Phil, of Angry Asian Man, had a chance to screen The Last Airbender last night, which seems like a good idea considering how much hullabaloo has surrounded the film. Here’s an excerpt:
I have seen The Last Airbender movie. Let me be clear: I did not pay to see it. But the screening opportunity came up, so I watched it — I’ve talked about the film enough, I figured I should at least see it for myself. And now I share my observations with you:
My one-word review via Twitter, immediately after watching the film: joyless. Overall, The Last Airbender completely lacks soul, and suffers from a painful inability to inspire any kind of fun or awe throughout the entire movie. I thought I’d at least enjoy the visual effects, but that fails to impress too. Even setting aside the problematic racial politics, this is just not a good movie.
M. Night Shyamalan attempts to adapt the entire storyline of season one (Book 1: Water) into this movie (the first of a planned trilogy). Having seen and enjoyed the animated series, I’m aware that this is no small feat. Unfortunately, overall, the plan fails. It’s supposed to be epic, but the whole thing feels clunky, rushed and at times incomprehensible. You might not have to boycott this movie — it’s so bad, it could boycott itself.
Not having ever seen a single second of the cartoon, I’m in no danger of stumbling into theatres for this one. My “boycott” of Last Airbender carries little water — I would never have been interested in seeing the movie anyways.
That being said, I do support the “boycott Last Airbender” movement that’s circulating the Internets — mainly because M. Night Shyamalan is proving himself to be a downright idiot. After catching wind of the Racebending.com-led boycott, Shyamalan lost his ever-lovin’ mind in a recent interview.
Here’s Shyamalan’s full rant on the subject of race and The Last Airbender:
Q: There’s been a lot of controversy regarding the casting and how all the heroes are being portrayed by Caucasian actors, while all the villains are all being portrayed by non-Caucasians. How do you respond to those who are saying that The Last Airbender is racist?
M Night Shyamalan: ‘Well, you caught me. I’m the face of racism. I’m always surprised at the level of misunderstanding, the sensitivities that exist. As an Asian-American, it bothers me when people take all of their passion and rightful indignation about the subject and then misplace it. Here’s the reality: first of all, the Uncle Iroh character is the Yoda character in the movie, and it would be like saying that Yoda was a villain. So he’s Persian.
And Dev Patel is the actual hero of the series, and he’s Indian, OK? The whole point of the movie is that there isn’t any bad or good. The irony is that I’m playing on the exact prejudices that the people who are claiming I’m racist are doing. They immediately assume that everyone with dark skin is a villain. That was an incredibly racist assumption which as it turns out is completely incorrect.
There are four nations, and I had to eventually make a decision about what nationality each of them are. What happened was, Noah Ringer walked in the door – and there was no other human being on the planet that could play Aang except for this kid. To me, he felt mixed race with an Asian quality to him. I made all the Air nomads mixed race – some of them are Hispanic, some of them are Korean. Every monk you see in a flashback, in that world, are all mixed race because they’re nomadic. I felt that really worked as a culture. OK, so that’s one-quarter of our world population. The second group is the Fire Nation; when Dev was cast as Zuko, I said, OK, I have to cast an Uncle Iroh that looks like his uncle. We’re going to go from Indian/Persian to Mediterranean, all that group with all its darker colors including Italians.
So now we’re at one-half of the population of the movie which is not white.
Moving on to the third group, which is the Earth kingdom (which is the biggest kingdom in this fictional world): I liked a bunch of the people who happened to be Japanese, Korean, Philippine, so I decided to make the Earth kingdom Asians. Now we’re at three-quarters of the world. Now I have the brother and sister left. If you don’t have an edict of “don’t put white people in the movie” then the Water tribe can be European/Caucasian. So that’s how it ended up.
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. I even had one section of the Earth kingdom as African American, which obviously isn’t in the show, but I wanted to represent them, too!
And I fought like crazy to have the pronunciation of the names to go back to the Asian pronunciation. So you say “Ahng” instead of “Aaang” because it’s correct. It’s not “I-rack,” it’s “ee-Rock.” I’m literally fighting for all this. And who’s getting blamed? ME! This is incredible. 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.
Whenever we’re on set, it’s crazy, I love it. We’re in our cafeteria, it looks like the United Nations in there! And you’re not supposed to be thinking about this because it’s so diverse. And again, this is what really frustrates me, when we get to the second movie (hopefully), since its based in the Earth Kingdom, suddenly the movie will seem entirely politically correct Asian, and the accusers will feel like they won. YOU DID NOT WIN! YOU DID NOT WIN! That’s not what happened, you were wrong. As you can tell, it’s a frustrating thing. Look at the movie poster with Dev Patel in it. I’m not understanding … he’s not politically correct?
I could go on for half an hour on that subject … in the end it’s like that saying, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
At the basis of this, a fascinating thing, it didn’t even occur to me until the first mention of this came up: The art form of Anime in and of itself is what’s causing the confusion. The Anime artists intentionally put ambiguous features on the characters so that you see who you want to see in it. It’s part of the art form. My daughter looks identical to Katara; I saw my family in that series when I was watching it, I saw them in the faces. I’m sure that every household feels the same way in that they see their own families in them. It’s a fascinating thing about how people perceive it. If there’s an issue with why Anime does not put particularly specific Asian features from the PC Asian types that people think should be there … take it up with Anime animators. It has nothing to do with me.’
Let’s parse this out, shall we?
First of all, no one claimed that M. Night Shyamalan was “the face of racism”. For the most part, race activists have questioned the casting of The Last Airbender, specifically asking why the casting agents specifically sought out a Caucasian actor to play the role. They want to know why Katara and Sokka are also played by white actors, and why the Fire Nation (which is war-mongering and violent) was re-cast as dark-skinned. Personally, I don’t think Shyamalan was being racist — I think he was oblivious to the larger implications of his attempts to be racially inclusive while still have White leading characters. Shyamalan’s not guilty of being racist, he’s guilty of being kinda dumb on this one. That being said, a lot of this sounds like Shyamalan’s having a Kanye West moment: he’s pissed he’s not being recognized by race activists for making “the most culturally diverse movie series of all time”, so he’s doing the film director equivalent of stealing the mic from Taylor Swift.
I really have no comment on whether or not Dev Patel’s character in the Avatar series is a hero or a villain, having never watched the cartoon. I know that the Fire Nation — the primary villains of the trilogy — are cast as the Big Bad, and they are brown. Can you have not-so-bad bad guys who are brown? Sure. But that doesn’t get around the visual of the Big Bad whom the hero is fighting being inexplicably brown-skinned (particularly when they are light-skinned in the cartoon). And guess what — it’s not racist to question the perpetuation of a Hollywood trope that casts minorities principally as villains (redeemed or otherwise).
Someone please tell me how a non-mixed race person can have a “mixed race” feel. Please? Is M. Night Shyamalan arguing that Noah Ringer can pass as ethnically ambiguous? ‘Cuz I really don’t buy that. And, as for whether or not Ringer is “the only human being on the planet” who could play Aang — Phil is skeptical of that statement.
If Last Airbender 2 comes out, and most of the cast is East Asian because the Earth Kingdom is East Asian, I will not call that a victory. I DID NOT WIN! I DID NOT WIN! (Wait, do we ordinarily get trophies for this kind of thing? Did mine get lost in the mail or something?) I’m familiar enough with the cartoon’s storyline now to accept that if the second movie has a bunch of Asians in it, it’s because M. Night Shyamalan is sticking to his wacky racial casting thing with the four Nations in the storyline. We’re not that stupid, Mr. Shyamalan. But here’s one thing I don’t get (and maybe folks familiar with the cartoon can clue me in): how is it that three of the Nations (Air, Water and Fire) can be cast as cultures sharing a similar race or skin colour (mixed race, Native, and “darker” respectively, according to Shyamalan), but than there’s somehow room in the Earth Nation to include both East Asian and Black people? From an anthropological point of view, from an evolutionary genetics point of view, from a sociological point of view — that doesn’t make sense.
As for anime, jaehwan over at bigWOWO had some discussion about how Asians view the race of anime characters. In short, anime is not “ethnically ambiguous”; the anime art style was originally inspired and influenced by Western animation (specifically Disney). Asians in Asia don’t consider the characters in anime to be White because of the size of their eyes — that would assume that Asians universally see ourselves as small-eyed people (we don’t). In the case of most anime, the minimalism of the facial features provides little racial or ethnic information, and anime style involves large eyes primarily to make characters cuter — since a larger eye-to-face ratio reminds most people of babies.
Sufficed to say, many characters in anime are Asian — which can be determined based on their darker eye and hair colour, and the context of the story). By contrast, Caucasian characters tend to have blonde or red hair, and blue or green eyes — as with Asuka in Neon Genesis Evangelion. So, M. Night has it wrong: anime isn’t ethnically ambiguous, they just don’t provide the racial indicators that Western audiences are familiar with, so Western audiences tend to project a “White default” assumption onto what they perceive as racially ambiguous art styles.
As I said, I am unenthused about The Last Airbender. I’m not going to see it, but I really wasn’t going to see it anyways. But I’m definitely disturbed by how M. Night Shyamalan is showing his true, and kind of self-absorbed asshat, colours.