Into the Next Stage: “The Last Airbender” — The Last Straw

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In this publicity image released by Paramount Pictures, Noah Ringer plays Aang in a scene from, "The Last Airbender". (Photos courtesy of Paramount Pictures, Industrial Light & Magic)

By GUY AOKI

Rafu Columnist

Before this week, critics of the film version of “The Last Airbender” didn’t  have a script or any secret footage to analyze. All they knew was that a popular television series about a fantasy world inhabited by only Asian and Inuit people was going to star three white actors and Asian Indian Dev Patel was going to portray the evil Zuko. When Paramount shot back in the press that there were 23 speaking roles including parts for actors of Korean, Japanese, and Indian descent, we assumed that only meant token lines for ethnic characters living in the nations of those white heroes. But even we overestimated how much that would be.

This Monday, Paramount President Adam Goodman finally made good on his word to me that he would show us a pre-screening of this controversial project. Back in November, he promised it wouldn’t come as late as two weeks before opening night. Well, it came three days before today’s premiere. Supposedly because director M. Night Shyamalan was still putting on finishing touches that late in the game — even when he’d already begun the 3D conversion process which supposedly takes at least eight weeks to complete. And we were supposedly the first to see the film ahead of movie critics.

Well, it was worse than I expected. Everything we’d been saying about this project is even more true. It took almost half an hour for the first non-Asian bad guy to say anything, and it was mostly a few lines about how the Fire Nation came through and subjugated the Earth Nation.

Since two of the heroes were Katara (sister) and Sokka (brother), I  presumed some token Asian people in their Water Nation would speak to them. But it was laughable that when they went back to their village, all the extras were Asian, but the only person who spoke was their grandmother, who, of course, is white!

Dev Patel plays Prince Zuko in a scene from "The Last Airbender."

I’m shocked at how little dialogue was given to any Asian person who wasn’t part of the oppressive Fire Nation. Furthermore, an Asian man later appears to befriend Aang and tell him what happened to his Air Nation during his 100 year absence … but he ends up betraying him! All in all, except for a few lines from the Earth Nation villagers, all the Asian/brown people are villains. Every single white person is good.

And of course, white paternalism rears its familiar, annoying head. When he realizes how much the Fire Nation has subjugated the Earth Nation, Aang has to tell these Asian people to get with it and use their earth powers against the invaders. Finally, they spring to life.

“Thank you, white boy! Without you, we would still be a bunch of good-for-nothing couch potatoes!”

And when, after a climactic battle, everyone bows before Aang and Katara pretty much says she—and they—want him to be their god? Oh, don’t get me started…And let’s not forget that scene of the Asian woman dutifully giving that man a foot massage … I’m serious!

This is kind of a spoiler: Supporters of the movie said, “What are you crying about? If you know anything about the cartoon, Zuko (Dev Patel) ultimately becomes a good guy.”  Well, even by the end of this film, he does not.

Yet the director claimed, “Ultimately, this movie, and then the three  movies, will be the most culturally diverse tent-pole movies ever released,  period.” Now, I know TLA takes place in a fantasy world, but I want to know what kind of fantasy world is M. Night living in! That statement is ludicrous. Most culturally diverse movie? “Harold and Kumar” just blew some smoke into your face. So did the fuse of “Mission: Impossible III” because Maggie Q got some choice scenes. And don’t forget the old and new Star Trek films.

Even if you don’t care about this casting issue, the movie itself doesn’t hold together. And mark my words, in what has become a predictable ritual for  Shyamalan, it will be torn apart by critics. The 10 of us who saw TLA agreed: It was shoddy movie making. There was weak dialogue, weak editing, and unimpressive special effects. And because the 3D seemed to disappear after 10 minutes, I’m inclined to believe Goodman was telling the truth—that M. Night really was working until the last minute to complete this film—because it appears he ran out of time to apply the 3D effects he hoped movie-goers would pay that extra $2 to experience (the most impressive 3D effect came right at the opening—seeing the Paramount logo with the stars coming at us!).

M. Night Shyamalan

In past interviews, Shyamalan said Noah Ringer was the only one in the world who could play the lead character Aang. Again, WRONG! He cannot carry the movie. He’s not capable of bringing the emotional weight necessary to demonstrate the tragedy of what his absence has wrought. Seek out a video by a Filipino American boy named Perris Aquino here. He auditioned for the film. In his video, he reads from the script and shows off his martial arts skills. With some proper coaching, he could’ve done a better job than Ringer. Yet he didn’t even get a call back. What other potential Asian American stars were likewise rejected?

Early on when Zuko threatens to destroy everyone in the Water Nation unless Aang comes with him, Aang says, “I’ll go with you!” There were giggles in the screening room. Even in a room of supporters, I was being respectful and refrained from acting out.  But apparently, others just couldn’t help it.

No wonder most of the trailers feature no dialogue: Paramount was trying to entice ticket buyers by showing the epic scope of the picture and not risk that interest being undone by the actual acting of the children. As M. Night cuts from one scene to another, loud music builds underscoring the drama inherent in the words uttered by the characters. But the words he wrote usually fail to create any suspense or tension. And some passages make no sense: Soon after Aang begins meditating for four straight days so he can fend off their enemies, Katara starts talking to him, saying “I always knew you were real.” For this “important” piece of news, she risks disturbing his concentration?!

Early on when a white dome appears in the snow and a ray shoots out into the sky, that dome begins to crumble. Rather than show it happening bit by bit for effect, the director cuts to it already being opened.

Shyamalan, who’s famous for his twist endings, tried one here, complete with the expected booming music. When it was revealed, I went, “So? Big deal.”  When the movie credits started rolling, I thought, “Wait, that’s all?!  That’s supposed to make me wanna stay tuned for the second film?”

Dev Patel clearly had better screen charisma than anyone else. Too bad he was wasted as the villain. Yet the director, speaking to IndieMoviesOnline.com, felt compelled to answer his critics.

“The whole point of the movie is that there isn’t any bad or good,” M. Night said. “The irony is that I’m playing on the exact  prejudices that the people who are claiming I’m racist are doing. They [MANAA and unhappy fans] immediately assume that everyone with dark skin is a villain. That was an incredibly racist assumption which, as it turns out, is completely incorrect.”

Wrong again. If your intention was to show that, you failed as a storyteller. (Spoiler alert again) Although Zuko eventually sees the light, he doesn’t by the time this first film ends. He’s still trying to regain the respect of his father by capturing the Avatar. And as I said earlier, except for those Earth Nation Asians, the only people of color who speak are from the invading Fire Nation.

On March 10, M. Night told ugo.com, “Maybe they didn’t see the faces that they wanted to see but, overall, it is more than they could have expected. We’re in the tent and it looks like the U.N. in there.”

Only if the only members of the U.N. who’re allowed to speak are the North Koreans!

Last last week, Shyamalan told Indiemoviesonline.com, “Here’s the irony of the conversation—‘The Last Airbender’ is the most culturally diverse movie series of all time. I’m not talking about maybe one Jedi, maybe one person of a different color—no one’s even close. That’s a great pride to me. The irony of this statement enrages me to the point of…not even the accusation, but the misplacement of it. You’re coming at me, the one Asian filmmaker who has the right to cast anybody I want, and I’m casting this entire movie in this color blind way where everyone is represented.”

Casting color blind. Wow. I usually hear that when a white director has to justify ending up with an all-white cast. That’s almost the same as, “We got the best actors for the roles.”

The director continued, “And so it’s infuriating, this stigmatization, that the first word about the most culturally-diverse movie of all time is this accusation. And here’s the irony of it, this has nothing to do with the studio   system. I had complete say in casting. So if you need to point the racist finger, point it at me.  And if it doesn’t stick, then be quiet.”

Oh, it sticks all right. So Night, that’s my gigantic finger pointing at you.  Now, why don’t you be quiet and ponder how you’ve lost your way not only as a writer and director, but as someone who could’ve made a difference in the opportunities given to Asian Americans? You peaked 11 years ago with “The Sixth Sense.” It was all downhill after that with each movie being worse than the last:  “Unbreakable,” “Signs,” “The Village,” “Lady in the Water,” “The Happening.” In fact, that last one was so bad, The New York Post wrote it was “dead in the water” and that the director was a “crackpot with messianic delusions.”

When Disney executives rejected your script for “Lady,” your fragile ego went berserk and into a deep depression. There was so much drama, there was even a book about the whole ordeal. It led you to leave the home of your biggest successes and take “Lady” to Warner Bros. Critics and the general public proved Disney was right all along. Funny how Warner didn’t want to take your next film. You had to go to 20th Century Fox instead. Now you’re at Paramount.

When TLA flops with its $150 million budget and $130 marketing costs, you’re going to have to find yet another studio to take a chance on you. You’re running out of places to run to. Your fans hoped that because this was the first film whose story you didn’t invent that you could turn around your fortunes. But there’s just one problem, you see: You still wrote and directed it. This may be the last time any studio gives you the power to cast anyone except maybe in your daughter’s school play.

Why am I being so vitriolic? Because those who care about balancing the laughable image Asian Americans have in motion pictures prayed for someone from our own community to develop enough power to create films that could make up for decades and decades of hostile treatment—to make us heroes that audiences of all backgrounds would cheer for. You were one of the few who could do that.

Instead, you invented new excuses that white directors never thought of, leaving us off the page and off the screen—even for a project that was originally written specifically for us.

You blew it big time. For all of us.

Till next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

=    =     =

Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. He can be reached at [email protected] Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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46 Comments

  1. Ok, so your way of helping asian actors/ directors is to try and bring them down even though they try and do their best within a system which is loaded against them? Great job, why don;t you play right in to the hands of the caucasian dominated industry and take great glee in bringing down a fellow asian.

    You are too blind to see how you are being manipulated, and you are only making it harder for asians to progress in the industry. I hope you are proud of yourself, you arrogant, self-serving puppet.

    Well, as we know in asian culture, there is Yin and there is Yang. There is always balance. We will see where the balance ultimately lies.

  2. I just do not understand why everyone hates M. Night. It is obviously jealousy! How sad, and pathetic.

    This move was made for children, not once did any of my four children say: “Wow did you see the color of the actors on the screen?”

    You sir are no better than the Race Baiting Jesse J or the “Rev”. You suck, go make a movie yourself so we can talk about how much you suck before it even comes out.

  3. korean dude on

    Hey Man. quit your whining and asking for handouts. the more you cry about racism, the more people hate you. My family has always learned to work hard for what they want. You are so spoiled living in america. You should go back to Japan and see how easy it is for you. I think you have forgotten.

  4. marc harris on

    way to look at it from a racial perspective, maybe look at it from a different way, like how the storyline was?

  5. so m. night shymalan is what? a white supremacist? some of you people are so vile in your endless attacks and shrill screams about who is supposedly racist. why not just call him a heretic and see if he burns.

    and I guess in your small mean little world, the fury you feel about the racial casting has dripped over into a personal vendetta against an indian director. it’s an ugly thing to watch, to see what the author has become. warped by entitlement, resentment, and hate.

  6. I am of Asian decent. This article is so stupid. Who cares what race the actors are? You’re making a big deal out of nothing and only adding fuel to the already raging racism inferno.

  7. I read this hoping for more. You went way overboard with the racial casting issue. And while I too was like “what, white grandmother?” kind of makes sense that two white main characters would have at least one white grandparent. There was a whole slew of just bland and blah things wrong with this movie that you could have covered.

    Also Unbreakable > 6th sense

  8. You were trolled hard. real hard. An english film, which will be mainly viewed by Americans, must immediately star an all Asian cast?!? Who are you kidding? You think the big wigs are stupid? They want to draw a large crowd, not just the weebo/asian loving fanboys. In order to do that, they made the choice. The obvious choice. I’m sure someone can point out flaws in some big hit Japanese or Chinese films that portray Americans incorrectly. I’m sure if i sniff around i’m sure you hated Dragonball Z too. Too bad, You took it for what it wasn’t instead of what it is, An American Film. Enjoy your butthurt.

  9. God, will you shut up about race?! The movie sucked because that actors sucked, because the special effects sucked, and because the 3D sucked. Race has nothing to do with it. Do you honestly believe that it would have been a good movie if the actors were Asian?! This movie’s greatest downfall was that it was live action. It could have been made into an excellent animated movie.

  10. I don’t see why the race of the actors is causing such a fuss with everyone. The movie is based on a CARTOON for crying out loud. I wouldn’t care if Aang was purple (Actually, that might be cause for alarm) as long as they got the story right, which they did. It stayed true to the original series without adding or changing anything too vital. As for the actors, they did a fine job, especially Patel. You complain that he’s the villain, but actually he becomes on of Aang’s strongest allies by the end of the series. He’s also one of the best and most complex characters, so I don’t see the problem with him being a villain.
    I’m a long-time fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender, and I am very pleased with this movie. I went in expecting a fail of Percy Jackson proportions and I’m glad to say it was better than I could have hoped. Maybe it doesn’t translate so well for people who have never watched the series, but those who have would be pleased to see how well M. Night has done. You also said you had a problem with the ending of the movie, and this makes me think you’ve never actually watched the series. I was so excited when it got to the end because that exchange between Ozai and Azula is almost exactly the same as the end of Book One.
    I really, really hope they do books two and three. The action really picks up and we finally get to see my favorite characters, Azula and Toph. If they stay true to the races they’ve assigned for the different nations, Azula will be Indian like her brother and Toph will be Asian like the Earth Benders. Toph is the absolute best character, so I hope we get to see her.

  11. I get your anger over the casting, but honestly, the cast did the best they could with the atrocious script. Putting the appropriate races in the appropriate roles wouldn’t have made it a better film. Putting an actual writer in charge of the script might have.

  12. “If you know anything about the cartoon, Zuko (Dev Patel) ultimately becomes a good guy.” Well, even by the end of this film, he does not.. ” Duh! If KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT THE CARTOON, Zuko DOESN’T become good at the end of the first movie! Duh!

  13. Watch the series before writing about it. Aoki is a terrible writer and a lazy critic.

  14. I’m glad there were no Asian’s in the lead roles.. the cartoon charactors look nothing like Asians.. sorry to inform you. The movie rocked, and I can’t wait to see it again! :o)

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  18. OK FIRST OFF CHILL OUT ITS JUST A MOVIE AND IN MY OPINION A DAMN ENTERTAIN ING MOVIE AND IM NOT M.NIGHT FAN. i JUST SAW IT TONIGHT WITH MY SON AND LOVED IT ! AND FOR THE AVATAR KID AND YOU MOCKING SAYING THANK YOU WHITE BOY U SAVED US IS JUST WEIRD . iM SORRY BUT THAT KID DIDNT LOOK LIKE AN ALL AMERICAN HOWDY DOODY HE WAS DEFINATLY EXOTIC LOOKING IN A FORIEGN WAY AND A PHENOMENAL ACTOR WHOEVER HE IS ! NEVER WAS BORED ONE MINUTE i DONT KNOW WHAT MOVIE YOU WATCHED AND I DEFINATLY DIDNT FEEL LIKE I WAS WATCHIN A BUNCH OF WHITEFACES SO STOP CRING AND GRAB THE POPCORN AND ENJOY THE SHOW!

  19. Ok pal u cant find racism im the movie unless u look for it and obviously u did cuz u memorized ebery controvercial part in it the movie one of 3 and everyone looks to critizize shamalon cuz of his past u make a movie about a childs show and make it so that its pleasable for all audience!!

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  26. the last samurai is a white dude on

    http://www.racialicious.com/2010/04/22/some-basic-racist-ideas-and-some-rebuttals-why-we-exist/

    There’s an Airbender article on this site as well, mentioning that over the last 10 years, Paramount pictures didn’t produce one flick starring an Asian American, Native American, or Latino. haha I’m still not sure why all the colored folks keep complaining about white privilege and power, systematic and institutional racism. It’s an American melting pot defined by white culture and anyone who opposes this is just whining, so go back to the boat, ghetto, reservation or wherever u come from until you understand that the white gaze is the normal thing, then come back with your new Abercrombie+Fitch outfit with the decaf frappacino on hand and say, “OMG! It’s just a movie! Get over it!”

  27. Great movie on

    From Guy Aoki: “Why am I being so vitriolic?”

    You’re being vitriolic because you can’t stand the fact that the world doesn’t adhere to your narrow racist ideology. The movie’s based on a cartoon! Give me a break! This is much ado about nothing. And Aang looks very close to the character in the cartoon. And about Zuko not being a good guy at the end of the first movie – no kidding! It’s abundantly clear by the end of this movie that Zuko is basically a good kid and will have his redemption BY THE END OF THE THIRD MOVIE. Even little kids can figure this out but you’re blinded by your racism. Open your eyes man!

  28. I love the cartoon because it took us seriusly and never undermid our intelegence because we were kids, the movie looks down on us in every way, its crap, its plain and simply white washing. But because its ‘only asians’ if I stand against the white washing IM A RACIST! but if hollywood made a roots remake with all white characters people would go nuts! its demeaning its crude. Im not saying M.Night is racist, Im just saying hes retarded.

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  31. The article is right on point. The movie has both bad acting and a horrible adaptation of a truly wonderful storyline. Asian and other minorities have yet again been blocked out of a positive lead role.

    People who say the characters from the original show “looked white” have to be on some kind of white power cocktail. Every aspect of the show was steeped in east asian and inuit culture. Just because the characters spoke english does not mean that they are white. This line of logic is pathetic.

    When Dave Chappelle did his “Clayton Bigsby” skit, he had M. Night pegged.

  32. Thanks for writing this. Your arguments are well articulated. It’s sad that many people are still blind. Keep up the fight.

  33. Bravo for pointing out something that is so blatantly obvious and wrong with today’s studio system. The fact that a film like this got made with a largely all-white cast is seriously misguided. Can you imagine if they made a live action version of “Fat Albert” with a white lead? Why the hell not? It’s all about story and character right? It’s just a movie, right? This film is inherently and thematically of Asian origin and character. If you think otherwise you are deluded. When you go and replace the lead character with some no-name anglo kid, you have to ask yourself if that kid was really the best choice? It’s a big slap in the face to movie lovers and fans of the series.

  34. Has anybody noticed that Aang is also white in the cartoon? It would look completely weird to have an Asian play Aang.

  35. Okay, I admit it, I could have catsed better people for the parts than Shamlyan. How? BY PAYING ATTENTION TO THEIR RACE! Now, granted, I always did picture Aang as being white, but even so, I don’t believe that Noah Ringer can play the part. Anyways, I was fine with Aang being white, as I said before, but Katara and Sokka?! No, no, and, no. I always pictured them with the skin tone of an Inuit or Native American. Also, I pictured Zuko as being much paler, being of Japanese or possibly Korean decent. But, what Shamlyan really didn’t pay attention to was that people of all skin tones live in all of the different nations! The only nation which I saw any raceialdiversity in was the Air Nomads, and that was only in flashbacks! I really do think he could have done better with this if he had watched the Animated series more closely. But still, hey, at least they made a movie, and if Shamlyan casted the charecters as he saw them in his mind, who are we to tell him what to think? The man is Asian himself, I don’t think he wants to put Caucasions aboves Asians, simply to tell a story the way he saw it in his mind. However, it is unfortunate that he didn’t see the story as many of the fans in the series did.

  36. Great commentary, Guy. Ignore the trolls… your points were spot-on.

    I was a big fan of the original series and had high hopes for the live movie, only to see them dashed by the creation of this terrible flick. The only positive I can think of is maybe it’ll convince people who’ve never seen the cartoon to go watch it.

    For everyone who thinks this column isn’t making a valid statement, I encourage you to visit this site and educate yourself about the true history behind the movie and the bias it had in its casting:

    http://www.racebending.com

  37. What a bunch of hooey. Know-it-all Guy Aoki gets upset because an Asian director casts CARTOON characters in a race that doesn’t meet Aoki’s racist views. Give me a break.

  38. Mickey Okamoto on

    Poor Guy trying to get some respect but getting dissed and mocked. Why do you have to be such an angry soul, is it your bad hair, not getting enough love or gohan growing up, I’m sure you have many issues. Keep up the good work! I really enjoy the comments you generate and you are really helping the studios with your controversial buzz, not. Saw your little group trying to protest in Hollywood and it was fun to watch before the movie WOW such a groundswell of support. I sleep well at night knowing that we are protected by you and you have sacrificed much be the standard bearer for the JA/AA community. ROFL.

  39. It may be based off a cartoon, but it still remains that “The Last Airbender” series included only people Inuit and Asian descent. I don’t think it would be fair to form an all-Asian cast, but I think it would be reasonable to maintain at least some of the cartoon’s integrity by casting at least a few of the main characters — from the good side and the evil side — as an homage to the original series.

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  41. That is perty weird for all these comments. Plain and simple this is someone’s opinion of the movie. Like myself i loved the movie regardless. I’m asian and though at first was like what shouldn’t the characters be asian after watching the movie it didn’t really matter anymore. Its the story dudes!!!! if you liked it great if you didn’t like it great…. Now life goes on…

  42. Is this guy writing this critique SERIOUS?!?!?!?! Oh so you’re poor asian amaericans didn’t get the lead roles or speak as much as you wanted them too. I watched that clip you posted and that actor was DREADFUL! HE SHOWED SO MUCH LACK FOR ACTING I MYSELF COULD HAVE DONE A BETTER JOB. The first side… he just turns his head at every question and every line?????? ARE YOU JOKING?!?!?! YOU DON’T SEE WHY HE WAS NEVER CALLED BACK???? BECAUSE HE SUCKED HARD!!!!! BUT YOU ARE JUST AS RACIST AS YOU CRY ABOUT. YOU CRY CRY CRY RACISM BUT YOU ARE RACIST YOURSELF. GOD I HATE YOU CRITICS AND YOU’RE HYPOCRISY!!!!!!!!!!!!! YOU SHOULD ALL BE SHOT OR DRAGGED BY A CAR DOWN THE ROAD UNTIL YOU ARE NOTHING. The movie was different, you hated it because you were unhappy that your racist ass didn’t get what he wanted. WHY DON’T YOU COUGH UP THE 200 MILLION TO MAKE IT YOUR WAY???? STFU you lousy hypocrite! Asians are worse than blacks now it’s pathetic!

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