Avatar: The Last Airbender

Controversy Surrounds “White-Washed” Last Airbender Cast

I’ve been called a lot of things on this site before, but an idiot was never one of them.  Granted, I’ve never witnessed the amount of anger that I have seen here.  And I’m a fan of the property that is being argued about.

A week ago, I was proud to be among the ranks of fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender.  It seemed to be a popular show that, while it had its’ off episodes, ended properly.  This is something that almost never happens in cartoons, let alone on network TV.  The send-off was so well executed, it was bittersweet when the credits rolled.  It was satisfying, left you wanting more, and sad because you didn’t know if or when you’d be getting more.

The film trilogy was announced prior to much of Book 3 airing, and it set fandom on fire.  Everyone was chomping at the bit to get whatever information they could about the film project.  Not a week went by, in the last year and a half, that I didn’t get some form of a casting call request for this role or that.

And then it happened.  They announced a cast.  No sooner had the cast been announced, than it was assumed that it was an all-white cast for a show with Asian characters.

Herd mentality set in, and people started spouting off the same arguments so much, and so fast, it became apparent that even some of the fans of the show didn’t agree on what races should have been cast in which role.

This character is Tibetan, those two are Inuit, and this other one is very clearly Korean.  Or is he Japanese?  Or Chinese?

What region of the world is Avatar set in?  Is it, in fact, in our world?  No?  Okay, so we agree on one thing.  All we know is that the creators intended to base the show in an Asian background, versus a European one.  But that can imply both sides, when looked at it from both sides.

Mike: […]we knew that Nickelodeon was looking for a [particular fantasy] kind of show, so we kind of took that directive and set about creating our own mythology. And we wanted to base it in Asian rather than European background, and use the elements; to use martial arts as kind of the basis for the magic in the show… even though we don’t call it “magic,” it is the supernatural element of the show. (Animation Insider’s interview with Avatar’s creators.)

When it comes to being an Avatar fan today, as opposed to a week ago: now I have hords of people arguing about the races of characters on a cartoon.  I have people name-calling.  I’ve seen hate-speech and reverse racism.

Now, there are letter writing campaigns to the producers of the film, to try and get the casting reversed.

I am still proud to be a fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender, and I am still very much looking forward to see it in live-action.  But I am not happy with the treatment that some fans give to other fans.  The anger and intolerance has got to stop.

What we need isn’t an excuse for the casting choices that were made, or even a person to point fingers at.

What we need is an explanation from the film studio for the choices that were made.  I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, and am not willing to join the herd mentality that is happening.  (Although I should.  This is good for the film, as it brings awareness of the project into the mainstream, leading to higher box-office revenues.)  I am even happy with some of the casting choices.  They are actors that have been in things, performed before, are comfortable in front of a camera, and can act naturally (save for the lead role, who we haven’t seen before… there’s not even a picture of him!).

It comes down to this: fans will not be happy until Paramount gives us an explanation for the thought process that went into the choices for the roles.

But that could take a while.  I’m sure, with a movie like this, they’ve already began gathering footage for the behind-the-scenes segments of the inevitable DVD and Blu-ray releases.  They may even release web-previews that talk about casting the film, and perhaps show audition tapes that won the cast members their roles.

Let’s wait and see, and if you write to the production, and get a response that includes an explanation of the casting, please contact us.  We’d love to share it with all of the fandom.

If you want to write to the producers, here’s a blog that is leading the campaign.

41 Responses to “Controversy Surrounds “White-Washed” Last Airbender Cast”

  1. lilyrose says:

    I think it's horrible that the fans are making this a race issue.
    They should look beyond that phase.
    The creators of this production are just trying to use a decent cast with
    people who can actually act.

    The people who many of the fans imagined
    to be their cast, probably didn't even audition or make the cut.

    I am mexican-american and I think the casting is great.
    NO matter what, I'll still be an avatar fan nonetheless.
    & plese stop wasting your time on writing hate mail.
    It will not be read by the creators,
    only by the secretaries of paramount.

    I am sorry on behalf of some of the fans specter.

  2. bob says:

    Dude, all I want is for the actors to actually LOOK like the characters they are portraying. I know talent is extremely important, but so are looks! I want the actors to remain true to the characters with both their personality and their appearance! If M Night would just find two very talented Native America or Indian or Lation or dark skinned actors to portray Katara and Sokka, then I would back off. If M Night would just find a talented Asian actor to portray Zuko, then I would back off.

  3. David says:

    Here's the thing. Sure the world of Avatar isn't our world. But here's something which pulls apart the argument of those who say casting white people for katara and sokka is ok.
    If there was a cartoon mythology based on african culture and because of the magic, it was clearly not our world, does that mean when you make a movie about it that you'd hire white people to act on the subject matter which is based on african culture? or reverse that. If there was a cartoon mythology based on british culture and history, if you turned it into a movie, would you get africans to play the main characters.
    It think the respectful thing to do is to hire people to play the characters who actually have something to do with the source culture the mythology is based on.

    If someone was going to make a movie about World War II, when the Japanese invaded Pearl Habour, can you imagion if they cast Japanese to play Americans? And Americans to play Japanese?
    That movie would be such a joke.
    It would make no sense.
    The same applies here.

  4. Brandon says:

    HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! Never thought I'd see Avatar compared to a movie about WWII 😉

    But really though, I've never seen the show nor do I know ANYTHING about it or the characters. I really could care less what ethnicity the characters are as long as they stay true to Night's vision of the adaptation.

    Not everything that is adapted has to be EXACTLY the same as the previous source…the book is very different than the movie, but the movie IMO is one of the most accomplished pieces of cinema in history. All that I'm saying is let the movie stand on its own, let the actors play their parts, go see it opening night, and THEN you can bitch about the talents' race. If the movie sucks, then it sucks. Not the end of the world guys!

  5. Brandon says:

    **EDIT TO PREVIOUS POST**

    Not everything that is adapted has to be EXACTLY the same as the previous source, take Jurassic Park for instance…the book is very different than the movie, but the movie IMO is one of the most accomplished pieces of cinema in history. All that I'm saying is let the movie stand on its own, let the actors play their parts, go see it opening night, and THEN you can bitch about the talents' race. If the movie sucks, then it sucks. Not the end of the world guys!

  6. Dr Crowe says:

    Yea, the biggest problem with the WWII is quite obvious. One is a real life historic event, and the other is a fictional fantasy.

    I get your point, but the analogy is invalid.

  7. Mr_Glass.1 says:

    Yeah, I agree with Specter, I'm willing to wait and see how they explain it all.

  8. Richie says:

    I agree 100% with anyone who thinks that race doesn't matter! 🙂 People are forgetting that the genral deifinition for acting is pretending to be someone you are not 🙂 Further more, white is simply a color, not a skin color, Cucasioun is a skin color. And, skin color has absolutely nothing to do with Race. In other words, Chinese people are qoute-unquote WHITE, Vetinese people are quote-unquote WHITE, some Africans are quote-unquote WHITE etc.
    P.S. anyone who is thinking on negitively commenting on my spelling, do not.

  9. David says:

    My point is about respecting the source culture and making it authentic and not an unfaithful adaption. It's like Baz Luhrmann's 1996 modern adaption of Romeo and Juliet. Sure, the MTV generation liked it more than watching shakespearean actors performing a version as accurate as possible.
    The sets were completely different to the source material.
    It's great if that's how far you want to change the source material.
    But if you looking for a faithful adaption, you'd be horrified.
    I actually thought the 1996 version was alright. It had it's moments.
    But if I wanted to see shakespeare as shakespeare intended it.
    I wouldn't be watching that movie.

    Devoted fanboys and girls will most likely want to see a 100% faithful adaption, not a completely different adaption.

    But here is the real thing upseting Avatar fans.
    There is this thing in Hollywood where generally you can only cast an Asian to play a villian, a bad guy, who dies at the end of the movie.

    Anyway, imagine a new take on The Joy Luck Club (1993) set in a futurist world played by robots.
    Sure, you can do it, some will like it.
    People who loved the original probably wouldn't though.

  10. /facepalm says:

    The reason this cast has caused such an uproar is realy easy to poit out:

    One of the show's main premises is multi-culturisim, the creators of Avatar did a deep investigation of chinese, tibetan, inuit, japanese, korean cultures among others to create a very rich and believable world. Being a main theme of the original series it's saddening that the main character are all caucasian, some things cannot be acted or covered by makeup and i belive this is one of those cases.

  11. shadowbender says:

    I'm not angry of he fact of race, although I wish Sokka and Katara were Inuit, but I'm angry by the fact that they chose laughable actors that don't resemble there characters at all. Take Jesse McCartney for example. Him playing Zuko is an absolute joke.

  12. anon says:

    I'm with face plam and shadow bender the asian infulence was such a important part of the show as was the the fact that there were different races you know with the whole genoside thing etc that to have the whole cast the same race is to deny a huge part of the show.
    Also on an evolutionary scale members of the water tribes would look like Innuits, people from the earth kingdom would be quite African looking and members of the fire nation would look quite asian because that is what the environment is similar to!!!!!!

  13. aisha says:

    I am not being racist or anything, however i do feel that they have made a mistake in the casting choices, i mean i think that it was implied that the characters in the cartoon where asian or at least had mixed ethnical backgrounds,
    as an african american actress it is hard to find roles because of your coulor and that is just they way the world is and i have come to accept that, but i am sorry they could have easily found a pretty asian girl to play katara etc
    and yes i do agree that Jesse Mc Carthey as Zuko is an absolute joke
    i cant shake the feeling that this film is not going to be even a touch on the cartoons and is gonna turn out to be like one of those “Shark boy and larva girl” films =(

  14. steve says:

    If this story was based on African folklore and white actors were cast, there would be a major uproar from the African American community. Unfortunately the Asian community is not as vocal.

    By the way, one of the most decorated battalions in the US army during WWII was a Japanese battalion fighting in Europe (442nd battalion), which my father fought in. I had to correct the above comment.

  15. steve says:

    Correction to above comment… I meant to say “A Japanese-American battalion” fighting in Europe… sorry.

  16. avatarluv13 says:

    i think the cast is fine.
    and some people may believe thats just because i am Caucasian, but that's not true.
    i think the actors that have been cast are decent, and i also think they will do a good job with this movie. 🙂

  17. avatarluv13 says:

    sorry, i forgot to add this to my previous comment. but i also dont think Jesse McCartney should play Zuko. 😛
    HE DOESN'T LOOK LIKE HIM IN ANY WAY!!
    im sorry, but Jesse is the only actor i disagree with in playing in this movie. 🙁

  18. 653Charlie says:

    Ask Tarantino if he had a problem with Japanese people in the Wild West…”Sukiyaki Western Django”, guys, and it was awesome, BTW…
    Cpecter is right, cut the hate! It's the 21st Century, people! They could make my 8 year old little brother look like Zuko with the right budget! Give Night, Mike and Bryan some goddamn credit, I think they earned it…

  19. Hanibi says:

    Culture and race are not the same thing. And their world is not a direct reflection of ours. So the races of these characters isn't significant to the story.

    None of the four nations have a particular race. There are the occasional light-skinned individuals within the Water Tribes, just as you'll see darker-skinned characters in Aang's flashbacks of the Air Nomads. (In fact, native Tibetans have darker skin, not like Aang at all.) And Sokka and Katara fit in just fine in the Earth Kingdom and Fire Nation in disguise, because they have dark-skinned people there, too. Their skin color was never an issue or a factor in the course of the story. It won't affect the story within the movies, either. So what does it matter?

  20. Avatar_Mom says:

    I support the fans that are disappointed in the casting of this film. However, I do not condone negative fan infighting. This fandom is truly unlike any out there. It attracts some of the most intelligent and creative people I have ever met. Let's end the counterproductive back and forth, and agree to disagree.

    For the fans that feel the way I do, please reach out to Paramount in a professional manner. This fandom is huge, and your opinion is valuable to them. But, if you do nothing but type up an agry rant, your letter won't even be worth the stamp you used to send it. A movie is more than just an experience at the theater. Its a mega synergistic marketing wonderland, and if done correctly, millions of dollars can be realized because of cross promotions and the like. When you write to Paramount, they have to feel they are not only losing your presence at the box office, but also in the marketplace. This affects everyone who invested in The Last Airbender, not just Paramount.

  21. Avatar_Mom says:

    Also…(because the field would not let me post my entire response)

    I agree that the team that brought us the animated series, and it's rich Asian flavor would not cast the same actors for these roles if it was their choice. It is because of this belief that I do not support the current decisions. Also, as a collector of everything Avatar, when the merchandise for the live action movies hit the shelves, I sincerely hope the first Katara action figure I hold in my hands resembles my heroine from the series. A fiery hopeful young native Water Bender from the Southern Water Tribe. That is, if they take the risk and make female action figures…

    First the women of Avatar were not equally represented in the merchandising for the series…now this latest news…

    I know in my heart that the creative team behind Avatar would want an honest representation of all they achieved. The story is more than just a story to them, it's a passion they all dedicated thousands of hours to. I simply cannot imagine anyone who worked on the series being satisfied with the casting. This is why I am voicing my discontent with the casting, and not with fellow fans who do not agree with me. I am thankful there are people out there that are optimistic while the rest of us write letters.

    Everyone has a right to their opinions, but no one deserves to be treated poorly because of them.

  22. Ryn says:

    I agree with this post. I am really ashamed of all of the pointless arguing and cries of “racism.” It's pretty rediculous. In the movie business, everything is done for a reason. They are professionals, and they know what they are doing. It's their production after all. Also, it is much easier to make a great, white actor wear makeup, than it is to make a person who looks exactly like a character a good actor. The talent is the first priority, and makeup, wigs, and special effects can take care of the rest. That's my philosophy anyways.

  23. David says:

    Everything is done for a reason.
    The people writing the cheques believe that America is racist and that only if the cast is white will the movie sell well. I say that reason is like an old wives' tale. It is something they inherited from the industry, and it may well have been proven true in times past. But I say times have changed!
    And that America is ready for a main cast that isn't all white.

    A personal note to Steve.
    I wrote that comment about WWII quite quickly and I'm sorry I phrased it the way I did. You're a true American and so was/is your dad.

  24. Meredith says:

    Tempers are running a little hot, but that's no excuse for name calling. I apologize to anyone who has been belittled by other fans for their opinion.

    However, I will not apologize for how I feel. I have no grief with Night…I consider myself a big fan, and was pleased when I learned he was attached to the project. Who knows if this was actually his decision or if the studio pressured him into it.

    But this casting job, frankly, sucks. Fact: The characters of A:TLA are portrayed as Inuit and Asian. Fact: There are plenty of talented actors of Asian, Native and Hispanic descent who are as popular (if not more so) than the chosen cast and who have more appropriate skill sets (martial arts > singing ability) and who would look the part.

    Despite these facts (There isn't enough room to provide proof in this post, but I will be more than happy to), someone chose an all white cast. Complaining about this isn't racist, any more than complaining about Judy Dench playing Peter Pan would be sexist or ageist. Or Denzel Washington playing Robin Hood. It's fine if you aren't upset. But many people are. After Earthsea and Dragonball and a million other whitewashed adaptations, people are pissed. And they have every right to be.

  25. Behzaad Syed says:

    The truth is…
    this is partky a race issue, this is the first time an asian actor (korean, japanese, chinese, indian) could see a large role in hollywood, its fame and recognition thats more a harold and kumar comedy.
    Its a from a heritage and culture that should be represented by at least some of its people in not just small roles but major ones.
    IF OTHELLO WAS WHITE IT WOULD TAKE AWAY FROM THE PURPOSE, ITS THE SAME FOR AVATAR.
    i feel a little betrayed as night is indian himself and the story is based partly on indian culture, we thought he would assure mixed race cast (in some main roles).

  26. honestly says:

    Granted I'm sure the creators and Night himself are careful about who they're casting – and if I recall correctly from an interview Night himself said the cast was probably going to be made up of unknown kids who had no idea they would end up as the cast – “not professional actors” was hinted I think (according to my reading of the interview at the time, although it was awhile ago)

    Fact is if the suits at paramount were looking at this as well as everyone invested financially in Avatar, I think their main concern would essentially be making something that sells. In short getting a wider audience than they had with just the cartoon.

  27. honestly says:

    (cont)

    In their minds quite simply a bunch of white kids especially in one case (Zuko/Jesse) should be a draw for all the fangirls/fans of the actor in question who want a pretty boy to watch…which isn't to say that he's a bad actor just that he doesn't make a very good Zuko from current imagination.

    In short the movie is supposed to be for fans technically…but anyone who is a fan will no doubt watch the movie when it comes out regardless of how bad it is, so they already have that portion of the sales without having to do anything other than slap on the Avatar brand name onto it.

    In which case they need to focus on the demographic outside of the fan base. Which means getting a white cast that will appeal physically and be recognizable to people outside of the people who already know about Avatar. Which again leads to the cast members that we see here.

  28. honestly says:

    Once they do have new fans, some of them will no doubt turn to the cartoon to see why it’s “better” and will end on either side of the debate on whether it was better/worse after this whole thing blows over. Get into the shipping wars, renounce the movies or something and generally fall in line with the rest of the fan base.
    Old Fans will watch all three movies either to justify their anger at it not being what they wanted, or simply go back to the original which always exists for them in case the movie doesn’t compare.

    Either way the movie as it is could turn out to be good/meh/great/amazing/bad whichever depending on the acting/effects/directing etc. Personally I’m surprised Night choose Avatar as his first project to feature action/graphics (of this nature) given that he’s never done it before, and props to him for having the courage to take it on knowing that the fans will tear him apart if it doesn’t measure up.

    Either way the best you can hope for is that the movie that comes out still retains the essence of what makes Avatar entertaining and inspirational, anymore than that and I honestly think we should just get ready for doomsday.
    After all this is a Hollywood adaptation of another franchise we’re talking about. There’s no way it can result in a perfect adaptation that everyone will like anyway. At best it’s a good set of movies that lets us see Avatar in a new way, at worse we go back to the stellar original series.

  29. honestly says:

    and regardless of how it turns out it has to be better than Dragonball, but given how bad thats going to be I duno what that says about how good it could be either.

  30. Damien Tobin says:

    There's no such thing as “reverse-racism”. There's only racism, and it can be directed at any group of people.

    And in this case the racism is found in the hearts of everyone trying to justify a decision to have a bunch of white kids play as characters that are very clearly intended to be Asian.

    We've learned nothing from Earthsea, it seems. Shame on you.

  31. Disappointed says:

    I've watched Avatar from the beginning and am really disappointed by the casting choices they've made for the movie. I have no doubt whatsoever that they could find young, talented actors that are actually descended from the cultures that Avatar represents. Yes, Avatar takes place in another “world”. But the basis of that world, the core images and ideas, come from various philosophies and cultures from our world. So yes, I absolutely think they should have cast Asian actors and Native American actors. At this point I'd rather be content with having seen the animated series on its own and skip the movie. It's blatant enough to be a slap in the face.

  32. Yami says:

    Everyone's complaining that not an “Asian” is playing the lead. heck, why did not anyone complain that a JAPANESE Geisha was played by a Chinese? Japanese people AINT Chinese. And that the King in The King an I was played by a Chinese and not a Thai(Thai's has rounder eyes and darker complexion that Chinese people!)

    Get over the race issue

    And one thing: What is the “Asian” look? Here's the problem. Many westerners think that Asian = almond-shape eyes, single eyelid, yellow skin….

  33. Al says:

    @Ryn: Shame on you. “it is much easier to make a great, white actor wear makeup, than it is to make a person who looks exactly like a character a good actor” There are great actors of all races out there. They have but to look.

    Do yourself a favor, look up the term Yellow Face and educate yourself.

    This isn't a question of non-traditional casting, this is the Hollywood machine figuring out how to get the most people to come see the film. And they're betting that filling the leads with un-known non-Caucasian actors ain't gonna do it.

    Don't be a passive part of Hollywood's incumbent racism.

  34. Napoleon says:

    One of the great things about the show was that it was set in an Asian setting. It wasn't hinted it was Asian, it was Asian. Even if it was a fantasy world, it was based on real cultures, real places, real people. And the people were Asian too. It wasn't hinted in there mannerisms, it was clear in their faces. They were give real character too, not simply given simple archetypes or accepted stereotypes.
    What this movie has done is take that Asian setting and turned it into a novelty. It's just there. These people don't belong to it. It goes from being substantial to being quaint.
    I know that this might be thought of as a children's movie, but that makes this that more important. You can try to respect children's intelligence by making this true to the source, giving the people real connections to the world, and giving them real character. You can make this a real movie with real substance or you can punch the mold and make a movie that looks like the accepted image of america: white.

  35. /info says:

    I just want to point something out.

    There are roughly 300.000.000 people living in the U.S.

    51.545.000 of them are between 12-24 years old.

    2.577.250 (5%) are of asian descent.

    2.000 (0.08%) are actors.

    If they can find at least ONE actor with passable talent out of 2000…

    Make your own conclusions.

  36. Lionel Freebus says:

    I think this a debate worth having but agree it should be a civil one. I think it's easy for white fans to get defensive and not understand how the casting could be consider a knock against Asian actors. It confirms the stereotype that Hollywood must sell a movie with big stars or teen brands (Jesse McCartney)even if they aren't good actors.

    M. Night has chosen to make a safe movie for white audience rather than something universal. I wish he'd take the lead from Danny Boyle and see how he approached the film Slumdog Millionare. I think American's are ready for change.

  37. Jay says:

    I personally think the casting of the film is horrendous, and I say this as a major fan of both the show (from the very beginning), a fan of M. Night, and as Black actress myself. As someone who comes from a very ethnically diverse family with first and second cousins, nieces and nephews of Ethiopian, Chinese, Chickahomony, Cherokee, Puerto Rican and East Indian descent I personally find it offensive to cast a movie, based on a show, where the characters and the culture are Asian or at the very least mixed. It would be like casting the movie of my family with all White actors. The beauty of the show was not just in the mythology and magic, but in the characters themselves – in their cultures, and what those characters and cultures brought to the series as a whole.

  38. Jay says:

    (con't)
    The problem with those who say that the race of the characters doesn’t matter is that they themselves have no appreciation for other cultures (you can try to argue it all you want, I’ve heard them all and they’re wrong). The fact is, the background of the actor may not matter to you, and yes, as an actress our job is to “pretend” to be someone you are not, but is does matter to the person or persons who are being portrayed.

  39. Jay says:

    And let us not forget, although it is understandable that we do since Hollywood no longer cares for talent – only a look, an actors job is to bring life into a character, to make that character real and believable. It’s difficult to believe some one is actually a Sokka or Katara when they look and sound like a Brad or a Becca. Not to mention, it does become a little irritating when the last great hope of any culture somehow becomes white-washed, The Last Samari, The Last of the Mohicans, The Last Airbender, heck, even George of the Jungle … Again, it may not matter to some of you, but by white-washing a cast like this, especially a show as great and rich as this you take somehow lessen the significance of the people from whom those cultures derived.

  40. Jay says:

    (Con't)
    And just for the record, and I could be wrong, but I think the casting choices were more of studio decision than M. Night or the creators. I got the feeling from them that they wanted to remain as true to show and characters as possible. I personally believe that if it were completely up to them we'd have a cast that was more true to characters we've come to love.

  41. Rubix Qoob says:

    The fandom needs to get it together. The show stressed positivity. Let's display that and support what we love when it comes out. I mean at least reserve judgment until we see something. It will be diverse. Isn't that a GOOD thing?

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