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There is an ongoing controversy in the Avatar fan community over the casting choices for The Last Airbender. It was sparked because the initial casting was apparently all-white for the main characters (Aang, Katara, Sokka, and Zuko), while the animated series was set in an alternate fantasy world heavily influenced by Asian and Inuit culture. Later, Dev Patel, a British citizen of Indian heritage, replaced Jesse McCartney as Zuko; the casting for the remaining characters and extras was diversified, and Noah Ringer, the actor for Aang, identified himself as an American Indian. However, this did not diminish the controversy.
Popular cartoonist Derek Kirk Kim wrote a negative response to the "racist" casting, saying
"What if someone made a 'fantasy' movie in which the entire world was built around African culture. Everyone is wearing ancient African clothes, African hats, eating traditional African food, writing in an African language, living in African homes, all encompassed in an African landscape... but everyone is white."
Jackson Rathbone dismissed the complaints, saying, "I think it's one of those things where I pull my hair up, shave the sides, and I definitely need a tan. It's one of those things where, hopefully, the audience will suspend disbelief a little bit."
The casting controversy has sparked a letter-writing campaign, "Aang Ain't White", and the creation of a fan protest and boycott website, Racebending.com.
Frank Marshall on Twitter Edit
Frank Marshall, one of the producers of The Last Airbender, recently created a Twitter account and has been posting information about the film's shooting, as well as answering limited questions from fans. In response to questions about the casting controversy, Marshall wrote:
Our vision for the movie is of ONE world, made up of four nations, influenced and inspired by the Asian undertones of the series. This world will have an ethnically diverse cast that represents many different heritages and cultures from all corners of the globe.
He later added that the movie cast would be "more diverse" than the TV show, but did not elaborate on what he meant by "diverse."
On April 20th, Marshall stated, "The casting is complete and we did not discriminate against anyone. I am done talking about it."
In February, 2009, watchdog group Media Action Network for Asian-Americans (MANAA) sent a letter of complaint to producer Sam Mercer over the film's casting. Pointing out that former MANAA Vice President Edwin Zane served as a cultural consultant for the first two seasons of the Avatar cartoon, MANAA requested that Paramount engage in dialogue with them concerning the ethnicity of the cast.
In March, Paramount responded with a letter reiterating the same claim of "more diversity" than the TV show, pointing out the diverse cultural heritages of a number of actors playing secondary roles in the movie.
"The four nations represented in the film reflect not one community, but the world's citizens. These societies will be cast from a diversity of all races and cultures. In particular, the Earth Kingdom will be cast with Asian, East Asian and Africans. With this global perspective in mind, we believe we can best honor the true themes, ethos and fantastical nature of the airbender stories and best capture the spirit and scale of the series to appeal to its worldwide fans."
In April, MANAA replied, blasting Paramount for "making rationalizations to white-wash this project hoping to bring in more viewers" and reiterating their request for a meeting to discuss the issue in person. Paramount has not yet responded.
- 2008-12-10: The initial announcement for the main cast were mostly unknown actors at the time: Noah Ringer for Aang, Nicola Peltz for Katara, Jackson Rathbone for Sokka, and Jesse McCartney for Zuko. There were negative reactions for an apparently all-white cast members for a film adaptation of an animated series set in an Asian-inspired fantasy world.
- 2009-01-15: Jackson Rathbone dismissed the complaints, saying "I think it's one of those things where I pull my hair up, shave the sides, and I definitely need a tan. It's one of those things where, hopefully, the audience will suspend disbelief a little bit."
- 2009-01-21: cartoonist Derek Kirk Kim wrote a negative response to the "racist" casting.
- 2009-02-11: MANAA sent a letter of complaint to producer Sam Mercer over the film's casting.
- 2009-03-25: Paramount responded to MANAA's complaints.
- 2009-04-03: Frank Marshall responded to questions on the casting controversy.
- 2009-04-04: Frank Marshall said the movie cast would be "more diverse" than the TV show
- 2009-04-09: MANAA replied, blasting Paramount for rationalizing "white-washing".
- 2009-04-20: Frank Marshall done talking about the casting.
- 2010-04-10: Frank Marshall conducted an interview with UGO.com where he showed the original casting calls that did not have the line "Caucasian or any other ethnicity". According to him, other local casting offices distributed the "offending" casting calls without permission. This statement agrees with M. Night's statement that the doors were open to anyone.