlds; Sokka, Aang's friend; and Katara, Sokka's sister.

Some livid fans are calling Shyamalan--who is writing, producing and directing the film for Paramount Pictures--racist for tapping Noah Ringer, a karate champion from Texas, as Aang, Twilight's Jackson Rathbone as Sokka, and Nicola Peltz of Deck the Halls as Katara. Also off-putting for those offended, pop music idol Jesse McCartney is reportedly in negotiations to play Aang's rival, Prince Zuko.

Loraine Sammy, a SCI FI Wire reader, wrote in to complain. "The Avatar: The Last Airbender animated series was one [saturated] in Asian and Inuit culture," she wrote. "To see the live-action main cast be completely turned over to white actors was a slap in the face for those loyal to the show and by extension, for racially diverse people. Even further anger was because the movie is likely to stay in an Asian/Inuit-influenced world, but populated by white people. This is Orientalism."

Sammy cited quotes from Nickelodeon executives and press releases attesting to the The Last Airbender's Asian bent. Marjorie Cohn, executive vice president, development and original programming, once stated, "Creators Bryan Konietzko and Mike DiMartino designed a fantastical Asian world with compelling characters and interesting creatures that will capture kids' imaginations and spirit."

A Nickelodeon press release said, "The unique attributes of the show--epic storytelling, Asian influence and film quality graphics--have generated one of the most passionate fan bases in Nickelodeon's history."

Elsewhere on the Internet, yoyoyo posted the following on lastairbenderfans.com: "M. Night is a sell-out. Way to ruin one of the best animated series ever."

On the same site, Avatar Browncoat wrote: "I'm not really pleased. First off, I'm not mad about any particular castmember's race, but a major theme of Avatar was tolerance of difference[s]. I think selecting an all-white cast does not hold true to this, or maybe my reaction does not [devil's advocate]. Also, it seems that in the case of selecting established actors, in regards to Katara and Zuko, in my opinion hurt the film. A brand new world is getting ready to be explored, [and] having an existing impression of an actor pulls you out of the escapism and [makes] it less believable. Lastly, I feel that if Jesse McCartney was cast as Zuko, that it would be done strictly for mainstream crossover reasons. I think the same is true for Sokka."

Over at mnightfans.com, David argued the following: "Sure the world of Avatar isn't our world. But here's something which pulls apart the argument of those who say casting white people for Katara and Sokka is OK. If there was a cartoon mythology based on African culture, and because of the magic, it was clearly not our world, does that mean when you make a movie about it that you'd hire white people to act on the subject matter, which is based on African culture? Or reverse that. If there was a cartoon mythology based on British culture and history, if you turned it into a movie, would you get Africans to play the main characters? I think the respectful thing to do is to hire people to play the characters who actually have something to do with the source culture the mythology is based on. If someone was going to make a movie about World War II, when the Japanese invaded Pearl Habor, can you imagine if they cast Japanese to play Americans? And Americans to play Japanese? That movie would be such a joke. It would make no sense. The same applies here."

Responding to that post on the same site, Brandon put the discussion in some perspective. He wrote: "Never thought I'd see Avatar compared to a movie about WWII . But really though, I've never seen the show nor do I know ANYTHING about it or the characters. I really could care less what ethnicity the characters are as long as they stay true to Night's vision of the adaptation. Not everything that is adapted has to be EXACTLY the same as the previous source. The book is very different than the movie, but the movie IMO is one of the most accomplished pieces of cinema in history. All that I'm saying is let the movie stand on its own, let the actors play their parts, go see it opening night, and THEN you can bitch about the talents' race. If the movie sucks, then it sucks. Not the end of the world guys!"

SCI FI Wire attempted to reach Shyamalan--who was born in India but raised in the United States--for comment, but did not receive a response to e-mails. Avatar: The Last Airbender is in preproduction now with an eye toward a July 2, 2010 opening.