Updated on 6/30/2010 with links for further reading.
The press screening for The Last Airbender is tonight, and after much debate, I decided not to go. I am a big fan of the animated TV show it is based on, Avatar, The Last Airbender, so I was always leery of this live-action remake. My fears grew worse when early production information came out last year. I signed a petition and joined a boycott of the film over what was then to be an all-white cast, completely ignoring the ethnicity of the characters in the source material, which is heavily rooted in Asian and Native American mythology. To make matters worse, what some pointed out as the movie studio trying to mollify the fans who were upset just made the divide more clear. The non-whites cast for the film were cast in the villain roles, meaning it's a case of the good and pure white children vs. the dirty brown people. This "fix" just made things more broken.
There was still room for me to go to the movie, however. I talked to one of the voices of dissent, Derek Kirk Kim, about it, and we agreed that since the press screening would be free, I hadn't gone against the boycott. I would have seen it without giving the studio my money, and I could use the platform to shine the spotlight on the casting issue. Even if I liked the film. Because, of course, I'd have to go with an open mind and judge The Last Airbender on its merits.
As the deadline for signing up for the movie approached, I couldn't help but think about how I would do that. How would I clear my mind of my own prejudice? I even began to compose a review opening in my head, one that would put my reservations up front. It would go something like this:
Before you read my review of The Last Airbender, I feel it only fair to tell you of where I am coming from, the personal bias that I carried with me when I walked into the theater.
1. I am a big fan of the original cartoon series Avatar, The Last Air Bender.
2. I am dubious of the need to remake the cartoon, because the original was so good.
3. I am not a fan of writer/director M. Knight Shyamalan.
4. Combine 3 with 2 and the math is already bad, but...
5. Hollywood has seen fit to whitewash the series and make it about a bunch of pale-faced children fighting against evil non-whites, despite the cartoon featuring mainly Asian and Inuit characters.
Those are a lot of hurdles for me to get over, but I had every intention to set them aside and give the movie room to make me forget each and every one.
From there, I would have said whether Shyamalan's film had done that or not, whether it had succeeded in conquering my doubts. Every reviewer (and every viewer) starts with some bias, after all. I was just going to lay mine bare, let readers know where I was coming from.
The more it went around in my head, though, the more I realized that I was probably kidding myself. The above was concocted as a defense, but a defense is its own kind of hurdle. Actually, this one was more like a giant wall, and Shyamalan was the invader underneath it. I was expecting him to climb up to me, I wasn't meeting him on level ground.
Feeling extremely wishy washy, I decided to watch the latest trailer. In doing so, I realized that none of the above probably mattered. If I was being really honest, if The Last Airbender wasn't based on a cartoon I liked, I'd have absolutely zero interest in seeing it. I never saw The Golden Compass, I stayed away from the Narnia movies, why would this be different? If it wasn't Avatar, I wouldn't even think twice. That is is Avatar was rightly giving me pause. The cartoon is near perfect. Why mess with that?
So, I said no. I will stay away and wait to hear what others think and uphold my principles and my signing the boycott.
For those wondering more about the thinking behind the boycott, one of the organizers, cartoonist Gene Luen Yang drew the following comic strip about it (clicking on the image will also take you to his blog):
Gene's is not an unreasonable request. If you even remotely agree with what he is saying, then what is more important? The courage of your convictions or that you run with the herd and have to SEE EVERYTHING RIGHT NOW BECAUSE IT'S NEW AND NOW NOW NOW. You really can't wait until July 12? If not, then what does that say about your integrity? Fandom trumps morals? (And if, like me, you signed the petition, it's not nullified by the fact that it was a long time ago and Dev Patel was cast afterward.)
It's not like there aren't any other ways you can be part of Avatar fandom this weekend. If you really want to send a message, go out and rent/buy the DVDs of the cartoon. Watch the episodes streaming online. If the movie has a crappy opening and yet the cartoon suddenly shows a lot of new activity, then maybe Hollywood will think twice before they go and ruin another awesome television show or discount ethnic diversity in casting. I know, I know, it's Hollywood, it takes them a long time to learn, but better that you're part of the solution, not part of the problem.
For anyone interested, here is my review of season 1 of Avatar, The Last Airbender, as well as season 2. I reviewed 3/4 of the individual discs for season 3, which you can find by searching "avatar" on DVD Talk, but those might best be left until you actually watch the show.
For further reading see Q. Le's great article on the history of this kind of racism in Hollywood and what it all means.
Also, Cinematical presents M. Night Shyamalan in his own words.
Avatar fan art by Natalie Nourigat. Used without her permission. Suck it, Tally!
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All text (c) 2010 Jamie S. Rich