As protesters paraded outside the ArcLight Hollywood theater Thursday evening, signs filled the air with hand-written phrases such as “Support fair casting!” and “Hollywood is racist and too ignorant to know it!” The chant of “Get it right, M. Night!” rose above the noise of Sunset Boulevard rush-hour traffic. Meanwhile, just inside the ArcLight’s doors, an usher busied herself preparing rows of 3-D glasses for the next showing of “The Last Airbender.”
Released Thursday, the M. Night Shyamalan film has been criticized for casting Caucasian actors as Asian characters. Based on the anime-inspired Nickelodeon cartoon series “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” the movie’s story has many connections to Asian and Inuit culture. While the movie is mostly faithful to the story, protesters say, it does not accurately represent the Asian ethnicities of the main characters. While irritating to fans, the issue is particularly upsetting to parents who see the movie as depriving kids of Asian role models.
Since the “Airbender” casting became known in December 2008, Asian-American activists as well as the TV show’s fans have called for a boycott of the film. They harnessed the Web to promote their cause, particularly through the site Racebending.com. On Thursday, protesters took to the streets. The crowd, which included over 100 at its peak and otherwise numbered 50 or 60, was drawn from supporters of three L.A.-based organizations — Racebending.com, the Korean Resource Center and Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA). According to Marissa Lee, a founder of Racebending.com, the turnout at the protest was exactly what its organizers hoped for.
“We can’t change the movie, so it’s a symbolic demonstration,” she said. “We want to send the message to Hollywood that its casting practices are no longer accepted by the public.”
Paramount has responded to the criticisms by announcing in a statement that the cast includes “Asian and pan-Asian actors of Korean, Japanese and Indian decent.” Shyamalan has defended “Airbender” as “the most culturally diverse movie series of all time,” referring to “The Last Airbender” as well as two sequels he plans to make.
As protesters chanted, waved signs and marched in a circular pattern in front of the entrance to the ArcLight’s Cinerama Dome, passersby had mixed reactions. Some stopped to find out what was going on. Others simply took photos. And there were some who just kept walking. But it can be difficult to attract attention in Hollywood. No one took a second glance at the svelte, tanned man who sauntered through the crowd wearing nothing but tight white jockey shorts.
Though the protesters were passionate and enthusiastic, the atmosphere was peaceful. The only near-violent moment came when Tzi Ma, a Chinese actor known for his role on “24,” spoke so vehemently that spittle flew at the NBC reporter who was interviewing him. “It’s on the verge of a hate crime, and I’m sick of it,” he said of the movie. Other protesters appeared equally frustrated.
“I’m tired of the glass ceiling, I’m tired of the biases, I’m tired of the unequal playing field,” said Yun-Sook Kim Navarre, a poet and activist who instructed her 6-year-old daughter to spell “Asian Actors Now” in red marker on a sheet of poster board.
Emiliano Celi, an actor of Latino, Chinese and Filipino descent, presented a more matter-of-fact view. “We just want fairness and balance in America,” he said. “There’s nothing simpler than that.” Guy Aoki, a board member for MANAA, thinks the campaign against “The Last Airbender” has contributed to the prediction of lackluster ticket sales.
Roger Ebert gave the movie half a star. For Scott Mendelson of Salon.com, “The Last Airbender” is a “tragedy, pure and simple,” earning a grade of D-plus. Kenneth Turan of The Times labeled it as “undoubtedly a disappointment.” And teenagers — the movie industry’s key viewing demographic — aren’t too pleased either..
While many protesters have seen the movie (some attended a Paramount-sponsored screening in order to better support their claims), others such as Europa Henriquez, 18, are sticking to the boycott. Even so, Henriquez is familiar with the audience response. In addition to disagreeing with the casting, Henriquez is also upset that the movie grossly feminized one of the tough-girl characters.
Lee noted that the “Airbender” controversy has motivated TV fans to ditch the stereotypical couch potato slouch and campaign for fairness. “I think it’s been really empowering,” she said. “It’s an opportunity for fans to channel their love and energy for the animated series into activism.” But Lee is aware that a surge in interest doesn’t mean overnight change.
“We’re going to continue to keep an eye on Hollywood,” she said. “It doesn’t stop with ‘Airbender,’ unfortunately.”
— Daina Beth Solomon
[For the record, 11:50 a.m. July 4, 2010: An earlier
version of this post said that refunds had been
given to half of the moviegoers at Alhambra Renaissance Stadium 14 after they complained about the quality of the film “The Last
Airbender.” The information was attributed to a protester. The reporter did not confirm that information with the theater,
which denies that mass refunds were sought or given.]
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Photos: Top, protesters demonstrate outside the ArcLight Hollywood. Bottom, the Asian protagonists from “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” Credits: Daina Beth Solomon and Animelime.com.
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