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There was an ongoing controversy in the Avatar fan community over the casting choices for The Last Airbender. It was sparked after the initial casting of main characters, namely Aang, Katara, Sokka, and Zuko, was thought to exclusively include white actors, while the animated series was set in an alternate, fantastic 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 claim did little to 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, arguing, "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 provoked a letter-writing campaign, "Aang Ain't White," and the creation of a fan protest and boycott website, Racebending.com.
Frank Marshall on Twitter
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..
- 2009-02-02: Jesse McCartney drops out of the film due to a "scheduling conflict" and is replaced by Dev Patel.
- 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.
- 2009-07-29: Calligraphy Artist and Cultural Consultant for the original animated series, S.L. Lee, called the whitewashing of the cast a "disappointment" and said that the removal of the Asian cultural elements present in the series would turn off the original audience during an interview with San Francisco radio station 94.1 KPFA.
- 2009-10-09: Racebending.com attacks the "Caucasian or any other ethnicity" casting calls, presenting evidence of a perceived preference by the studio for white actors to play the main characters from the beginning. They also note that the casting call for extras specifically sought non-Caucasian actors and the casting director requested attendees wear "traditional cultural ethnic attire".
- 2010-3-30: Shyamalan addresses the race controversy, saying that "the great thing about [the animation] is that it's ambiguous. The features of the characters are an intentional mix of all features." He also admitted that he was not looking for a actor or actress with a particular ethnic background and just tried to cast whoever was best for the part. He subsequently shaped the rest of the respective nation after the race of the chosen actor or actress.
- 2010-04-10: Frank Marshall conducted an interview with UGO.com w.here 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.
- 2010-05-24: Cartoonist Gene Yang, who later wrote the Avatar graphic novels, publishes a comic strip on his blog asking people to "Spend their entertainment dollars on something other than The Last Airbender Movie." Also stating that "the casting decision makes a very clear -- and clearly repugnant statement-- Asian American faces are simply 'inadequate' for American audiences. Even in a movie that so obviously celebrates our cultural heritage."
- 2010-07-01: On the day of the film's premiere, Shyamalan describes the members of the racebending movement and fans protesting the casting of white actors as "misguided" in an interview with The Washington Post. Emphasizing his own Asian ethnicity, he notes that "no one owns theses cultures", so there is "no correct Asian". He defends his casting choices by saying that Racebending.coms and protesting fans' issue is not with him, but rather with the artists who invented the series, as the cultures in the show are not defined. "There is no Inuit woman who looks like Katara. That is not the reality of things. That is not the way they are drawn. Talk to the people who made them. So you are talking to the wrong person. I am actually doing a very culturally diverse movie."
- On the same day, Dante Basco, the voice actor for Zuko in the series, put a post on his blog, stating that the casting choices were a "missed opportunity" for an Asian American actor to have a breakout role. He also stated that he did not think that "It is at all viable for white actors to play ethnic roles ... at least until they let [ethnic actors] play white roles."
- 2010-07-04: Racebending.com dismisses Shyamalan's claim that the characters are "ethnically ambiguous" by saying that while no one in real life can look like an animated character, it is not possible to interpret the race of an animated character as anything but Asian within the context of a fantasy Asia, the most dominant setting in Avatar: The Last Airbender. They also criticized his claims that the movie is "more diverse than the show", stating that "Everyone's ethnic identity has been reduced to physical appearances and skin color."
- 2010-07-13: In response to Shyamalan's statements about the "diverse" casting of the film, Guy Aoki of Manaa stated that M Night "has truly lost it, both as a creative person and as a human being who can reason with reality," adding that, "except for a few Earth Nation people and another guy who ends up betraying Aang, every Asian person who spoke was part of the evil Fire Nation." Aoki also dismissed Shyamalan's statement that he went in blind during the casting process, noting that the original casting notice sent out by Gail Levin, a casting director who works on the lot at Paramount, stated a specific preference for white people.
- 2013-07-03: Series co-creator Bryan Konietzko responds to an online comment about skin color in The Legend of Korra. Konietzko writes that the large body of his and Michael Dante DiMartino's work on the two series "speaks for itself (which obviously DOES NOT include the gross misinterpretations and misrepresentations of our work in [Shyamalan]'s work)." Konietzko goes on to say that "There's nothing perfect about [him] or [his] work, but [he is] proud of it and the diverse, inclusive, atypical-for-American-TV world it portrays and the characters that populate it, and what it means to many people all over this globe."
- 2014-08-19: Bryan Konietzko briefly mentions the "the whole racial side of things" during an interview with Nerdist while talking about the bad experience he and Michael DiMartino had during production on the movie.