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Shyamalan's Airbender Casting Still Drawing Criticism

Last_airbender_cast As cast photos are released and new casting announcements are made, controversy continues over perceived white-washing in casting choices for M. Night Shyamalan’s live-action film trilogy based on the popular Nickelodeon cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender. The show's style was heavy in Eastern influences, but from the teaser trailer and cast list it is obvious that Shyamalan is taking a different approach for his adaptation entitled, The Last Airbender.

The cartoon’s visual style is ripped straight from every corner of East Asian culture. Everything from the clothing to animation style was made by series’ creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Brian Konietzko to look distinctly Asian, despite being a  completely American made production. And although the creators have not explicitly stated it, many fans believe that all of the inhabitants of the Avatar universe were meant to look Asian in ethnicity. But few cast in the film are East Asian, and there is little in the trailer beyond the martial arts that retains the distinct style of the cartoon. This has led to continuous cries of racist casting by fans.

Racebending.com, a website dedicated to the controversy explains, “Despite the show’s overt use of elements from Asian cultures and concepts—including Asian religions and martial arts—initial casting calls indicated a preference for Caucasian actors, and ultimately only Caucasian actors were cast in the lead protagonist roles.” More recent drastic changes in casting have done little to assuage the concerns of the critics.

The cartoon, which the trilogy will be based on, is set in a fictional Earth where humans have the ability to manipulate the four elements. Race in the show is determined by which element one has the ability to control, and the world is divided into four nations. The story begins with the humans who control fire, aptly named The Fire Nation, seeking to take over the world by military force.  The Avatar, the master of all four elements, must prevent this from happening and restore the balance of power.

Dev-patel-last-airbender The controversy sparked when Jesse McCartney was set to play the series’ villain, Fire Prince Zuko (due to scheduling difficulties he was unable to perform). Subsequently Slumdog Millionaire's Dev Patel was cast for the part. Since then, casting for all members of the Fire Nation has been for those of Indo/Pakistani ethnicity. More criticism followed as many complained that the choice demonized the Indo/Pakistani race.

Racebending.com also states, “In addition to "yellowface", Paramount Pictures' casting of The Last Airbender perpetuates the Hollywood stereotype to portray the heroes as white and the villains as darker-skinned.”

But how much is skin color a factor in a universe where race is determined by element?  How are the children watching the show supposed to tell whether the Anime styled cartoon characters belong to any particular race? They are primarily the ones who will bring their parents to see this one. Ultimately, it's Shyamalan's call, and how much should he change of his own production before he's pandering to a vision that personally isn't his?

The series came to its explosive (no pun intended) finale on July 19, 2008 and is still in syndication on Nickelodeon’s Nick Toons channel. The first film in Shyamalan's trilogy is due to hit theaters July 2, 2010.

--Peter Belfiore

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Having a minority as the director is important! Especially when there aren't that many minorities at the helm of big-budget franchises. But I do understand the complain, there are so few opportunities for Asian-American actors in leading roles and here was an obvious chance to get some major spotlight. But thankfully Dev Patel is getting some roles, hopefully he will become a lasting staple in Hollywood films.

What a waste. They had this gorgeous Asian and Aleut/Inuit universe, diverse characters to match, and a great story. And now it's just another movie with the white heroes saving the poor ethnic villagers from evil brown people. No thank you.

Aaang can be white and still save the world!!!!

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