I don’t think I would have been excited for The Last Airbender, the live-action film version of the animated TV series Avatar: The Last Airbender, even if I didn’t have serious concerns about the casting. I lost interest in M. Night Shyamalan‘s films after The Village. The initial teaser trailer didn’t get me excited and didn’t convey what made this concept special and different from any other martial arts movie out there. (My husband came up with the simultaneously brilliant and obvious idea that a live-action remake of the TV series opening should have been the teaser trailer.) On top of that, I just didn’t see the point. Avatar: The Last Airbender was already an amazing TV series. I didn’t – and still don’t – see what a live-action movie based on the TV series and covering the exact same material as the TV series in a much shorter time frame than the TV series could gope to accomplish. At best, it could have been a very faithful live-action reproduction of the TV show’s first season, something I have little interest in seeing. The point seems almost moot now, since the vast majority of critics have concluded that the movie is not very good.
But, as you almost certainly know by now, there is a casting controversy, centered around the fact that most of the main characters in a film based on a show steeped in Asian culture are played by Caucasian actors. It’s this fact that has dropped my attitude towards the film from “maybe I’ll rent it or watch it on cable” to “not interested at all.” I find this decision off-putting, disrespectful to the source material, and blatantly racist. Shyamalan, Paramount Pictures, and the film’s other defenders have been twisting themselves into knots trying to argue that this isn’t a whitewash. That if you take into account the secondary and background characters, the casting is actually quite diverse. That the show was set in a fantasy world where neither Europe nor Asia exist. That we live in a post-racial society and should be open to “colorblind casting” – a weaselly little term supposedly meaning that the film’s casting took only the skill of the actors into account and not the ethnicity or skin tone of the character in the source material, but that I have only heard applied to projects where – through some amazing coincidence – the “best actors for the job” all turn out to be White when the original characters were not. None of these arguments speak louder to me than do screenshots of Katara and Sokka – members of the Inuit-like Southern Water Tribe – compared with their live-action counterparts or Paramount’s own casting call for young actors to play Aang, specifying that they are looking for kids who are “Caucasian or any other ethnicity”.
My decision not to see this movie was greatly influenced by an essay on the subject by talented comics creator and fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender Derek Kirk Kim. It’s an excellent blend of point-by-point answer to all of the defenses of the film’s casting as well as a personal response to the issues it raises. Since then, I’ve read other pieces on the issue, including “FacePainting” – which puts the controversy into historical context and includes a lot of pictures comparing the animated characters to their live-action counterparts, and this comic on the subject by Gene Luen Yang.
So where do you stand? Has the casting controversy sapped your desire to see the film too? Are you still going to check it out, despite your qualms about the changes made? Have you seen it already? Could you care less about the race of the actors? Whatever your opinion, and whether you agree or disagree with mine, I want to hear it.