On Thursday, November 12th, 2009, Asian American advocacy leaders met with several Paramount executives, including President of Paramount Film Group Adam Goodman. This meeting was held in response to the August 2009 protest of the film The Goods: Live Hard Sell Hard.
Representatives from the Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA), the Japanese American Citizen’s League (JACL), and IW Group – the three organizations that spearheaded the The Goods protest – were present at the meeting.
President of Paramount Film Group Adam Goodman, Paramount Senior Vice President of Publicity Katie Martin Kelly, and Paramount Senior Vice President of Real Estate & Development Sharon Keyser were present at the meeting representing Paramount Pictures.
Adam Goodman replaced previous Paramount President John Lesher, in June. MANAA reports that Goodman was very receptive to their concerns and wanted to have an ongoing dialogue, much better than Lesher, who was in place during the beginning of the fan protest. Lesher ignored public outcry over the casting and did not respond to MANAA’s efforts to dialogue.
While the meeting primarily focused on the treatment of Asian Americans in the film The Goods, MANAA co-founder Guy Aoki raised “all of the fans concerns” regarding The Last Airbender to Mr. Goodman and the other Paramount representatives.
In an April 2009 letter from MANAA in response to the producers of The Last Airbender, MANAA raised several questions regarding the studios’ decision to cast white actors to depict Asian characters, the discriminatory language used in the casting calls, and the culturally ignorant language used by members of the production, including the casting director and one of the film’s stars.
MANAA was also concerned about the implications of featuring a villainous nation with dark-skinned, partly South Asian actors and a heroic nation led by white heroes who liberate the “Asian and African” nation, as well as the cultural appropriation of Pacific Rim cultures and the franchise’s core Asian concepts, despite a glass ceiling blocking off Asian American actors from playing lead protagonists. Eight months later, these concerns remain unaddressed.
Goodman told the coalition that if a sequel to The Last Airbender is made, “it will focus on the Asian nation.” (Those who have followed the protest and the film know that the Asian fantasy world of the franchise has been modified so that only one nation, the Earth Kingdom, will be populated with actors of Asian descent. In the animated series, the vast Earth Kingdom was one of four nations in the setting, based on over thirty different Pacific Rim cultures and time periods.)
When MANAA raised concerns about the “Caucasian or any other ethnicity” casting call that Paramount released to cast the four lead characters of color from the Avatar: The Last Airbender franchise, Katie Martin Kelly told MANAA that Paramount has since taken steps to make future casting notices more “consistent.” Paramount’s new casting policies now have more oversight over the breakdown services that draft casting calls.
Goodman told the Asian American community representatives that “Diversity is paramount to Paramount.” Per MANAA’s suggestion, Paramount promised to furnish the Asian American community with statistics on the number of Asian American actors, writers, and directors with the studio.
Goodman shared that after taking over for Lesher, he cleaned house and there is currently no head of Casting at Paramount. A new head of Casting will be hired early 2010, and MANAA and Paramount planned a meeting with this casting head next year to discuss The Last Airbender and Paramount’s casting policies as a whole.
According to Paramount, M. Night Shyamalan is aware of criticism over the casting. Paramount promised to let the Asian American advocates at the meeting see a screening of the film before it was released. Goodman told MANAA that in all his years in the business, he has never seen such outcry over the casting of a character.
Racebending.com would like to thank the Media Action Network for Asian Americans for bringing up the casting controversy of The Last Airbender to the head honcho at Paramount Pictures. This issue has been ignored for so long, and it is good to know that Paramount has now heard it directly from the community.
We are glad to hear that the current president of Paramount believes that diversity is “paramount.” Decades ago, Paramount offered opportunities to Asian American actors, but this has not been the case for over many years now. It certainly does not speak well for Paramount that while other studios are making efforts to create heroes of color in their family programming, Paramount changed the heroes in Avatar: The Last Airbender so they were no longer people of color.
[My note: These characters are all portrayed as villians at some point in the show, and they all get be dark-skinned! Now stop complainng, POC!!]
Even if casting breakdowns will no longer exhibit as much cultural incompetence, and will be consistent with Paramount’s desire for diversity, ‘wording’ will not be enough unless Paramount is also willing to change a company culture that no longer values Asian American actors as the Paramount of the past.
Whatever focus Paramount places on the “Earth Kingdom” will still not change the missteps they have already taking in casting, particularly in denying opportunities to aspiring actors of color.
Case in point: Paramount filmed Water Tribe scenes in Greenland, a country that is 85% Inuit. Paramount hired propmakers to make authentic weapons and props based on circumpolar indigenous cultures. Yet when it came time to cast the two Water Tribe heroes, Sokka and Katara, Paramount specifically requested Caucasian actors. The production has shown that it is willing to appropriate the locales and cultures of people of color, but unwilling to cast people of color in lead heroic roles.
Since the entire fantasy world of the animated series was inspired by dozens of diverse Pacific Rim cultures, setting one film of the trilogy in “the Asian nation” is hardly a concession. Given how the producers of the film failed to recognize the diversity of cultures already in the original series, we fear the Earth Kingdom will be a mishmash of generic Asian stereotypes rather than the nuanced setting in the animated series. Given the production’s cultural incompetence, we are wary of the film even receiving a sequel.
Last Airbender Casting Director Deedee Ricketts Seeking “Authentic Asians” for Background Roles
It may not change one iota about the movie. It certainly doesn’t undo any of the damage that has already been done to a beloved franchise, or bring back lost opportunities for young actors of color. It doesn’t restore self esteem to the children of color who saw themselves and their cultures–for the first time–in the characters of the animated series, only to see that change in the movie. But now Paramount has heard us. They can no longer pretend otherwise. Our grievances have been firmly laid out and now the onus is on Paramount to address them.
We hope that future conversations between Asian American leaders and Paramount will be fruitful, and that Paramount will not repeat this mistake again.
There is such widespread outcry over the casting of this film because the actions made by this production were particularly egregious, culturally incompetent, and unacceptable to the public. We can continue this conversation up through the movie’s release, and we can demand that Paramount never casts this way again. If you’re interested in taking action, please consider joining the Racebending.com staff.
-by Marissa Lee
post @ the Mothership
For those of you having trouble keeping up with these multiple examples of racefails, this is the M. Night Shyamalan-directed venture based on the Nickelodeon show, not the James Cameron movie. To support the protest, you can email the NAACP Hollywood Bureau (email@example.com) or visit here for more ideas.