Posted on Tuesday, June 9th, 2009 by Brendon Connelly
Some more casting for M. Night Shyamalan‘s The Last Airbender has been confirmed by the fansite Last Airbender Film, and it would seem, for once, to be an example of the filmmakers sidestepping controversy. Please welcome Isaac Jin Solstein, 10 year old Korean-American actor and black belt in Tang Soo Do and Soo Bahk Do. His role has been officially identified as “Earthbending Boy”, though fans of the show will probably already have inferred from this that he’s most very likely playing the character of Haru. After the break, a video example of Isaac doing his stuff and more on the casting controversy.
No sooner had the initial casting for the film been announced late last year, there was outcry over the race of the actors selected. All three of the leads, heroes and villain alike, were filled with Caucasian players which immediately triggered a tremendously loud alarm. The original show was not only filled, wall to wall, with characters of clear Asian origin, it was marketed as such. Nickelodeon explicitly referred to the series as being set in a “fantastical Asian world”. Two of these players have retained their roles, with one part actually having been recast with an Asian performer. If this was an attempt to quell protests it pretty much backfired however, as the two white actors, Noah Ringer and Nicole Peltz, retained their heroic roles and the Asian actor, Dev Patel, was put into the position of antagonist. For many observers, this implicit endorsement of old cliches about heroism and ethnicity (if not fascist propagandist images of the same) was just another straw on the back of an already crumpled camel.
For me, the debate became a touch more complex when the first images from the film were revealed (though, to be fair, I remained steadfast in my disapproval of the principles of the casting). The scarring of the villain was apparently downplayed in his make-up, perhaps bucking one cliche while still staring into the face of the other. Furthermore, the pictures of Noah Ringer in character actually looked rather strikingly like his cartoon counterpart, ethnicity aside. Does this likeness lend any credence to an argument that the casting has taken place in a rather ideallistic, post-race headspace where issues of ethnic discrimination simply don’t need to be humoured? I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s what the studio and Shyamalan would say.
There’s definitely a debate to be had about why Shyamalan and his collaborators might not just reinvent the mythos and change the ethnic playing field of the narrative entirely. Is it really a problem if what they’ve actually done here is just reimagined the milieu to incorporate people of Caucasian ethnicity? Of course, that would be an argument the filmmakers would lose the second they put an actor in “yellowface”.
I’m pleased that film fans are finding it in themselves to care enough about the issue of race and ethnic representation to explore the choices made in the casting of this film, how these choices may be wrong, why the studio and Shyamalan may have made them, and what solutions there might (miraculously?) be. The most well known protest site is Racebending, who have compiled the evidence and many arguments, of varying strength, against the filmmakers.
The addition of Isaac Jin Solstein to the cast needs to be celebrated to some extent however, not least because his character is on the side of the good guys. You can check him out in martial arts action below: