Last Saturday, I went down to the Wachovia Center to attend the extras casting call for M. Night Shyamalan's upcoming film, The Last Airbender. Based off a popular Nickelodeon cartoon series with a cult following, the movie depicts a fantasy world divided into four regions, each dominated by a particular element: Fire, Water, Earth and Air. Creators of the show have said that the series, drawn in a style similar to Japanese anime, contain elements inspired by ancient East Asian, South Asian and Inuit civilizations.
Because of these influences, casting director Deedee Rickets advised prospective extras in Friday's Daily Pennsylvanian article "to dress in traditional cultural ethnic attire. . If you're Korean, wear a kimono. If you're from Belgium, wear lederhosen." Unlike the original series, which features almost exclusively Asian cultural influences, Shyamalan's version will depict the four worlds as "ethnically and culturally" different, according to Rickets.
Alas, my Korean ancestors failed to leave me any kimonos - or saris for that matter - and my authentic Belgian lederhosen happened to be in the wash at the time. So, clad only in a mundane sweatshirt and pair of jeans, I looked around the room. There were about 50 to 60 people in this particular group (more aspiring actors were waiting in line outside), and they were all listening intently to Rickets.
"We're trying to create these four different nations so we're looking for different skin tones, and features, and bone structures," she said. As she spoke, I counted about a dozen small children - as well as two grown men - who were wearing karate outfits. Another handful of prospective extras wore traditional Nigerian outfits (most at this particular casting call were African American), but the vast majority thankfully had on boring, contemporary Western clothing.
One middle-aged black woman, clad in a denim jacket and black slacks, raised her hand. "Are you at a disadvantage if you didn't wear a costume?" she asked, evidently concerned about her "non-ethnic" outfit.
"Absolutely not!" Rickets reassured her. "It doesn't mean you're at a disadvantage if you didn't come in a big African thing. But guys, even if you came with a scarf today, put it over your head so you'll look like a Ukrainian villager or whatever."
And CUT! Or so I wish anyway.
After reading Friday's article and witnessing Saturday's casting call, I find myself disgusted and incensed by the filmmakers' blatant cultural insensitivity. Most obviously, Rickets confuses kimonos with hanboks and Belgians with Bavarians, as many online DP commentators pointed out. But even beyond that, the filmmakers' request for extras to come dressed in the "traditional costume of [their] family's ethnic background" patronizes members of all races. This type of racially charged statement is particularly damaging for Asian Americans, who are already widely dismissed as "perpetual foreigners" regardless of how long they have been in the United States.
Even worse, the culturally ignorant extras casting is but one aspect of a film that has experienced many more accusations of racial biases. Specifically, white actors have been cast in the four main roles, a decision that left many fans of the show furious. Instead, they believe that predominantly Asian actors should have been cast, given the series' obvious Asian influences. "You see things like Fu Manchu and Miss Saigon. These were originally roles for people who were Asian but were [cast] with white people in yellow face," said Wharton junior and Asian Pacific Student Coalition chairman Raymond Flores. "It's sad to see that's still happening today."
To clarify, I actually applaud Shyamalan's decision to show a greater diversity of cultures among the four countries. What I find deplorable is that the filmmakers literally said that these nations should be different "ethnically and culturally," but then proceeded to cast white protagonists to represent each of these distinct countries. Others at the casting call agreed.
"If the director himself is Indian, why would he have an all-white cast if the movie itself is supposed to be diverse?" said Simarque Kane, a Philadelphia resident and a prospective extra.
When asked about the criticism of this casting decision, Rickets merely said, "The best actors were cast, and that was it."
At this point, I'm not surprised that's the best excuse they could come up with.
Lisa Zhu is a College and Wharton senior from Cherry Hill, NJ. Zhu-ology appears on Thursdays. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.Comments powered by Disqus
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