June 29, 2010

The last airbender controversy, in m. night shyamalan's own words

With The Last Airbender opening in theaters in just a few days, everybody wants to know what director M. Night Shyamalan has to say about the fan controversy surrounding the race of movie's key characters.

During a recent media event, an interviewer asked him about it... and Manoj, um, kind of lost it: M Night Shyamalan in his own words on The Last Airbender race controversy. I found this kind of interesting:

There are four nations, and I had to eventually make a decision about what nationality each of them are. What happened was, Noah Ringer walked in the door – and there was no other human being on the planet that could play Aang except for this kid. To me, he felt mixed race with an Asian quality to him. I made all the Air nomads mixed race – some of them are Hispanic, some of them are Korean. Every monk you see in a flashback, in that world, are all mixed race because they're nomadic. I felt that really worked as a culture. OK, so that's one-quarter of our world population. The second group is the Fire Nation; when Dev was cast as Zuko, I said, OK, I have to cast an Uncle Iroh that looks like his uncle. We're going to go from Indian/Persian to Mediterranean, all that group with all its darker colors including Italians.

So now we're at one-half of the population of the movie which is not white.

Moving on to the third group, which is the Earth kingdom (which is the biggest kingdom in this fictional world): I liked a bunch of the people who happened to be Japanese, Korean, Philippine, so I decided to make the Earth kingdom Asians. Now we're at three-quarters of the world. Now I have the brother and sister left. If you don't have an edict of "don't put white people in the movie" then the Water tribe can be European/Caucasian. So that's how it ended up.

Here's the irony of the conversation: The Last Airbender is the most culturally diverse movie series of all time. I'm not talking about maybe one Jedi, maybe one person of a different color – no one's even close. That's a great pride to me. The irony of this statement enrages me to the point of ... not even the accusation, but the misplacement of it. You're coming at me, the one Asian filmmaker who has the right to cast anybody I want, and I'm casting this entire movie in this color blind way where everyone is represented. I even had one section of the Earth kingdom as African American, which obviously isn't in the show, but I wanted to represent them, too!

To be fair, from reading this, it does sound like Shyamalan actually put quite a bit of thought it into creating what was, in his mind, "the most culturally diverse movie series of all time." The problem is, this vision for the movie, and the resulting cast, stands in conflict with a lot of fans' fundamental understanding and appreciation of the source material.