My staycation continues. It’s amazing that I can suddenly watch so much TV. I don’t watch much under ordinary circumstances, and when I’m in deadline mode I only turn the thing on to play video games for stress relief. Thus I’m usually horribly behind on just about any show that’s “hot”. I’m just now about to watch the first season of “Heroes” and the third season of Doctor Who… yeah, I know. But when people ask me how I find time to write… well, that’s how. This usually applies to movies, too. I think I’ve missed Iron Man 2; don’t know if it’s still playing anywhere nearby. Might make it to The
Kung Fu Karate Kid, because I keep hearing that it’s not as faily as its title. We’ll see.
Speaking of faily films, though… The Last Airbender debuts this week, but I’m not planning to see it. This is despite the fact that “Avatar: The Last Airbender” (its source cartoon) was, in my opinion, the best original fantasy produced by an American company since Jim Henson’s death. It was a children’s cartoon that was Shakespearean in its themes and weight, yet it managed to remain fundamentally young at heart. I was disappointed with the ending — I think the whole last season was rushed and incomplete (argh wtf happened to A Certain Character’s mother?!) — but aside from this, it was one of the few shows I watched religiously, and recommend to others unreservedly.
But the film version of “The Last Airbender” is not the same story, and I’m not interested in spending money on it.
The race issue is part of this, of course. I’ve previously referenced the film’s whitewashing (which fans call racebending), and yeah, it pisses me off. Film!TLA is not the same story as cartoon!ATLA because the latter was groundbreaking in its treatment of race and culture, and the former reinforces all the old bad paradigms — brown people relegated to background irrelevance, victimhood, or villainy; white people to the rescue at the forefront. This is not just a problem because of Hollywood’s (well, America’s) long history of marginalizing and objectifying people of color, “yellowface”, etc. It’s also problematic because in this case, changing the race of the characters actually changes the story.
This is not so for every case of colorblind casting, IMO, and I want to state clearly that I’m in favor of this practice in most cases. It makes sense more often than it doesn’t*. I’m a firm believer in the concept of universality: most good stories can be told by anyone, and enjoyed by anyone. I’ve tried to model this in my own writing. But in the case of film!TLA, its producers and director have ignored the fact that the characters’ race is fundamental to their development. Everyone in the cartoon!ATLA world was some flavor of Asian, and this racial context informs their relationships, their philosophies, their lifestyles, and all their choices. Specific, carefully-researched and thoughtfully-appropriated elements from dozens of distinct Asian cultures were used to depict the world’s diversity in a way that was nuanced and realistic. It mattered that Aang’s design and personality were inspired by Tibet’s Dalai Lama. (That’s why the show was called “Avatar.” See “Tibetan Buddhism.”) It mattered that Katara had to struggle against her tribe’s gender-role customs; this was common in Inuit societies. It mattered that each of the martial arts used in the cartoon were rooted in philosophical differences as significant as those between libertarians and socialists, or Buddhists and Baptists, or pacifists and war-hawks. To ignore all these distinctions and reduce them to a simplified mishmash erases many of the vital, fascinating details that made the characters of cartoon!ATLA feel so plausible and identifiable. Erase too many such details about these characters, and you don’t have the same characters anymore.
But the damage goes deeper than that, I fear. The ATLA cartoon treated its characters as three-dimensional people. We got to see that Aang is a cheerful, goofy kid — who, under tremendous pressure and despite horrific trauma, retains his sense of self and becomes a cheerful, goofy young man by the end of the series. The support he receives from friends and community (and the obligatory dead mentor (s)) are part of how he stays himself. And most of those people had complementary skills, since Aang was by no means all-powerful — which is why cartoon!ATLA was truly an ensemble show. It was never just Aang and his sidekicks. But there’s no evidence of this in the trailers for the film, or even in the director’s commentary to date. (Case in point: cartoon!ATLA wasn’t anime. I have no idea why Shyamalan keeps calling it that. Is James Clavell’s Shogun Japanese literature? Yeesh.) Instead we’re treated to endless shots of Aang as the cliched “badass martial artist” — a lone warrior, stoically emotionless or scowling mightily, executing feats of physical or magical Awesoma Powa. I think there’s only one trailer in which the boy speaks — I say “I think” because I’m not even sure that line was his. Yet his character in the ATLA cartoon was, though young, a teacher, diplomat, and spiritual guide. Talking was his main modus operandi; fighting was only his backup plan. This was fundamental to his character. Without this personality trait we don’t get Aang; we get a bald, prepubescent Bruce Lee. We get Hollywood’s vision of the acceptable Asian male: dangerous, inscrutable… and wearing a white face.
I don’t believe that only an Asian actor could’ve conveyed these nuances accurately. But I do believe that only film producers who respected the source material and its fans, and its fans’ reasons for loving the show, could have translated the cartoon to live action in a way that would satisfy me.** And this film — which replaces the source’s Chinese writing with “Asian-inspired” gibberish, which clumsily patches Christian symbolism onto a character who is quintessentially Buddhist, and which only backed away from a total whitewash of the film to placate furious fans… nah, I’m not feeling a lot of respect here.
I don’t think a good story can grow from such carelessly-handled roots. I think it will be a mediocre story — the same story Hollywood tells over and over again with slightly different window dressing each time, constantly hoping that this time the story won’t fail miserably. This one might succeed; I wish them luck, if only for the sake of the young actors’ careers. But it won’t be the story I fell in love with, and I’m not interested in that same old mediocre story, so I’ll stay home, thanks.
* PoC in Shakespeare? Heckyeah. The Bard himself wrote about the “blackamoors” (Moors), and there were traders from other continents present in England throughout, before, and after the Elizabethan era. But Thor… Okay. I like Idris Elba. He’s hot. He can act. But after all the research I did for the Inheritance Trilogy, I cannot overlook the fact that most ancient peoples envisioned their deities — where they visualized them — as reflections of themselves. In that context, this casting doesn’t make sense. HOWEVER, in the context of Hollywood, and the nonsensical whitewashing that continually happens to PoC, I’ve decided to view Elba’s casting here as repayment of a debt. Now PoC-cast-as-white-characters just needs to happen 500 more times, and include some leading roles, and then we can get back to sensible colorblind casting.
** Here’s where Shyamalan could’ve learned something from anime, if he actually knew anything about it and wasn’t just wielding the word as a +10 defensive shield against criticism. American companies importing anime and manga have wrestled with the balance between respecting the source and respecting the audience’s intelligence for decades; they’ve mostly gotten to be quite good at it. But yanno, I somehow don’t think Shyamalan is much of an anime fan.