Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Growing Maelstrom Around Paramount's "The Last Airbender"

Paramount's Fourth of July tentpole release, "The Last Airbender," has been generating some buzz over the past few weeks as new trailers and TV spots have been unveiled. Adapted from a Nickelodeon animated series that ran from 2005-2008, the property already has a sizable fanbase and plenty of brand recognition. Helmed by M. Night Shyamalan and veteran producers Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy, it has all the early earmarks of a blockbuster in the making. It's kid friendly, effects heavy, and has staked out a prime release date where the only real competition for its younger audience will be the third "Twilight" movie. Unfortunately, there is a major wrench in the works.

The original "Avatar: The Last Airbender" cartoon (the "Avatar" was dropped to appease Jim Cameron's lawyers) was heavily Asian themed and featured young heroes that were thinly disguised versions of a Tibetan monk, Inuit tribespeople, and East-Asian martial artists. By contrast, the live action film initially cast Caucasian actors for all of the major roles, only swapping in darker-skinned actors for the villains right before filming began. The backlash was swift and vehement. An online fan campaign, centered around the website Racebending.com and the social networking site LiveJournal, has lead the charge against the whitewashing of the ethnic characters, decrying the film as racially discriminatory towards Asians and Native Americans. To date their activities include letter writing campaigns, picketing, dozens of Youtube videos, media convention appearances, and plans to boycott the film.

Of course fan campaigns against all sorts of perceived slights are common for big event films, especially those based on beloved source material, but this controversy has definitely struck a nerve for many observers as well as those involved in the fray. Racebending directly addresses a subject that nobody in the industry likes to talk about - that despite recent demographic shifts, Hollywood still engages in casual racism to an astonishing degree, often justifying skeevy decisions like the whitewashing of "The Last Airbender" as necessary for financial reasons. For many of the decisionmakers, it's better to shut minority actors and actresses out of lead roles rather than risk alienating Caucasian audiences who might be leery of identifying with ethnic protagonists. "Airbender" is only the latest in a string of recent films where Asian characters have been supplanted by Caucasian ones, including "Dragonball Evolution," "Extraordinary Measures," "21," and the forthcoming "Tekken."

The unusual intensity of the reaction to "Airbender" can be traced to the especially blatant discrimination during the casting process. It's long been the accepted status quo that ethnic minority actors are only considered for roles tailored for their specific ethnicity, and no media property seemed to be as Asian-specific or Native American-specifc as "Airbender," with its purposeful incorporation of so much cultural detail. Yet casting sheets have surfaced that clearly preference Caucasians for the lead roles, while asking for ethnic minorities to play extras. The original core cast, annnounced by Entertainment Weekly in December 2008, was completely comprised of Caucasian actors despite the characters retaining Asian and Inuit names and other cultural signifiers. British-Indian actor Dev Patel has since been prominent in the advertisements, but his role originally went to the pop singer Jesse McCartney.

The "Last Airbender" controversy has so far passed largely unnoticed to the mainstream media, but as the film's release date approaches, the situation has been heating up. The SF Chronicle and Salon have both run critical reaction pieces. Film blogs have been discussing the issue openly, and Roger Ebert has signified his disapproval. But the real negative impact will probably be dealt by the existing "Airbender" fanbase, which has been contentiously divided over the new film and proven ready and willing to rehash the entire debate in any available forum. Already, it's difficult to find any online discussions of "The Last Airbender" that don't end in angry confrontations between members of the Racebending group and the film's supporters.

There's no greater buzzkill than a touchy discussion about race and media, and this one is well on its way to overwhelming the film's ad campaign. With less than five months to go until "The Last Airbender" release date, and nobody willing to back down, there's an ugly fistfight on the horizon that might just sink a very troubled film.

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