For those of you who haven’t been following the controversy the last few months, or who aren’t familiar with the show, here’s a quick recap. Avatar is a really splendid animated show, well written, funny, poignant, and strongly influenced by various Asian and Inuit cultures. Taoist, Zen, and Hindu beliefs, Chinese music and dance, and martial arts disciplines from a variety of cultures all play integral roles in the worldbuilding of the show, and the overall plot is that different cultures and worldviews influence each other; when one is extinguished, the whole suffers. The show is also similar to Babylon 5 in that it has a continuous storyline with a set beginning, middle and end: once the last chapter finished, the story ended, instead of hanging on until they jumped the shark, a move that showed great integrity on the part of the show’s creators.
Announcements were made for an upcoming live-action movie based on the show, and the four lead parts were all cast for white actors. After much protest, only one was recast, Prince Zuko, the villain who sees the error of his ways. The other parts, a Tibetan monk and two Inuit children, are still being played by white actors. Casting for the various spear-carriers and supporting roles has been pretty offensively handled as well. The studio’s excuse is that audiences won’t watch a movie where the heroes aren’t white, despite the fact that the broad fanbase shows that they’ve had no problem with non-white characters and cultures in the cartoon.
I’d never even heard of Avatar before the controversy erupted, but having watched it, I find it inexcusable that such a high-quality show that celebrates diversity and tolerance could be so twisted by Hollywood’s outdated notions about race. Years ago, Bruce Lee was turned down for the lead role in Kung Fu in favor of David Carradine because the producers believed Americans wouldn’t tune in to watch an Asian hero. I’d like to think we’ve come further than this by now.
For more on the controversy, including a brief history of yellowface in cinema and a visual tour of the show emphasizing its multicultural influences, check out aang_aint_white