The phenomenon of whitewashing is a little like racism’s polite younger brother. He takes his place at the table, mostly silent except for a “yes, please” or “no, thank you” when addressed, and hopes that no one will notice his presence. The Last Airbender is the latest film to receive Hollywood’s whitewashing.
Avatar: The Last Airbender, the source material for the film, was a children’s television show rooted in Asian culture, including Buddhist and Hindu philosophy, Chinese calligraphy, characters that were clearly Asian (with names such as Aang, Katara and Sokka), and, perhaps most promisingly, Asian actors cast in the lead roles.
This pride in the show’s Asian heritage changed in the last two years as the series made a transition to film. Out of the four lead Asian characters, four White actors were cast. Audition flyers explicitly solicited for actors in this way: “Caucasian or any other ethnicity.”
Later, when one of the four actors dropped out, Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire was cast. Good for the diversity of the cast; bad for the representation of Asians, since Patel was cast as the villain.
Though a single incident of institutionalized racism (and one understandable from a purely business point-of-view–after all, if the point is to sell tickets, you market to the largest audience, in this case, White moviegoers), the whitewashing of The Last Airbender reflects a larger, persistent history of whitewashing in the U.S. From the racist caricatures of Charlie Chan in the 1920’s to the casting of a White woman to play the Asian female lead in Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth as early as 1937, Hollywood has consistently reduced Asians to villains and minor characters.
Recent films such as 21, about a group of Asian students from MIT who created a plan to steal millions from Las Vegas casinos, was cast with Caucausian actors Jim Sturgess and Kate Bosworth in the lead.
The sad thing about The Last Airbender is the missed opportunity for Asian Americans–whether actors, moviegoers, or, most importantly, Asian American children–to see representations of themselves on the big screen.
How can you engage in a discussion of the problem? Racebending offers a video with some helpful tips below.