(REAL TIMES MEDIA)—A couple of years ago I was invited to be a guest on the Jesse Lee Peterson radio show to debate “The Passion of the Christ.” I had written a piece arguing that the movie was a fraud for using White Spanish actor Jim Kaviezel to depict Jesus when historical images show him to be a Black African or a dark-skinned Middle Eastern man. Peterson believed that Black folk should shut up, stop complaining and just enjoy the story, since race doesn’t matter in casting. I always found this to be a funny argument; everyone always says that race doesn’t matter in Hollywood casting, as long as the people who are benefitting are White. That’s one of the reasons why I won’t be supporting the upcoming flick “Avatar: the Last Airbender.”
If you’ve hung out with a 7- to 12- year-old kid over the last five years there’s a pretty good chance you’ve caught an episode of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” on Nickelodeon. The story follows the adventures of Aang and his two friends, Sokka and Katara, as they travel around a mythical Antarctic and East Asian world helping Aang learn how to use his powers to control water, fire, wind and earth. Not only is the show well-crafted, witty and engaging, the show’s diverse cast features all Middle Eastern, Asian or Inuit Indians (Eskimos—was the old term) characters ranging from dark brown to various forms of tan. The cartoon is being brought to the big screen by one of the most successful Asian film directors in American history, M. Knight Shyamalan—so all should be well, right? Well except for the fact that M. Knight and his crew cast all the lead characters with White actors.
The Asian American community and fans of the show are understandably up in arms over this. It’s bad enough that M. Knight has turned a deaf ear towards this issue in casting but the only main character who was cast as his true ethnicity (Asian) was the dark- skinned villain. Whitewashing characters of color is not new, but that doesn’t make it right. Angelina Jolie used a spray-on tan and curly wig to play Afro-Cuban woman Marianne Pearl in 2007, in 2008 the main characters in the gambling movie “21” were re-cast as White even though the true story was about Asian kids, and this year Jake Gyllenhaal is playing “The Prince of Persia,” the list goes on and on.
Hollywood producers usually have two excuses for the whitewashing of characters. The first is that there aren’t enough “bankable” minority actors, in this case Asian, who can draw a big enough audience to anchor a big budget film. This is the same self-fulfilling logic that Hollywood used for years to deny Black men leading roles in action films until Will Smith and Wesley Snipes made millions in “Bad Boys” and “Blade” back in the 1990s. What’s even more offensive about “Avatar,” however, is that when it comes to cartoon to live action films no one really cares about actors, people just want to see their favorite animated characters in real life. Does anyone really care who the actors are in “Alvin in the Chipmunks” or “Fat Albert” or the “Garfield” movies? The second lie is that all casting is “colorblind” and all the best auditions just happened to be White. This one doesn’t pass the smell test either since recent casting documents have been revealed showing that they looked specifically for “Caucasian: or some other ethnicity” for the lead characters.
Hollywood producers pride themselves on making stars out of nobodies. With the proper marketing and production little known men and women become megastars in months. So we can no longer just sit back and accept discriminatory casting practices, whether they harm Blacks, Latinos or any other ethnic group simply looking for an equal chance to see themselves on the big screen. As much as I liked the cartoon “Avatar” I won’t be giving the film any of my money in the theater. Years ago I told Jesse Peterson that race in casting actually matters and that it would be crazy seeing a biopic of Ronald Reagan where he is played by a 5-7’ Asian man. I guess M. Knight Shyamalan would make that casting decision, if no ‘qualified’ and bankable White actors showed up to audition.
(Dr. Jason Johnson is an associate professor at Hiram College in Ohio.)