Saturday, April 18, 2009

More on Avatar

We sent our letter about the casting of the Avatar film to Paramount in early February, and we received this response on March 25:

March 25, 2009

Mr. Guy Aoki
Media Action Network For Asian Americans
P.O. Box 11105
Burbank, CA 91510

Dear Mr. Aoki,

Thank you for your letter and interest in our film.

As devoted fans of the original series, our goal is to create a film that will not only live up to the expectations of the television series’ fan base, but also expand it to a world-wide audience in ways that only a full-length motion picture can offer.

From the outset of the creative process, the Producers and the Director have envisioned embodying the Airbender universe with a large and ethnically diverse cast that represents many different heritages and cultures from all corners of the globe.

The Director’s vision for this film is one of world, influenced and inspired by the Asian undertones of the series, and that is both diverse and inclusive in the make up of the four nations represented in the film’s cinematic world.

Early casting includes an Indian actor, born in Mumbai and raised in the UK and the US; a Persian actor born in Tehran and raised in the UK, Switzerland and the US; a Maori actor born and raised in New Zealand; a Korean-American actor, born and raised in Chicago; an American actress of Italian, French and Mexican heritage; among several others of varied nationalities from around the world.

The four nations represented in the film reflect not one community, but the world’s citizens. These societies will be cast from a diversity of all races and cultures.

In particular, the Earth Kingdom will be cast with Asian, East Asian and Africans.

With this global perspective in mind, we believe we can best honor the true themes, ethos and fantastical nature of the Airbender stories and best capture the spirit and scale of the series to appeal to its worldwide fans.

Our challenge and commitment to our film audience is to harness all the elements that have made the series the incredible phenomenon it is.

We look forward to introducing you to THE LAST AIRBENDER next summer.


The Producers


MANAA responded with this letter:

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.


Guy Aoki

Founding President, MANAA

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