Summer Movies, In White And White?

“The Karate Kid” was a box office smash featuring actors of color. But will the rest of the summer see a white wash on the big screen? Boston Globe Film Critic Wesley Morris and San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jeff Yang talk about diversity on the screen and the controversy over the casting of the upcoming film, "The Last Airbender."

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Finally today, if a trip to the movies is part of your plans for the July 4th weekend that's coming up, there's a slate of new would-be blockbusters waiting for you. That slate includes "The Last Airbender," a science fantasy action film inspired by the Nickelodeon cartoon series.

(Soundbite of film, "The Last Airbender")

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: He is the last of his kind. All that remains of a once powerful nation.

MARTIN: Da, da, da. Well, fans who love the cartoon are already lining up for tomorrow's opening of "The Last Airbender." But some don't want to see the film, some want to protest against it. Now, some say that the casting of white actors in most of the roles fails to uphold the spirit of the original story, which focuses on Asian and Inuit characters and culture.

We wanted to talk more about this and other films that are coming up this summer. So we've called Wesley Morris. He's a movie critic for the Boston Globe and he joins us from Boston. Also with us, Jeff Yang, who writes the Asian pop column for the San Francisco Chronicle, and he joins us from New York. Welcome to you both. Thanks for joining us.

Mr. JEFF YANG (Columnist, San Francisco Chronicle): Hello.

Mr. WESLEY MORRIS (Movie Critic, Boston Globe): Great to be back.

MARTIN: So, Jeff, briefly, would you just tell us the story of Airbender and just tell us a little bit about what's motivating the protests.

Mr. YANG: Now, this is a world that was resting on this philosophical foundation and sort of aesthetic context that is pretty much drawn directly from, you know, Asian ideas, Asian phenomenon, Asian culture is that basically you've got a world in which, you know, the peoples are divided into tribes. Each of which has the power over one of the sort of four elements: fire, water, air and earth.

And if you actually look at the way that the original cartoon was designed, the creators of the cartoon, who were not themselves Asian, very clearly intended for these characters and the world they live in to be drawn from kind of the mythology and the context of Asia.

MARTIN: And so, how extensive do you think the protest is or how widespread among the fan base do you think the concern is?

Mr. YANG: I'd say it's really widespread in the sense that you have these sort of pockets of rebellion just about everywhere you go. Virtually every college I've visited, every city I've gone to - and you'll have somebody ask this question: what is the deal with "The Last Airbender"? You know, why isn't Aang Asian, the way he was supposed to be?

So, it's kind of grassroots. It's fairly organized, mostly online, and it is surprisingly, I think, vocal about what they believe. And, you know, we'll see, I'm not sure how much it's...

MARTIN: If it has some effect on sales.

Mr. YANG: Exactly.

MARTIN: Just because the film has such buzz. Well, Wesley, why don't you tell us a little bit more about the buzz apart from or along with the controversy.

Mr. MORRIS: Well, I've seen the movie and I really am excited that this movie is as controversial as it is, because it is much more exciting than the actual movie itself.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MORRIS: And I salute our Asian friends for getting up in arms about something that has gotten sort of national attention. Black people can't do it alone. It is exciting to see that. I hope nobody goes because it's a really bad movie.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Oh, no.

Mr. YANG: My good friend Angry Asian Man had a one-word review for it: Joyless.

MARTIN: Angry Asian Man being another blogger.

Mr. YANG: Yes.

MARTIN: The mysterious Angry Asian Man. If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about summer movies with Wesley Morris, movie critic for the Boston Globe; and pop culture columnist Jeff Yang, who writes for the San Francisco Chronicle. His column is called Asian Pop. We've started out talking about "The Last Airbender."

There are other films going back to, like, say, "An Officer and a Gentleman," the Louis Gossett, Jr. role was not originally envisioned for an African-American, but then he got that role and was acclaimed for it. And then let's look at this summer's "The Karate Kid," starring Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan. Let's just play a short clip from that film. Here it is.

(Soundbite of film, "The Karate Kid")

Mr. JACKIE CHAN (Actor): (as Mr. Han) Empty your mind. Flow with my movement. Connect to the energy around you.

Mr. JADEN SMITH (Actor): (as Dre Parker) I kind of just want to learn the cobra thing.

Mr. CHAN: Cobra takes a lifetime. It requires great focus.

Mr. SMITH: But I have great focus. Whoa. Whoa. Oh, my God. Mr. Han.

Mr. CHAN: Your focus needs more focus.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Now, of course, that's Jaden Smith learning some martial arts the hard way from Jackie Chan. As I understand it, Jeff, there were people who could complain that the Mr. Miyagi character from the original film, which was originally an Asian-American character and now there are some people who thought that Jackie Chan wasn't the right fit for that. So, what about that?

Mr. YANG: So, you know, this one was tough as well. I mean, at least for the legions of people who seem to have enshrined the original "Karate Kid" as this nostalgic gem of their childhood. And I, frankly, kind of thought it was overrated.

Mr. MORRIS: Kind of?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MORRIS: I mean, you can put that out there. You think it's bad.

Mr. YANG: Yeah, all right, yeah. It was definitely - other than Bananarama, I found very little to enjoy about the original trilogy. And, of course, Pat Morita. I mean, Pat Morita, in playing this role, he got an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Japanese-American Mr. Miyagi. And, of course, you know, people, I think Asian-Americans, more exclusively, were concerned that we lost that in seeing him recast as Mr. Han, who's also unequivocally Chinese and who is Jackie Chan, right?

At the same time, you also had quite a bit of protest over the fact that 23-year-old Ralph Macchio in the original has been recast with 12-year-old Jaden Smith, son of, you know, kind of this Hollywood dynasty. You know, there were even people, I think, who were kind of pulling the race card there, too. You know, wondering why was every time you remade something these days you had to put an African-American or, you know, a Latino or something like that in a role that was originally white.

MARTIN: Okay, Wesley, as a film, Jeff's broken down the sociopolitical cultural aspects of it, did the "Karate Kid" work for you as a film? Worth seeing?

Mr. MORRIS: Yeah. I mean, it's too long. But, I mean, I had a really good time. It's really long. Michel, did you see it?

MARTIN: No, this was a dad and son outing. So I did not see it.

Mr. MORRIS: Did anybody complain about the fact that it was two hours and, like, 20 minutes? I just don't know why it needed to be that long.

MARTIN: Especially a film that you're going to take kids to.

Mr. MORRIS: But they don't seem to mind. You know, and I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that Jaden Smith is charismatic and he is fun to watch. And Jackie Chan basically hits all the notes of that character really well. It's not the best-made movie. But, I mean, just being a part of something where people are cheering and you feel like someone has - everyone has an investment in this kid beating this awful, awful bully who is so good at being awful, you root for him to get his face kicked in.

MARTIN: Well, which apparently is what happens. Well, Wesley, finally, I need to get your take on another blockbuster that just opened in theaters last night: "Eclipse."

Mr. MORRIS: Oh, boy.

MARTIN: The latest in the "Twilight" film series. And I'll play a short clip so that we can just hear the squealing in the distance from the teen girls who apparently are already flocking to this.

Mr. MORRIS: Ladies and gentlemen, cover your ears.

MARTIN: Here it is.

(Soundbite of film, "The Twilight Saga: Eclipse")

Ms. KRISTEN STEWART (Actor): (as Bella Swan) Edward?

Mr. ROBERT PATTINSON (Actor): (as Edward Cullen) If you ever touch her against her will again...

Ms. STEWART: Don't do this.

Mr. TAYLOR LAUTNER (Actor): (as Jacob Black) She's not sure what she wants.

Ms. STEWART: Don't do this here.

Mr. PATTINSON: Well, let me give you a clue.

Mr. LAUTNER: Wait for her to say the words.

Mr. PATTINSON: Fine. And she will.

MARTIN: Of course this was the - these are...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Why are you all laughing?

Mr. MORRIS: It's so much different on the radio than it is in the movie theater. I can't tell you. It sounds like a serial, like a radio - like a soap opera, actually, is what it sounds like.

MARTIN: Well, it kind of is, isn't it?

Mr. MORRIS: It kind of - it totally is.

MARTIN: It's a teen, werewolf, vampire love triangle.

Mr. MORRIS: It's laid bare on the radio without being able to see Taylor Lautner and Kristen Stewart and Edward Pattinson.

Mr. YANG: You could make the argument that this is sort of like the white ethnic entrant into the blockbuster race, right?

Mr. MORRIS: Yeah, no, I mean, these movies are interesting in terms of who's in them and who isn't in them. I mean, ultimately what you have is these two white kids and this person of color sort of duking it out for who gets to sleep with her first.

The series itself, the reason it works is because it gets into another underserved movie-going audience, which is girls with actual, active hormones. And this movie is about a girl who wants to have sex with one guy who won't have sex with her because he needs to wait because his sex is so powerful that she'll die...

MARTIN: Oh, dear.

Mr. MORRIS: ...if they're not married beforehand.

MARTIN: Wow, that is heavy. There's a lot there.

Mr. MORRIS: It's a heavy pro-abstinence message.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. YANG: Very Promise Keepers or something.

Mr. MORRIS: Yeah. But, I mean, it works. And it works for the audience for whom it's intended. And I think that that's a really important thing.

MARTIN: And finally, got to get - I have to let you go, but are there any upcoming films that you are excited about seeing? And Wesley, and then Jeff, I'll let you get a final word.

Mr. MORRIS: There's not a lot really happening this summer at this point. I'm looking forward to "Inception," this Christopher Nolan movie about people who enter other people's minds to steal stuff. It's a very good idea. It's the guy who made "The Dark Knight" and "Memento." He's a good filmmaker. He's got a lot of great ideas about what movies can do both visually and sort of intellectually.

And I'm also looking forward to seeing Julia Roberts in "Eat, Pray, Love." I think the reason this summer has been so bad and the reason that "The Karate Kid," for instance, has been such a success is because we're sort of starved for movie stars to be movie stars, not to just sort of do something else. I'm looking forward to Julia Roberts sort of just, you know, smiling and tantruming her way through Asia and Europe.

MARTIN: Being her star. That sounds right. Jeff, anything you're looking forward to?

Mr. YANG: Yeah, you know, I think mine are more sort of guilty pleasures on some level. But, you know, I have to say that I can't quite resist "The Expendables" if only because, you know, Jet Li's in there, as well as, you know, kind of this hot mess of action heroes from the '80s.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MORRIS: I mean, did they leave anybody out? Steven Seagal should be really, really upset.

Mr. YANG: Oh, Steven Seagal, yeah. I, you know, I cannot say that I regret that whatsoever. And I have to give props and even though this is going to be totally kind of one of those sleeper, under-the-marquee-type hits I think, to "Step Up 3D." I mean, this is a summer of dance. There's, you know, there's going to be some multicultural, like, Harry Shum, you know, rocking the floor action there. And it's my fix of "Glee" before it comes back. So, what can I say?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay. All right, we'll see.

Jeff Yang writes the Asian Pop column for the San Francisco Chronicle. He joined us from our bureau in New York. Wesley Morris is a film critic for the Boston Globe and he joined us from Boston. Gentlemen, thank you both.

Mr. MORRIS: Thank you, Michel.

Mr. YANG: Thanks, Michel.

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