For the uninitiated, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender is a big screen rendition of an immensely popular Nickelodeon television show called “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” Due to the release of James Cameron’s Avatar, which shattered box-office sales records worldwide, Paramount Pictures decided to scrap the first part of the show’s title for the film. Thankfully, The Last Airbender wasn’t also based on the novel by Sapphire — otherwise, we would have been in for a world of confusion. Instead, it looks like we’re just in for a world of controversy.
The Nickelodeon show is fantastic. The setting is a mythical world divided up into four nations that are based on the four elements: Fire, Water, Earth and Air. In addition to the presence of fantastic animals and magical spirits, each nation boasts a special subset of citizenry known as “benders,” who are able to “bend” an element to their will using martial ability. The “avatar” is a unique character who can bend not just one, but all four elements.
The attention to detail in the show is exquisite. Each “bending” style derives from a real-life martial arts form appropriate to that style. For example, “water-bending” is based on tai-chi whereas “fire-bending” is based on kung fu. The show even employed a calligraphy professor to create gorgeous, classical Chinese characters, lending authenticity to the Asian-themed world.
But the classical Chinese characters never made it into the film. Neither did other Asian “characters.” The show’s main heroes — Aang, Sokka, and Katara — look a lot different in the movie than they did in the television show:
To be fair, Paramount did include people of color in the film. Of course, these characters all belong to the evil fire nation:
M. Night Shyamalan was not without comment. In an interview with Indie Movies Online, Shyamalan indignantly responded to accusations of racism:
“The irony is that I’m playing on the exact prejudices that the people who are claiming I’m racist are doing. They immediately assume that everyone with dark skin is a villain. That was an incredibly racist assumption which as it turns out is completely incorrect.”
Shyamalan went on to say:
“Here’s the irony of the conversation: The Last Airbender is the most culturally diverse movie series of all time. I’m not talking about maybe one Jedi, maybe one person of a different color — no one’s even close. That’s a great pride to me. The irony of these accusations enrages me to the point of … not even the accusation, but the misplacement of it. You’re coming at me, the one Asian filmmaker who has the right to cast anybody I want, and I’m casting this entire movie in this color blind way where everyone is represented. I even had one section of the Earth Kingdom as African American, which obviously isn’t in the show, but I wanted to represent them, too!”
But what about Aang, Sokka and Katara? The names of the actors that portray them in the film are Noah, Jackson and Nicola. Draw your own conclusions as you see fit. Paramount’s casting call for these main characters was, “Caucasian or any other ethnicity.”
In the words of a grassroots organization that is staging boycotts against the film, this is not water-bending, fire-bending, earth-bending or air-bending. It’s race-bending.
Are Casting Calls That Discriminate Based on Race Legal?
Yes and no.
Based on the plain language of federal anti-discrimination laws, the answer is no. 42 U.S.C. § 1981 prohibits intentional racial discrimination in employment contracts while Title VII prohibits racial discrimination in employment advertisements. An employer may intentionally discriminate “on the basis of … religion, sex, or national origin in those certain instances where religion, sex, or national origin is a bona fide occupational qualification reasonably necessary to the normal operation of that particular business or enterprise….” But this “business necessity” exception does not apply to race discrimination.
At least not explicitly. Although no court has ever directly addressed this question, at least two courts have commented on it (only one of which, mercifully, relied on jarringly outdated terminology in posing the issue):
“A business necessity exception may also be appropriate in the selection of actors to play certain roles. For example, it is likely that a black actor could not appropriately portray George Wallace, and a white actor could not appropriately portray Martin Luther King, Jr.“ Miller v. Texas State Bd. of Barber Examiners, 615 F. 2d 650, 654 (5th Cir. 1980).
“A film director casting a movie about African-American slaves may not exclude Caucasians from the auditions, but the director may limit certain roles to persons having the physical characteristics of African-Americans. Indeed, the drafters of Title VII expressly anticipated this issue. In their interpretative memorandum, Senators Case and Clark explained that ‘[a]lthough there is no exemption in Title VII for occupations in which race might be deemed a bona fide job qualification, a director of a play or movie who wished to cast an actor in the role of a Negro, could specify that he wished to hire someone with the physical appearance of a Negro.’” Ferrill v. Parker Group, Inc., 168 F. 3d 468, 477 fn. 10 (11th Cir. 1999).
Clearly, even though Congress specifically excluded “race” from the business necessity exception, courts might be willing to allow the exception for limited purposes.
The reason for this is the First Amendment. Writers are not required to write about racial groups they are not inclined to write about. Nor are painters required to paint with all the colors on their palette. If they were, the First Amendment would be seriously compromised. Without choice, art loses its authenticity.
In the end, M. Night Shyamalan should be allowed to make whatever casting decisions he likes — it’s his movie after all — just as anyone who feels offended by his casting choices is allowed to comment or protest accordingly. For what it’s worth, $70 million’ worth of ticket purchasers let neither racial controversy nor atrocious reviews (8% on the Tomatometer!) dissuade them. But if Shyamalan’s casting decisions seem racist to you, take heart in the knowledge that in the Age of the Internet, there is a fashion statement for every opinion.Racebending.com recommends: