So! How about those casting choices for that Avatar movie, huh!
I'm way late to this party (the casting choices were announced in December), but the pictures of the main characters just came out and they are so wrong that I had to add my two cents to the ongoing fan protest.
I had an interesting conversation a month or two back with a friend who thought that there was nothing wrong with using white actors for all the main characters. The way she saw it, they probably just picked the best actors for the roles, and who cares what the race of those actors is? Aren't the protesting fans the ones bringing race into it? Isn't it more racist to say that the actors shouldn't be white? (And besides, the cartoon characters didn't exactly correspond to real-world races, so...)
There was a time when I would have agreed with her, but now I realize there are a couple major things wrong with that logic.
One is assuming that the actors were chosen on merit, without reference to their race. As it turns out, that's giving Hollywood (specifically Paramount Pictures) way too much credit. I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt, but then I read this blog post (thanks to Chris for the link). (More here.)
So, first the casting call explicitly expressed a preference for Caucasians for the four main roles. True, they did say "Caucasian (or any other ethnicity)", but the fact that they expressed such a preference proves that the producers made a conscious decision to "whitewash" the characters.
Then, in the casting call for extras, they said quote "We want you to dress in traditional cultural ethnic attire. If you're Korean, wear a kimono.".
"If you're Korean, wear a kimono". Do I have to explain how wrong that is? (Ironically this is for the movie adaptation of a cartoon that got traditional Korean hanboks exactly right, in a random Earth Kingdom episode.) Paramount's casting director was saying loud and clear that they want white main characters, and they want asians only in background, non-speaking roles, reduced to their "traditional cultural ethnic attire".
Paramount, you suck.
The other important thing to understand, in order to contextualize the Avatar casting thing, is that the pattern matters. In a perfect world, maybe actors would be chosen strictly on acting skills, and we wouldn't care whether they matched the race of their characters.
But if you look at Hollywood movies, that's not the case. There is a depressing trend: White people are heroes, villians, and the whole range of roles in-between. Asians (including Asian Americans) are kung-fu masters who teach their skills to the white hero, or they are evil overlords/minions, exotic sexually available women, or nerds who are good at math. And very little else. Name me one American-made movie with an asian/asian-american main character not played by Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee. (Or, OK, Jet Li. That's three, and they're all famous for their martial arts.)
Let me tell you a little story. One of my Aikido friends in Chicago is a Japanese-american and an aspiring actor. He tries out for lots of roles, has done some stage work, etc. He almost got a minor part in The Dark Knight (would have been "asian lawyer #2" in one courtroom scene) but sadly the scene, and the part, got cut. The finished movie? It had, I think, one asian person in a speaking part and his one defining character trait was that he's "good at calculating". (Aarghh! Again with this stupid stereotype.)
Among the things that made the Avatar cartoon so special were its unusually respectful and well-researched depiction of Asian cultures, and its diverse cast of main characters. When I say diverse, I want to emphasize that in Avatar it was never a matter of including token minorities, or satisfying political correctness — it was part of portraying a complex and realistic world, where the relationships between the different races and cultures were always a major part of the story.
It was a cartoon that respected kids' intelligence. It offered kids a group of heroes comprising two brown-skinned, pseudo-Inuit siblings one pseudo-Tibetan boy, and it respected kids enough not to assume that the audience needed a white main character to identify with. Making a movie out of this cartoon would have been a great opportunity to buck the trend and give some young aspiring asian-american actors a chance to play heroes.
(Note that after coming under criticism, Paramount recast Zuko as an Indian-american dude. So, they lightened all three of the heroes and darkened the villian? I'm, um, not sure that's an improvement.)
I wish Hollywood respected its audience as much as the creators of the Avatar cartoon did, but it's obvious that they do not.