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Why Shyamalan’s right, but wrong, about Airbender casting

Submitted by on Wednesday, 7 July 2010 No Comment

Shopping for a bathing suit is bad enough, but it becomes virtually impossible when a kid wearing pale-yellow paints and has an arrow eye-linered onto a freshly shaved scalp pops around the corner.

“Hey, guys, look! It’s Aang!” I called, quickly forgetting about the bathing suits. I hadn’t been that enthusiastic to start with.

“Aang” and Big Guy quickly became fast friends, following each other all over the store. “Aang” would flop back and forth between being in character and being a normal 8-year-old boy. When Big Guy asked him his age, he at first said 112 – an answer in keeping with the cartoon. But later, “Aang” asked Big Guy who his sensei is when they were comparing karate belts, and everyone knows that the Avatar masters bending, not martial arts.

When he was on, though, this kid was good. Bam good, as Big Guy says. His air bending looked so authentic that I kept waiting for the clearance racks to blow over. He also was a fairly skilled gymnast, turning three cartwheels in a row in the aisles and capping them with a Russian split. Ouch, Big Guy and I both said.

We wound up eating lunch with “Aang” and his grandfather at McDonald’s, where the boys critiqued the Avatar toys that are this month’s Happy Meal prize. By the time we’d parted ways the two boys who represented three races between them had spent hours together talking about a show they both loved and wishing they lived next door so they could be best friends for longer.

And that’s why director M. Night Shyamalan got at least the theory right when he picked the cast for the movie “The Last Airbender.”

His decisions – which included giving three of the leading roles to white actors, two of whom were unknowns – have been criticized as “racebending” and “whitewashing.” To compound it, the villians in the  cartoon Book One on which this summer’s movie is based are considerably darker skinned.

Shyamalan’s defense lies in the cartoon itself: “Anime is based on ambiguous facial features. It’s meant to be interpretive,” he told The Washington Post. “It’s meant to be inclusive of all races, and you can see yourself in all these characters. My daughter saw herself as Kitara and now her friend who’s Hispanic sees herself as Kitara, and that’s totally valid.”

And he’s absolutely right about that – kids from a number of backgrounds can see themselves as Aang. The character’s complexion in the cartoon is darker than the actor in the movie, and his grayish eyes are light enough that Big Guy can see them as his own blueish gray eyes but dark enough that the brown-eyed “Aang” at the discount store could see himself as well.

The problem is, Shyamalan didn’t cast the movie to reflect that ambiguity. The actors who play Katara and Saka clearly aren’t dark enough – that’s Big Guy’s verdict based on the trailers. We haven’t seen the movie yet.

If Shyamalan had cast the role of Aang in the ambiguous way he talked about in defending his decision to cast a white in the role, I would have no problem with it. Though there’s an undeniable Asian influence in the cartoon, I’ve never necessarily seen Aang as Asian.

I’ve seen him instead as everykid. And Big Guy and a lot of his friends do as well.

Copyright 2010 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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