Upcoming 'Avatar' Film Accused Of White-washing

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"In an Asian world, only three white heroes can save the world."

This past Saturday, I was able to attend the inaugural Asian American ComiCon event in New York City. Celebrating a long legacy of Asian Americans in the comic book industry, the day was packed with workshops and panels featuring many industry heavy hitters, including Larry Hama, the creator of "G.I. Joe."

Throughout many of the sessions, a conversation thread kept cropping up: despite so many Asian Americans working behind the scenes, how come comics rarely feature any Asian American superheroes? One panel went so far as to have the guest writers re-imagine popular superheroes as if they were Asian.

And then, this interesting cause involving the upcoming "Avatar" movie fell in my lap. Now, I'm too old to have caught onto this, but some readers may know of the hit Nickelodeon show, "Avatar: The Last Airbender." It's an animated fantasy-fiction series that draws heavily on East Asian and Inuit settings and culture — to the point where the main character, Aang, and the supporting characters are, by all appearances, Asian. A live-action movie based on the animated series has been in the works for a few years now and is scheduled to release in July 2010.

Do you see where this is going? In Dec. 2008, the cast list was released. Lo and behold, fans discovered that the  live-action adaptation will feature no Asian American actors playing any hero role. Instead, all three leading characters will be played by white actors.  Dev Patel of "Slumdog Millionaire" is the only Asian who has been cast thus far — and as the main villain.

Fans (Asians and non-Asians alike) have immediately threatened a large-scale boycott of the film. The movement's site, Racebending.com, points out how the casting choices are essentially a racist move:

"In the animated series, the Inuit-based nation (Water Tribe) and Tibetan-based nation (Air Nomads) are the heroes. In the movie, both the Water Tribe and Air Nomads will be completely white-washed and populated with white actors. Conversely, the genocidal, evil Fire Nation will be entirely populated with darker-skinned actors, who actively oppress and destroy all other Nations."

Given Hollywood's tendency to cast Caucasians for roles that are supposed to be for Asian characters, this is no surprise to me. Just look at the major slights with "21" and the recent "Dragonball" movie. I was particularly affronted by Goku being played by obviously white Justin Chatwin, if not only because they tried to pass off an old Asian man as his grandfather.

Anyway, here's the biggest rub for me with "Avatar." When asked about the controversy, actor Jackson Rathbone (who will play Sokka) offers up this gem:

”I think it's one of those things where I pull my hair up, shave the sides and I definitely need a tan. It’s one of those things where, hopefully, the audience will suspend disbelief a little bit.”

Really? Just get a tan? Why don't we tape up your eyes while you're at it?

I'll forgive the boy because he looks like he's about 13-years-old and doesn't know any better. But the producers? No way. Are you as frustrated as I am, readers? How long are we going to let the film industry deny Asian American actors leading roles under the assumption that they can't have mass appeal?

Check out racebending.com for more info about the anti-Avatar film movement.

Photo from Racebending.com