Image courtesy of ComicsVerse
Pictured Above: The lead actors cast in The Last Airbender, placed side-by-side with the original animated characters.
Based off of the critically acclaimed Nickelodeon animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender, M. Night Shyamalan’s film adaptation The Last Airbender is widely recognized as one of the most notable cases of whitewashing in recent cinema. The original series, which was predominantly based in Asian culture, revolved around three child protagonists: all of whom were from Asian and Inuit backgrounds. This film adaptation, however, cast three white children as the leads.
In response to the outrage that this casting choice was met with, Shyamalan publicly defended the actors, stating (among other things) that “[a]nime is based on ambiguous facial features. It’s part of the art form.” In that same interview, Shyamalan went on to say that his goal with The Last Airbender was to “be more diverse“, and that he felt as though that goal was achieved.
While the facial features of the original animated characters are somewhat ambiguous, yes, this does not automatically mean that the characters are white – especially, when Avatar was set in Asia, and was heavily influenced by Asian culture.
The antagonist of The Last Airbender, Zuko – who is originally of Asian descent – was played by Dev Patel, an actor of Indian descent. This is another widely regarded issue with the film: out of the main cast, the only character of color was the villain. Not only did this film whitewash Asian roles, but also ensured that the only actor of color was put in a vilified role.
As Shyamalan stressed in various interviews, The Last Airbender was intended to be marketed to kids, as the original animated series was. However, due to this casting, Shyamalan is not only perpetuating the white savior trope, but is also teaching that non-Caucasians are made out to be the villain, not the hero.
“The fact of the matter is, in Hollywood… it’s not fair. It’s not fair at all, the tables are tipped unfavorably for ethnic actors.” –Dante Basco, voice actor of Zuko in Avatar: The Last Airbender
This film was met with severe backlash, taking the form of large protest groups, angry letters, and ultimately, a failure at the box office. Whereas Avatar has a positive rating of 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, The Last Airbender has a positive rating of 6%.
Han Tang’s 2011 documentary, Yellow Face, deals directly with the backlash that The Last Airbender was met with – from the protests, to reactions from both those who were against the whitewashing in the film, and those who didn’t see a problem with it. This documentary also draws attention to an unfortunate ‘reality’: people are unsurprised that white actors are taking on Asian roles, with such comments being made as “that’s life” and “it’s the business.” The documentary also looks at the creation racebending.com, a campaign which began for the purpose of protesting The Last Airbender.
Despite The Last Airbender‘s source material being largely based off of Asian culture, and being led by Asian and Inuit characters, M. Night Shyamalan’s adaptation not only whitewashed the protagonists while placing a colored actor in the role of the antagonist, but did so while claiming to be a diverse and colorblind film. Whitewashing is not an excusable practice, nor is it something that should attempt to be justified.