Earlier this year, casting announcements for M Night Shyamalan’s filmic adaptation of the popular cartoon The Last Airbender sparked a storm of controversy. Our US correspondent Kimberly Gadette interviewed the director, who gave an in-depth (and impassioned) response to his detractors. We’ve also got the latest clip from the film, below.
Media pundits have suggested that M Night Shyamalan changed the race of key characters in The Last Airbender and/or gave Asian roles to Caucasian actors. You can read the full-length interview here but this excerpt is Shyamalan’s answer to a question posed by another interviewer in the same session. Is his response reasonable? A little demented? Frazzled to the point of exhaustion?
Q: There's been a lot of controversy regarding the casting and how all the heroes are being portrayed by Caucasian actors, while all the villains are all being portrayed by non-Caucasians. How do you respond to those who are saying that The Last Airbender is racist?
M Night Shyamalan: ‘Well, you caught me. I'm the face of racism. I'm always surprised at the level of misunderstanding, the sensitivities that exist. As an Asian-American, it bothers me when people take all of their passion and rightful indignation about the subject and then misplace it. Here's the reality: first of all, the Uncle Iroh character is the Yoda character in the movie, and it would be like saying that Yoda was a villain. So he's Persian.
And Dev Patel is the actual hero of the series, and he's Indian, OK? The whole point of the movie is that there isn't any bad or good. The irony is that I'm playing on the exact prejudices that the people who are claiming I'm racist are doing. They immediately assume that everyone with dark skin is a villain. That was an incredibly racist assumption which as it turns out is completely incorrect.
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!
And I fought like crazy to have the pronunciation of the names to go back to the Asian pronunciation. So you say "Ahng" instead of "Aaang" because it's correct. It's not "I-rack," it's "ee-Rock." I'm literally fighting for all this. And who's getting blamed? ME! This is incredible. And so it's infuriating, this stigmatization, that the first word about the most culturally-diverse movie of all time is this accusation. And here's the irony of it, this has nothing to do with the studio system. I had complete say in casting. So if you need to point the racist finger, point it at me, and if it doesn't stick, then be quiet.
Whenever we're on set, it's crazy, I love it. We're in our cafeteria, it looks like the United Nations in there! And you're not supposed to be thinking about this because it's so diverse. And again, this is what really frustrates me, when we get to the second movie (hopefully), since its based in the Earth Kingdom, suddenly the movie will seem entirely politically correct Asian, and the accusers will feel like they won. YOU DID NOT WIN! YOU DID NOT WIN! That's not what happened, you were wrong. As you can tell, it's a frustrating thing. Look at the movie poster with Dev Patel in it. I'm not understanding ... he's not politically correct?
I could go on for half an hour on that subject ... in the end it's like that saying, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions."
At the basis of this, a fascinating thing, it didn't even occur to me until the first mention of this came up: The art form of Anime in and of itself is what's causing the confusion. The Anime artists intentionally put ambiguous features on the characters so that you see who you want to see in it. It's part of the art form. My daughter looks identical to Katara; I saw my family in that series when I was watching it, I saw them in the faces. I'm sure that every household feels the same way in that they see their own families in them. It's a fascinating thing about how people perceive it. If there's an issue with why Anime does not put particularly specific Asian features from the PC Asian types that people think should be there ... take it up with Anime animators. It has nothing to do with me.’
And there you have it. We'd be very interested in your comments.
A new clip from The Last Airbender has been released via Facebook. It provides the first glimpse of Aang’s pet lemur, Momo. Fans of the Nickelodeon cartoon will be pleased to see how similar to the anime incarnations both Momo and Appa are, as well as noticing familiar scenes (for example, Katara’s less than perfect water-bending backfiring on her brother, Sokka). With any luck the entire film will stay as true to the cartoon series as the clips and trailers indicate. Watch it now.
The interview excerpt was edited and condensed. You can read the full interview with M Night Shyamalan here.