Hollywood whitewash? ‘Airbender’ and ‘Prince of Persia’ anger fans with ethnic casting
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This is a longer version of Chris Lee’s cover story in this Sunday’s Los Angeles Times Calendar section.
Since its release, the video game franchise Prince of Persia has become notable for the acrobatic grace of its dagger-wielding, balloon pants-wearing hero as well as for what the games didn’t do: affront gamers of Middle Eastern and Muslim descent with stereotypical depictions of people from the region as terrorists or religious zealots.
Independent filmmaker and blogger Jehanzeb Dar, to name one such player, remembers his favorable first reaction to the swashbuckling action game, which is set amid the sands and ancient cities of Persia (as ancient Iran is known) and follows a hero with a magic sword caught between forces of good and evil.
“You could see clearly the protagonist had distinct Middle Eastern features and darker skin,” said Dar, 26, who pens the blog Muslim Reverie from Langhorne, Pa. “People could develop some respect for that culture instead of seeing it vilified.”
So when Disney studios announced plans for a live-action adaptation of “Prince,” Dar held out hope it would be a “serious story that would dispel a lot of stereotypes and misconceptions.” Then came the bad news regarding “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” (the movie which arrives in theaters on Friday). None of its principle cast members are of Iranian, Middle Eastern or Muslim descent.
And playing Dastan, the hero and titular heir to the Persian throne in the $200-million tent-pole film, is none other than Hancock Park’s own Swedish-Jewish-American prince, Jake Gyllenhaal.
“My first reaction was, ‘Really?!’ “ said Dar. “It’s insulting that people of color — especially Middle Easterners or South Asians — are not allowed to portray ourselves in these roles. That’s a big problem a lot of people in the community are having with this film.”
Of course, Hollywood, has a rich history with this kind of thing. Think: John Wayne playing Genghis Khan in “The Conqueror,” Peter Sellers’ bumbling Indian character in “The Party” or even more notoriously, Mickey Rooney’s buck-toothed Mr. Yunioshi character from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” the grandfather of all “Yellowface” stereotypes.
Although these portrayals took place decades ago, their legacy lives on. Even now, in the age of Obama — when the newly installed Miss USA Rima Fakih is Lebanese American, Will Smith is the biggest movie star in the world and Sonia Sotomayor became the first Latina to sit on the U.S.Supreme Court — movie industry decision-makers can still seem woefully behind the times when it comes to matters of race.
Consider the latest evidence. This summer, two of the season’s biggest budgeted films have sparked controversy by installing white actors in decidedly “ethnic” parts. And some early fan reactions have varied from indignation to righteous fury to organized revolt over a perceived “whitewashing” of multi-culti characters, a practice that has come to be known as “racebending.”
In addition to Gyllenhaal and British actress Gemma Arterton’s portrayal of Iranian characters in the swords-and-sandals action epic “Prince of Persia,” Paramount has come under attack for its live-action adaptation of the Nickelodeon animated series “Avatar: The Last Airbender.”
Directed by “Sixth Sense” auteur M. Night Shyamalan, “The Last Airbender” (as the movie is called to distinguish it from a certain James Cameron-directed 3-D blockbuster) has enraged some of the show’s aficionados by casting white actors in three of four principle roles — characters that fans of the original property insist are Asian and Native American.
And with just weeks until the movie’s July 2 release — after a year-and-a-half-long letter-writing campaign to the film’s producers and a correspondence with Paramount President Adam Goodman to underscore the importance of casting Asian actors in designated Asian roles — members of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans and an organization called www.racebending.com are urging fans to boycott “Airbender.”
The movie’s detractors have spoken against the film at six college campuses, including MIT.,New York University and UCLA, also setting up booths at events such as San Francisco’s WonderCon pop culture expo to publicize their discontent. At last count, the group’s Facebook group had 7,125 supporters and attracted petitioners against the movie’s casting in 55 countries. The stated goal: to prevent “Airbender” from blooming into a lucrative three-part franchise via negative word of mouth.
“It’s unfortunate that it’s come to this,” said Racebending.com spokesman Michael Le. “They’ve constructed a film that is contrary not only to what fans expected to see but is also contrary to what America expects to see in a film released in 2010 featuring Asian culture and Asian and Native American characters as heroes.
“We want to raise awareness of the discriminatory practices of Hollywood,” Le continued. “We want to tell people this is important. It really matters.”
Guy Aoki, head and co-founder of MANAA — a crusading organization that has skirmished with TV networks and movie studios for a decade for more positive representations of Asian Americans — put a finer point on the boycotters’ concerns. “If ‘The Last Airbender’ does really well, it sends the message in Hollywood that discriminating against Asian Americans works,” he said.
Although the studios behind both “Prince of Persia” and “Airbender” have taken costly steps to not seem insensitive toward — or out of touch with — the minority constituencies represented in their respective films, no Disney or Paramount executives would comment for this article. Nor would the producers — “Prince of Persia’s” Jerry Bruckheimer or “Airbender’s” Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall. Directors Mike Newell and Shyamalan similarly declined.
Camille Alick, project manager for MOST — Muslims On Screen & Television, a resource center providing Hollywood productions with connections to Muslim actors and accurate information on Muslim populations — had not seen the films but remains sympathetic to the studios’ decisions, and contends that her experience in the field allows her insight into such casting choices.
“The hope is to have an authentic depiction, but casting directors have huge jobs in front of them,” Alick said. “They’re trying to find the best person for the part. And when it’s a big budget movie, it’s going to come down to a business decision. If a major actor can carry a film, that plays a big part. It’s not malicious intent.”
Still, those among the anti-racebending camp feel that such rationalization provides a convenient excuse for keeping the prevailing system — a glass ceiling for actors of color in major movies — firmly in place.
“Hollywood can make anybody into a hero,” Aoki said. “And yet these people continue to use a conservative attitude. When are they ever going to put an Asian American as a star to disprove that thinking? For Paramount to assume people wouldn’t pay to see Asians as leads is presumptuous and insulting.”
For the uninitiated, the cartoon series “Avatar: The Last Airbender” was aimed at children but enjoyed broad crossover to all ages — earning a zealous Asian American following — during its 2005-08 TV run. Set in a Pan-Asian universe, identifiably Asian and Native American, anime-inspired characters battle one another using martial arts manipulation of the four elements. The series follows a 12-year-old named Aang (played by non-Asian actor Noah Ringer in the movie) and his band of youthful cohorts who must save the world by toppling the evil Fire Lord and ending war with the Fire Nation.
But when word leaked out last year that a casting call had gone out for the movie version requesting “Caucasians and other ethnicities,” “Airbender” fans freaked. Representatives for the Media Action Network for Asian Americans attempted to contact Paramount in an effort to influence casting decisions. The studio made no reply until after white actors had been cast in the lead roles, wrankling the members of MANAA.
On the “Airbender” set in Philadelphia, Shyamalan took issue with the accusation that “Airbender” was anything less than inclusionary to characters of color. “Ultimately, this movie, and then the three movies, will be the most culturally diverse tent-pole movies ever released, period,” he told the Los Angeles Times last summer. Nonetheless, many of the film’s detractors felt that Shyamalan, an Indian American, has betrayed his own.
“He can fill up the background with Asian characters but that doesn’t mean it’s a diverse film,” Aoki said.
Paramount provided a statement about “Airbender’s” casting choices. “The movie has 23 credited speaking roles — more than half of which feature Asian and Pan Asian actors of Korean, Japanese and Indian decent,” it reads. “The filmmaker’s interpretation reflects the myriad qualities that have made this series a global phenomenon. We believe fans of the original and new audiences alike will respond positively once they see it.”
(In an effort to short-circuit further criticism, the studio says it will screen a print of the film to Racebending.com boycotters once its last-minute conversion from 2-D to 3-D is complete.)
During “Prince of Persia’s” scripting process, Disney hired BoomGen Studios, a consultation and niche marketing firm specializing in creative content about the Middle East, to help address issues of historical congruity and cultural contexts. Consultants advised the filmmakers to avoid specifically characterizing religion by setting “Prince” in a “mythological time” before the arrival of Islam. As well, the company worked to assure members of the Iranian American community that the film was the antithesis of a recent action-adventure movie felt to vilify the people of Persia.
“We said, ‘This is the anti-‘300,’ “ said BoomGen’s co-founder Reza Aslan.
Asked point blank by the Times of London, “Isn’t Gyllenhaal a bit pale to play a Persian?” Bruckheimer delivered this history lecture. “Persians were very light skinned,” he said. “The Turks kind of changed everything. But back in the 6th century, a lot of them were blond and blue-eyed.”
Aslan confirmed the veracity of Bruckheimer’s historical appraisal. “Iranians are Aryans,” Aslan asserted. “If we went back in time 1,700 years to the mythological era, all Iranians would look like Jake Gyllenhaal.”
Gyllenhaal maintains that “Prince of Persia” is simply a slice of old-fashioned Hollywood fantasy, a bit of cinema escapism that’s as light in spirit as the vintage serials. That heritage — along with the fact that it’s based on a video game — took precedence over any real-world context for his character.
“To me, it’s not something I gave a lot of thought because all of it such a fantasy,” Gyllenhaal said last month while attending San Francisco’s WonderCon. “It’s based on a video game, not something out of history. There’s nothing real about this. It’s just an adventure and it’s fun and it’s strange in a way to hold one part of it and say, ‘That’s not real or right.’ “
Blogger Jehanzeb Dar and people he has communicated with in the Iranian-American community, meanwhile, see the issue differently. “A lot of people feel its offensive and insensitive,” Dar said. “It’s another example of Hollywood doing its racebending.”
Jack Shaheen, author of “Reel Bad Arabs” and a frequent commentator on Hollywood’s distortions of Muslim cultures and people, refused to condemn “Prince of Persia’s” depiction of ancient Iranians until seeing the film. But he critiqued the film industry’s conventional wisdom that mainstream audiences won’t shell out to see a non-white lead in a big-budget film.
“Hollywood is making a mistake,” Shaheen said. “As a society, we’re not seeing color like we used to. We’re more integrated than we used to be. The country is changing. But I don’t think Hollywood is at the forefront of that change.”
– Chris Lee
Times staff writer Geoff Boucher and freelance contributor Sam Adams contributed to this report.
RECENT AND RELATED:
PHOTOS: Top, Jake Gyllenhaal in “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” (Disney); Second and ninth, photos from red carpet premiere of “Pricne of Persia” with Gyllenhaal and Gemma Arterton (Reuters); “The Last Airbender.” Third and fourth, promotional posters for “Prince of Persia.” Fifth and sixth, scenes from”Teh Last Airbender” (Disney); Seventh and eighth, scenes from”Avatar: The Last Airbender” (Nickelodeon). Bottom, promotional poster for “The Last Airbender”
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