Nicola Peltz and Noah Ringer in The Last Airbender.
From the minute it was originally announced that M. Night Shyamalan was casting a bunch of white actors in The Last Airbender, it created a ... well, "firestorm" is overused on the Internet, but it really sort of was one. Now — I didn't watch the show, and I haven't seen the movie, so I certainly don't have strong feelings about this particular example or how it turned out. Moreover, it's complicated by the fact that almost all the reviews of the movie are terrible (5 percent on Rotten Tomatoes! Zoiks!), and the reviews of the acting in particular are unkind, and now it's hard to know how anyone would feel if the movie had been awesome and the acting revered.
But boy, as a concept, this is a tricky, tricky thing. They talked about it yesterday on Tell Me More, and I'm not sure I'm any less conflicted.
Because as columnist Jeff Yang (who participated in the Tell Me More discussion) points out in this piece from the San Francisco Chronicle, the cartoon is not actually intended to be set in real, actual Asia, or populated with real, actual Asian people, nor is it even something that was created by Asians. It's "clearly set in an original fantasy world — invented by two white Americans, Bryan Konietzko and Mike DiMartino."
It's ... well, here's how one of the angry commentators puts it: "The Avatar animated series is mired with and 100% composed of Asian influences. The world, the cultures, the people, the costumes, the script, the belief systems, the references, the mythology - everything is Asian-or-Inuit based." But then, too: "Avatar is a cartoon influenced by Asian/Inuit/non-European concepts, but the races are fictional."
Don't get me wrong; the objections are very compelling. There's a miserably tiny number of Asian characters in mainstream films, and it's inescapable that this is a situation where a clear opportunity existed to cast/discover/give opportunities to young Asian actors without having to bust through the casting walls that make it so difficult to get people to consider Asian actors for roles that aren't specifically written to require or at least suggest them.
On the other hand (or maybe we're up to the other other other hand), who am I to wave my finger at M. Night Shyamalan about casting actors of color?
On yet another hand, not all actors want the benefit of the "you need to cast an actor of the same general ethnicity" approach to casting anyway; plenty of them are not only content to compete equally for every role with everybody else from every other background, but wouldn't have it any other way.
Any more hands left? If you've got one, let's use that one for "we all know they're not competing equally for every role with everybody else from every other background, because that is not the world we live in."
It made me think about a debate that recently raged inside my head about Kevin McHale, who plays Artie on Glee and does not, unlike Artie, use a wheelchair (which my mom, for instance, didn't realize until she'd watched a bunch of episodes). The debate goes like this:
Kevin McHale is so darling and charming in that part; I couldn't possibly object.
But: It would have been a massively high-profile part for a young actor in a wheelchair, who has far fewer roles to pick from than Kevin McHale, if we're being realistic.
But: Who says he would have been as good at playing Artie as Kevin McHale?
But: Who says he wouldn't?
But: The show actually used the fact that McHale doesn't use a wheelchair to put Artie in a dream dance sequence that wound up being very poignant, because once you've seen Kevin McHale dance, you want to see him dance more, and when you realize you're not going to and that you're sad, there is an "aha" moment that pings alongside Artie's story (which is about wishing he could be a dancer and realizing he won't) and that actually works quite well. Being able to show him dancing became a tool in the storytelling.
But: Chris Colfer gave them the story about Kurt desperately wanting to sing "Defying Gravity," and it came from something in the actor that translated to the character. Doesn't it seem likely that an actor who uses a wheelchair might have been able to provide something useful to Artie that McHale can't?
But: It's not my show, is it?
Obviously, there are times when "you need to cast a person who has all the same qualities as the character" arguments seem entirely silly. I found the claims that Spider-Man couldn't be black (see the comments here, for instance) to be completely unconvincing, because nothing about Spider-Man suggests race, to me. I mean, as long as you're ... you know, Spider-Man, it seems like you've got the job. The arguments about The Last Airbender are far more nuanced than "the actor has to look like the original because all change is bad and the guy in the movie should look exactly like the Underoos or my mind is blown," which is what the Spider-Man thing seems to be about.
In theory, I love the idea of the blindest casting possible — I thought it was fantastic when Angelina Jolie got the role in Salt for which they originally considered ... Tom Cruise. In theory, I'd like none of this to be important. But for the moment, that's a lovely idea that mostly encourages the status quo, and the status quo in turn encourages (commercially, not politically) conservative casting choices that benefit everybody who's already got all the built-in advantages.
So I'm curious about what you think, because from where I sit, other than the fact that I'm pretty sure I don't need to see The Last Airbender based on the reviews, I'm still finding this an awfully vexing issue.