INTO THE NEXT STAGE: Reflections on ‘The Last Airbender’ Controversy

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At the protest, children from the Korean Resource Center.

By GUY AOKI
(First published in
The Rafu Shimpo on July 15, 2010.)

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On any Web site across this country, create any blog about race and it’ll quickly become the most contentious and popular topic on the entire board. People of color will complain about their unfair treatment in society, the media, etc., and white people will vociferously tell them they’re wrong, that racism no longer exists except in their own mind, and make excuses for any evidence presented. These are the same people who predictably ask, “Why do you have to be hyphenated Americans? Why can’t you just be plain ole Americans?”

Protest organizers Lori Kido (MANAA Vice President), Guy Aoki, and Mike Le (Racebending.com)

To which I’ve always answered, “Because you never allow us to be plain ole Americans.” No matter how long we’ve been in this country, no matter how American we feel inside, we are still limited by our outward appearance and that has specific ramifications when it comes to media and opportunities for Asian American actors to shine.

So the reaction to MANAA and racebending.com’s campaign against “The Last Airbender” was predictable whether on the Web sites of the Boston Globe (which featured an interview with yours truly), Orlando Sentinel (which, surprisingly, ran practically my entire message to movie critics to consider the casting controversy while reviewing the film), or the Rafu Shimpo. “It’s just a cartoon!”  “The characters have big eyes so I thought they were white!”  “You’re racist for not wanting White people but only Asians!” “OK, the TV show had Asian culture, clothes, calligraphy, and martial arts, but that doesn’t mean the PEOPLE were supposed to be Asian!…” “Asian people are the most racist people in the world! Why, when you go to China…”

Right, so the Japanese, who invented anime, were always depicting white people in their cartoons?! No, they were depicting themselves but in that big-eyed style. I guess some people get so used to seeing Asian culture appropriated for projects which star (what else?) white actors that they don’t realize how stupid it is to argue that everything in the universe (as in the television version of “Airbender”) could be Asian except for the actual people. I guess the creators of the TV show admitting the characters were meant to be Asian is not good enough. No, not when an angry ethnic group is making them feel guilty for the sins of the fathers, grandfathers, etc.

A poster satirizes “The Last Airbender.”

Look, you either acknowledge that there’s a double standard out there—that Asian Americans are not afforded the same opportunities as whites—or you don’t because of some hang-up. If you’re not intelligent enough to get that, then anything I say is useless. It’d be just as much a waste of time trying to teach a dog algebra.

Ask any person of color what it means to be Mexican, Asian, or black, and they’ll rattle off a whole bunch of things.  Some will be related to culture, but a lot will be based on how their ethnicity prevents them from having full access to equal opportunity. But ask most White people what it means to be White and they’ll draw a blank. That’s because they don’t have to think about racial identity because what they’re denied is not due to their race but their own individual limitations. It’s called white privilege. It’s having it easier than the rest of us simply because you’re lucky enough to be part of the dominant race that decides how most things in this country run.

So on one hand, we have those defensive about having to take on the burden of their white forefathers who may have discriminated against every ethnic group they encountered in what became the United States.  Then we have those Asian Americans who white-washed their entire lives trying so hard to fit in that they laughed at racial jokes against them, internalized the negative information about their own people, and spit it back out as if they originated those beliefs—that they weren’t created by Whites to benefit Whites.

We will only come together as a society once those from the majority ruling class—Whites—become allies of those who’ve been hurt by institutionalized racism. That’s when the cycle of guilt-and defensiveness and denial of bias can end. For instance, if a German American’s grandfather had something to do with the killing of Jews in the concentration camps, his burden of guilt over that would begin to ease the moment he told a Holocaust survivor how wrong it was and how sorry he is. Either that or he could be forever defensive about how Germany treated its Jewish citizens. Likewise, is it so hard to acknowledge how this country continues to treat its minorities, White America? How long will you hold on to your defensiveness until you let down your guard and work with us to make things better?

Critics Smell Blood Department: As I predicted in my review two weeks ago, critics tore TLA apart. This was Roger Ebert’s opening line: “‘The Last Airbender’ is an agonizing experience in every category I can think of and others still waiting to be invented. The laws of chance suggest that something should have gone right. Not here.”

Even geek fan Web site aintitcool.com began their review this way: “Hey, everyone. Capone in Chicago here. I’m going to speak plainly in a language everyone can understand. M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘The Last Airbender’ is a hate crime against film lovers. No one should ever have to endure what I was unexpectedly put through yesterday afternoon watching this murky 3-D s***storm of a movie that appears to have been shot through un-flushed toilet bowl water, which, upon reflection, seems 100% appropriate.”

The title of Charlie Jane Anders’ review on io9.com made me laugh: “M. Night Shyamalan Finally Made a Comedy…And I think everybody who has criticized Shyamalan for casting white actors as Asian characters in this film should admit they were wrong. Clearly, Shyamalan tried to cast Asians, but he just couldn’t find any whose performances were lifeless enough.”

The efforts our supporters made to educate movie critics about the casting issue worked. This is how Richard Corliss of Time Magazine began his review (“The Last Airbender: Worst Movie Epic Ever?”): “Asian Americans, I hear your agitation. For the past few weeks, you and your allies in ethnic correctness have clogged the blogosphere with complaints about the casting in M. Night Shyamalan’s live-action movie version of the Nickelodeon animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender. Yes, the main villain roles among the rapacious Fire People are played by men of Indian descent (as is Shyamalan). Yes, Aang, the show’s Chinese hero, is played by a Caucasian boy named Noah Ringer; and two other pasty white kids, Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone, were chosen to impersonate Aang’s main pals, Katara and Sokka… yes again, it’s a shame the film’s producers couldn’t find suitable Chinese youngsters among the 500 million or so on earth.

“You can relax, bloggers. The dearth of racially appropriate casting in the U.S. simply means that fewer Asians were humiliated by appearing in what is surely the worst botch of a fantasy epic since Ralph Bakshi’s animated desecration of The Lord of the Rings back in 1978. The actors who didn’t get to be in The Last Airbender are like the passengers who arrived too late to catch the final flight of the Hindenburg.”

Thanks to Paul G. Bens for posting most of these reviews on his Facebook page. To be clear, though, even if TLA was an Oscar-caliber movie, our concerns on the casting issue would’ve still stood. The fact that critics hated the film just added icing to the cake.

Leave it to the L.A. Times to once again disappoint. In a Business section report assessing the box office chances of the film, Claudia Eller neglected to mention the campaign against it—which was clearly detailed in a Calendar front page story the month before. In an e-mail, I asked if the Business section didn’t talk to the Calendar section regarding such stories. She e-mailed me back a lame excuse saying there was only so much space in her article to cover it (there were about six Times stories about the movie which didn’t acknowledge any anger over it). Thankfully (for the executives who’ll be in a future meeting with me whenever they get out of bankruptcy proceedings), one of her superiors e-mailed me back and said I was right.

Dunce Critic of the Month: Two years ago, I traded phone calls with Scott Bowles of USA Today about the white-washing of “21” and he agreed we had a point but did no follow-up on his puff story. I approached him early on about TLA but he ignored me and a few weeks later, I realized why: Paramount allowed him to the run the first photo of Noah Ringer as Aang. Ah ha! So I guess it’s no wonder he got stars in his eyes and was one of the eight percent of film critics who actually gave this film a positive review.

Nicole Sperling of Entertainment Weekly was also a gigantic disappointment. She was the reporter who initially revealed the four stars of the film were initially all white and saw the 78 pages of online comments, most of which angrily condemned the line-up. We engaged in an e-mail discussion last year but in the end, she decided not to do a follow-up story.  In reporting the box office, she couldn’t even get the CinemaScore (what first-day movie-goers thought of the film) correct saying it was C+, not a C.

Box Office Bottom Line: Most reporters said TLA did better than expected (true) but failed to mention that didn’t matter anyway because it was still going to be a money-losing flop. Its first weekend numbers were inflated by opening one day early on a Thursday, and it was also boosted by Monday being a holiday.  So $70 million over five days is no big deal. It dropped 57 percent this regular weekend down to $17.2 million. At this point, it’s grossed $100 million. If it loses 50 percent of its audience over the next two weekends, it’ll finish off close to $130 million. Since it cost $150 million to make and $130 million to promote, that’s still a loss of $l50 million!

Paramount’s crossing its fingers on the foreign market but at this point, there’s no way they can be happy with these numbers. Shyamalan will have his third consecutive critical and commercial flop in a row.

Emmy Round-Up: As I predicted after watching the final episode of “Lost,” it was nominated for “Outstanding Writing,” “Outstanding Music,” “Outstanding Directing,” “Outstanding Lead Actor”—Matthew Fox’s first nomination on the show)—and “Outstanding Drama Series.” Not that Fox’s work was necessarily better this year than in the past, but I felt the academy would remember how the show ended focusing on Jack Shepherd’s individual journey and that it would propel the man who played him to a nod.

“The Good Wife” starring Juliana Margulies got rave reviews from critics all year long, so it was no surprise that the series was nominated for “Best Drama Series” and the star “Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series,” but it was surprising how many others in the cast got recognized:  Both Christine Baranski and Archie Panjabi, the South Asian actress who plays Juliana’s assistant, are in the running for “Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series.” Mindy Kailing, a regular on “The Office,” got her first nomination as a writer on the series.

Begrudging Praise Department: After seeing him on “Oprah” last year, I said I wanted to slap the face of Jaden Smith for being the most conceited 10-year-old I’d ever seen in my life (the runt even scored a Top 40 hit-for one week-by rapping on a soundtrack single by Justin Beiber). Apparently, I’m not  alone.  Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman wrote an article questioning why there’s so much hatred for the guy though people loved his remake of “The Karate Kid.” I will say this: It was well made, he did a pretty good acting job, and though the Chinese bullies were vicious, I appreciated that they showed sportsmanship in the end by bowing to him and acknowledging he’d beaten them fair and square.  As in the original, the coach was ultimately isolated as the real bad guy.  And I have to give praise to Jackie Chan for his haunting, dramatic performance.  Even in lighter moments, for once, the audience wasn’t laughing at him but with him.

But Jaden’s cocky appearance with David Letterman demonstrated that the guy takes his success for granted and believes he deserves it all. He only got to star in this film because his parents were the producers. Hmmm… maybe I want to see that movie again so I can relive seeing those bullies beating him up.

Till next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

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Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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3 Comments

  1. Waiting for Jaden Smith on

    re: Jaden Smith… Let him have the spotlight for a few years Guy. Maybe if he starts out rotten, he will end up okay, ala Robert Downey, Jr.

    I’d hope for that, rather than the good start to train wrecks that were other young stars (Coleman, Spears, Lohan)

    Of course there is always the possibility of starting off rotten, and getting worse. However, his parents and older siblings will hopefully keep him in line. He is only ten after all, the teen years are still ahead. Let’s make a note to check back in eight years to get a better idea of where he is going to end up.

  2. Guy, it sounds like you really have psychological issues. The level of your hatred cannot be healthy. It’s bad enough that you have this thing against non-Asians but now you’re wishing violence against a 10-year old kid? Please get help. Seriously.

  3. Re:Karate Kid/ Forbidden Kingdom.

    Both films would have made more sense if they had Chinese-American kids as the main protagonists.
    A Chinese-American martial artists finding his way by being taught by the Drunken Immortal and Monk.
    A Chinese American learning of his heritage in the KungFu Kid.

    Would have made better stories.

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