MANAA's Response to Letter from Paramount on The Last Airbender
April 9, 2009
Dear Producers of The Last Airbender;
Thank you for your letter. Because it raises important questions regarding your perceptions of diversity, we are again requesting a meeting to discuss the casting and depiction of cultures in the movie (and your future projects) so this film can truly be the success we all want. We are interested, for instance, in how your ideal of including people from “all corners of the globe” correlates with your casting policies. Specifically seeking out white actors and casting four white leads for what M. Night Shymalan admitted was an “Asian fantasy world” does not celebrate ethnic diversity. Re-casting the sole villainous lead with an actor of color is a concession that results in three heroic nations going to war against an evil nation of color.
After dealing with Hollywood studios for the past 17 years, we are more than familiar with the justifications used to cast white actors instead of actors of color. Other film productions have previously used the same pretexts, touting diversity through the casting of supporting roles--but only after first discriminating in casting the lead roles.
These are the points MANAA and others—including East West Players and a petition of industry professionals— listed as specific concerns:
· The outdated and discriminatory practice of casting white actors to depict Asian characters.
· Casting calls indicating a preference for white actors for leads; people of color for extras.
· Culturally ignorant language used by members of the production (e.g. DeeDee Rickets: “If you’re a Korean, wear a kimono” to the casting call).
· The implications of featuring a villainous nation with dark-skinned, partly South Asian actors and a heroic nation led by white heroes who liberate the “Asian and African” nation.
· Cultural appropriation of Pacific Rim cultures and the franchise's core Asian concepts, despite a glass ceiling blocking off Asian American actors from playing lead protagonists.
Listing the ethnic composition of five cast members does not directly address these outstanding issues and only serves to obscure the fact that you are making rationalizations to white-wash this project hoping to bring in more viewers. The conventional wisdom in Hollywood is that in order for fantasy/science fiction/superhero movies to become successful, they must first pass muster with fans of the original source material. You are clearly not passing that bar.
MANAA is a strong supporter of studios’ efforts to increase diversity, but it is absurd to use that as an excuse to make a project more white and to say the original concept wasn’t diverse enough when the cultures of the four Asian nations clearly were.
Conversely, does this mean that in the future, you’ll take a story featuring only white people but make a movie with the top four stars all initially being persons of color?
How can you, in good faith, say you are trying to honor the integrity of the television series by taking a story written with Asian themes, settings, characters, and populating it with white leads—especially when there are so few Asian roles available in Hollywood? You are continuing a generations-long practice of racial discrimination where the opportunity for actors of color to be heroes for a change is taken away (this time in the name of “diversity.”).
Fortunately, one of your rivals, Disney/Pixar, was enlightened enough to create an Asian American hero in next month’s film Up. They obviously don’t believe that having Asian faces as leads will turn off the majority of their potential audience. In fact, they are probably counting on the unique look of that hero (Asian American boy who’s overweight) to interest ticket buyers.
If your production values the support of the thousands of fans and members of the public disturbed by the casting of The Last Airbender adaptation, we urge you to address their concerns more honestly. Again, we are requesting to meet as soon as possible to discuss the casting and depiction of cultures in the movie so that the film can be a success. We look forward to hearing from you sometime next week.
Founding President, MANAA