John Wayne, as Genghis Khan in 1956’s The Conqueror. Mickey Rooney, in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. David Carradine, as Kwai Chang Caine in the hit seventies television series Kung Fu. It’s no secret that since Hollywood started putting images on film, white people have dominated mainstream movie screens – frequently by throwing on some make-up and playing the roles of Asian characters, most often in disastrously caricatured and offensive ways. It’s also pretty apparent that equality of representation has been slow in coming: see 2007’s Grindhouse, where Nicholas Cage cameos as evil criminal genius Dr. Fu Manchu, just the latest in a long line of white actors to take the already-racist part.
But where “yellowface” has at least trailed off from its heyday, the problem of white characters co-opting non-white roles continues in full force: recently we’ve seen a spate of big-budget movie adaptations that have actively erased or are currently erasing the heroes of colour of the original sources. Between 2008’s 21, recent casting for movies like Akira, Prince of Persia, and the Twilight saga (which has cast non-Native actors to play characters of the Quileute tribe), and director M. Night Shyamalan’s upcoming movie The Last Airbender, an adaptation of critically-acclaimed cartoon Avatar, roles for non-white lead characters have consistently gone to white actors, wasting strong opportunities to introduce more diversity into movie theatres. What was once blatant yellowface has transitioned into a slightly more subtle form of racist casting techniques: whitewashing original sources and their characters and culture to make adaptations with white actors. In the process, the rhetoric of movie and television production companies has changed in a generally unsuccessful attempt to address modern concerns about the removal of people of colour and their stories from popular media. An unbelievably backward relic of old Hollywood, discrimination in movie casting perpetuates inequities in representation.
Kevin Spacey’s 2008 film 21 is a textbook example of modern whitewashing. Based on Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions, a book by Ben Mezrich that details (and embellishes) the real-life exploits of a team of mostly-MIT students that won an enormous sum of money in casinos by counting cards and just-barely-legal blackjack techniques, 21 was a kind of love affair between heist film and math. Involving flashy casinos, a great deal of intricate planning, and a little bit of subterfuge, it was a story certainly ripe for movie adaptation. However, in the process of transitioning from real-life to movie screen, the roles of the majority Asian-American group – including characters based on key players like John Chang, Jeff Ma, and Mike Aponte – were given to white actors, including Spacey himself (who also served as a producer), Kate Bosworth, and relative newcomer Jim Sturgess. While Aaron Yoo and Liza Lapira’s roles ended up as largely bit parts, the (also entirely invented) romance between Bosworth and Sturgess and the tension between Sturgess and mentor Spacey took centre stage.
The motivation behind this elimination of non-white leads does not appear to be active hatred of Asian Americans, but rather concerns about marketability that mask beliefs in widespread racism. The Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) reported on their web site: “After the ‘white-washing’ issue was raised on Entertainment Weekly’s web site,  producer Dana Brunetti wrote: “Believe me, I would have LOVED to cast Asians in the lead roles, but the truth is, we didn’t have access to any bankable Asian-American actors that we wanted.” This argument seems flawed: while Stacey and Bosworth are fairly well-known, Jim Sturgess’s IMDB resumé seems to boast mostly a few TV spots and the lead as Jude in the flop Across the Universe. The decision to cast the relatively unknown Sturgess rather than, say, John Cho (who excelled in this summer’s hit Star Trek and the Harold and Kumar films) or television stars Daniel Dae Kim (Lost), Masi Oka or James Kyson Lee (Heroes), or any of a multitude of other stars seems to undermine Brunetti’s claim that there were no bankable Asian-American actors available. 21 even already had Aaron Yoo, who starred in American Pastime and had a large role in 2007’s Disturbia, who was clearly available, and who could have excelled as a lead rather than a supporting role as sidekick. Furthermore, with the majority of mainstream movies featuring white leads, and actual non-white roles in adaptations given to white stars, there’s little opportunity for a smaller-name Asian-American actors to become “bankable.” While successes like Pixar’s Up, with its chubby Asian-American hero, and mostly-Asian cast films like Better Luck Tomorrow and Memoirs of a Geisha should significantly dispel myths about the marketability of movies with Asian leads, they clearly persist in casting rooms, leading to further whitewashing. Though significant discussion has also arisen over whether it would, in fact, be better to cast an Asian-American actor of one nationality to play a character of a different nationality (a Chinese-American actor to play a Japanese or Korean character, for example), the substitution of more white characters seems like a disastrous solution.
The persistence of whitewashing becomes even more apparent when an original fictional source offers up such a strong, careful representation of non-white characters and cultures. Avatar: the Last Airbender was a U.S.-created Nickelodeon show, originally aimed at six to 11-year-old kids, whose fan base grew wider as it proved both original and respectful of the cultures it depicted. Its four central protagonists, Aang, Sokka, Katara, and Toph Bei Fong, must restore balance to the four nations of the world by defeating the imperialistic Fire Nation. For three seasons, as they travelled, they revealed a world that white creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko filled with elements drawn from ancient Asian, rather than European, influences. In one episode, for example, the heroes encounter and briefly live in a society where the residents wear traditional, accurately-drawn Korean hanboks. Though, problematically, Avatar used white voice actors for all of the main roles, except Filipino-American actor Dante Basco as Zuko and the late Japanese-American actor Mako as Uncle Iroh, the television show’s content and representations were highly praised.
Employing Edwin Zane, former vice president of MANAA, as a cultural consultant, Avatar and its creators took careful steps to ensure a respectful and diverse representation of its various cultures and societies. As Derek Kirk Kim, Korean-American author of Eisner-winning graphic novel Same Difference and Other Stories, wrote on his blog (derekkirkkim.blogspot.com), “Everything from the costume designs, to the written language, to the landscapes, to martial arts, to philosophy, to spirituality, to eating utensils! – it’s all an evocative, but thinly veiled, re-imagining of ancient Asia.” Instead of including fake, generic “Asian-looking” gibberish, Avatar’s creators worked with Professor Siu-Leung Lee to include classical Chinese calligraphy; instead of vague punches and kicks cribbed from popular movies, they worked with martial arts consultant Sifu Kisu to give each nation a real-world style of Chinese martial arts, including Ba Gua, Hung Ga, Northern Shaolin, Tai Chi, and Chu Gar Southern Praying Mantis style. With a particular emphasis on Shaolin/Tibetan Buddhist and Siberian Yupik/Inuit ethnic peoples and culture, Avatar created heroes of colour in a world unquestionably non-European. Hailed by critics and receiving multiple Emmy nominations, Avatar was a success in both mainstream and commercial popularity and cultural verisimilitude.
Many of Avatar’s longtime fans, therefore, were thrilled at the prospect of a live-action movie, under the name The Last Airbender, to be directed by M. Night Shyamalan of The Sixth Sense and Signs. As details leaked regarding casting for the four main leads, however, an immediate outcry arose: why were Aang, Sokka, Katara, and Zuko – nearly all the major roles, and all marked as characters of colour by their features, hair styles, clothing, and surroundings – to be played by four Caucasian actors? Kim described why he found these casting decisions particularly painful: “The Last Airbender has the potential to be something like Star Wars – something with lasting value that could give new heroes to your average household in America. And to have something for Asian-American kids, and ethnic kids in general, to look up to. To let them know heroes can also look like them and speak fluent English like them. I think it could give immeasurable confidence and pride to these under-represented kids.” Instead, The Last Airbender will reinforce what Guy Aoki, Founding President of MANAA, characterized in a second open letter to Paramount as a “glass ceiling blocking off Asian-American actors from playing lead protagonists.
Hearing these casting rumours, many fans of the series, as well as MANAA and the East West Players, a prominent Asian-American theatre organization, began to decry the whitewashing, calling out Paramount for this decision. A letter-writing and protest campaign sprung up quickly, marshaled by fans who organized around web communities like aang-aint-white.livejournal.com and racebending.com – the latter of which has gone on to protest other negative representations, like the hate crime scene in recent film The Goods. Commentary on the casting was generally insightful; as fans pointed out, not only will The Last Airbender be an opportunity lost for non-white heroes, it will actively reinforce racist divisions. One fan, who blogs under the name anna and watched the show with her three Asian-American nephews, explained on her blog at ciderpress.livejournal.com, “My nephews will either have to succumb to it or untangle it later in life but they are already being cued to believe, to know that non-white people/PoC [people of colour] have no place as active protagonists in mainstream culture, cultural content, or society. They are being taught that culture, society, and the audience really means white culture, white society, and white audience.” While her nephews and other non-white audience members are generally expected, in their average trip to the movie theatre, to be able to identify with white heroes, Paramount appears to believe that an insufficient portion of their audience would be able to relate to non-white leads, rationalizing their whitewashing of the central characters for what appear to be profitability concerns.
Anna continued, distinguishing a genuine attempt at cultural adaptation from The Last Airbender’s problematic attitude: “The difference is the filmmaker/writer/content maker’s relationship with the source; whether it is one of respect and genuine exploration of cultural themes…or whether the remade content is completely severed from the original source, context, and meaning removed, whitewashed and the ‘cool’ bits left as an exotic husk to become a product of white cultural homogenization.”
The Last Airbender will feature three more white leads, stripping the original source of its potential to introduce diversity into mainstream movie theaters. With so few roles already written for non-white actors, filling these opportunities with more white actors is a significant loss. After fans wrote in to Paramount saying as much, Jesse McCartney, the white actor playing central villain Zuko of the Fire Nation, dropped out citing scheduling problems and was replaced by Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire. The other main villains of the destructive Fire Nation were then cast as other non-white actors, including Cliff Curtis, of New Zealand Maori descent, and Indian-born actor and Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi. However, the new casting ensured that the movie would feature three white leads, uniting the world and saving the Earth Nation (which Paramount explains in a letter in response to MANAA to be comprised of “Asian, East Asian, and African characters”) in order to defeat the evil and Fire Nation, as represented by and comprised of only non-white main characters. Aoki explained, “Re-casting the sole villainous lead with an actor of colour is a concession that results in three heroic nations going to war against an evil nation of colour.” The dynamic here is possibly even more troubling than four white leads: pitting a coalition of brave white heroes against non-white villains presents as an obvious case of the menacing non-white Evil Other, while the trope of white characters swooping in to redeem a nation of non-white characters with virtually no agency or autonomy is a tired, colonialist one.
Members of the production cast and crew have demonstrated a cluelessness that indicates a general lack of concern for these issues. The casting sheet shows that the four main protagonists – all non-white in the television show – were described to potential actors as “Caucasian or any other ethnicity.” Not only is this casting description distinctly slanted toward Caucasian actors (compare with “All ethnicities” – which technically means the same group of people but has a very different actual meaning), it reinforces “Caucasian” as the default, the normal, the ideal. Lisa Zhu, having attended an extras casting call, reported in the Daily Pennsylvanian that casting director Deedee Rickets advised prospective extras “to dress in traditional cultural ethnic attire.… If you’re Korean, wear a kimono” – confusing kimonos and hanboks, essentially melding two distinct cultures together – and said, “It doesn’t mean you’re at a disadvantage if you didn’t come in a big African thing. But guys, even if you came with a scarf today, put it over your head so you’ll look like a Ukrainian villager or whatever.” Further, when asked to comment on the whitewashing controversy by MTV.com, Twilight actor Jackson Rathbone, playing Sokka, said “I think it’s one of those things where I pull my hair up, shave the sides, and I definitely need a tan.… It’s one of those things where, hopefully, the audience will suspend disbelief a little bit.”
Even the accurate calligraphy of the show will reportedly be cut; Lee stated on San Francisco’s 94.1 KPFA radio in July that he would not be working on the movie production as a cultural consultant, and said that the Chinese calligraphy would be replaced with gibberish – as if the two are indistinguishable or in any way equal. Cliff Curtis, playing evil Fire Nation leader Ozai, also spoke to Sci Fi Wire about his movie costume: “It’s sort of like a cross between Roman and kind of Greek, [a] gold, Roman and Greek military/samurai military [uniform]. It’s really, really beautiful.” Replacing the Fire Nation’s costumes on the television show, which incorporate traditional Chinese elements, with costumes of European ancestry – no matter how beautiful – loses sight of the thoroughly ancient Asian setting that made Avatar almost unique in U.S.-created television. Having largely stripped the original universe of its non-white heroic characters, its non-white writing and language, and its non-white clothing and costumes, The Last Airbender has already been indisputably whitewashed.
anna recalled, in a blog post in response to the initial casting news, “During our early Christmas dinner this weekend, the oldest of the nephews, who is 13, brought up the subject of the incredibly white child actors that had been picked for the film version. The three of them were confused and disappointed but unable to articulate exactly why. Then the youngest, all of 7 years old, asked me whether this meant that he couldn’t be Aang when he played Avatar with his friends from now on.” The erasure of non-white characters from big-budget adaptations is not a passive problem or a victimless mistake: it is an active decision by major production companies that, considering how many movies the average North American sees in a year, significantly frames the way we think. Paramount should not be financially rewarded for apparently attempting to ensure that the only heroes we see are white ones.
The Last Airbender is still in production. For more information on the continuing protests, updates can be found at aang-aint-white.livejournal.com and racebending.com.