Thursday, January 29, 2009

Open Letter to Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall

To: Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall

I was very disappointed when I heard the news about the casting for the live-action adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender. It seems to be very clear that this story takes place in a stylized version of ancient Asia. The characters wear the costumes and practice the customs of ancient Asia, write in Chinese and eat with chopsticks. How did four Caucasians and their families end up there?

Whether the decision to cast this way was artistic or financial, the implicit message you send out with this type of casting is that 1) stories that feature Asian people are not as appealing as those featuring Caucasians 2) Caucasians can play Asians better than Asians can and 3) nobody wants to go into a theater and see movies with Asian faces in it. Even if this is NOT your intent, these are the implicit messages you send out.

And these messages make me feel bad.

I feel bad for every person of Asian descent, who will get the implicit message that even though Asian CULTURE is endlessly fascinating to audiences, Asian PEOPLE are not.

Additionally, I feel bad for a lot of white people and other non-Asian Americans. A majority of them voted a black man into the White House because they wanted change, but now they are being told in so many words that they are narrow-minded and intolerant, and that change is coming no time soon.

I feel bad for every Asian actor, who has surely spent much of his time knocking on doors in Hollywood only to hear, "Sorry, this role was written for a Caucasian, you aren't right for the role." Now, in 2009, he also gets to hear "Sorry, this role was written for an Asian, but we found a Caucasian who was better for the role."

Mostly I feel bad for every Asian child, someone who is surely within the demographic for this film, who will look at this movie and say, "Daddy, look at all the pagodas and Chinese writing and mountains! How come there aren't any Asian people there?"
Perhaps he might be told the "facts" of life: "The people who made this movie believe that if you put Asian people on the movie screen, not many people will want to come."
The kid may ask "why don't many people want to go to movies with Asian people in them?"
"Most of the people in the audience are white, and they only like to see white people, son. Not Asians."
"How come they don't like seeing Asians? I don't mind seeing white people."
"That's just the way it is, son."
"Even all my friends at school and neighbors on our block?"
"I suppose so."

You are successful filmmakers who have earned the right to lead rather than follow.

Do something.

Anson Jew


Pan Am Clipper Newsletter said...

Anson, I'm amazed to learn that there is still an antipathy to using Asians for Asian characters -- considering he success of some Hong Kong, Kung Fu and mythic films that have been successes, sometimes huge successes, financially and artistically.
What morons.
-- Mort Young*
*Not Asian

What are these Monsters? said...

You should also be furious about the Karate Kid remake, Anson.

Get this: It'll still be karate, but it'll be set in CHINA and Jackie Chan was hired recently as Mr. Miagi. My question is: are they trying to play off that karate and Mr. Miagi are CHINESE now? It's pretty bad. I think it's as bad as this Avatar deal.

Anson Jew said...

Mort, I agree with you 100%. In fact, they are making it more likely that their movie will fail with all the bad publicity their thoughtless casting is bringing. Would they rather have "Crouching Tiger" success or "Balls of Fire" failure?

Monsters, I don't know much about the Karate Kid remake, but I don't know that this bothers me as much as the Avatar deal. I'm presuming this takes place in modern China, so the idea that a Japanese is in China teaching karate (if that is indeed the storyline) isn't as far-fetched as clans of white folks living in ancient China (or white folks made up to look like Asians).
I generally don't have a problem with Asian actors of one ethnicity playing Asian actors of another ethnicity, as long as they can pull it off reasonably with accent and appearance. Most Asian ethnicities derive from Han stock, so the vast majority of Chinese, Koreans, Japanese etc. can "pass" visually for each other. Accents and languages are strictly the province of the skill of the actor.

Anson Jew said...

Oops. That should read "Balls of Fury", not "Balls of Fire". Wouldn't want to confuse Christopher Walken playing a Chinese with Dennis Quaid playing Jerry Lee Lewis.

benton jew said...

The Karate Kid remake ( if made as described ) has problems which are based in ignorance and sloppiness. Those sins, while infuriating, aren't nearly as bad as the ones in Avatar. The problem with Avatar isn't merely aesthetics, but blatant race-based hiring discrimination. The film makers believe that Asian actors are so naturally unbankable, that they needed to open up the casting process to caucasian actors who are ( based on the source material ) clearly not appropriate for the script. Asian actors have no illusions about being hired to play Abraham Lincoln or Gandalf, as those roles are not appropriate for them and never offered to them. However, they should at least have serious consideration for roles that are appropriate for Asians ( Aang, Genghis Khan, Jeff Ma, Cheng Kwai Caine come to mind ) .
Certainly, it would be great to see more roles that anybody of any race or sex can play. But as roles specifically designed for Asians are few and far between, Asian actors should at least be given priority for those roles.

glockgal said...

Hi, I feel a little late to be commenting, but we now have a website dedicated to the protest of The Last Airbender movie and we would love to have your name listed as one of Our Heroes - ie, professionals and groups who support our cause (

I will provide a link directly back to your Open Letter to Kennedy and Marshall.

Please let me know if this is alright by you and thanks again!

dante direnç said...

I know I'm late, but I just found this and had to comment.
Based on the epic failure of Dragonball Evolution ($20-70 million, I trust, is an epic enough figure), I wonder if, perhaps, the figures have caused the producers to sit up straight in their seats and reconsider the prospects of casting white actors as the main characters.
It was a great pity that Asian actors weren't considered for the leading roles, and had to be relegated to characters like Master Roshi, Yamcha, etc. A greater pity that the Dragonball franchise was stopped dead in its tracks in its attempts to reach out to a wider global audience.
But it is the greatest pity, then, that I, as well as so many others disgusted by the selfishness of Hollywood's leaders, am compelled to vote with my wallet, and prevent the success of The Last Airbender with my own hands.
I loved Avatar, I really did. I still do. But I think that if this lunacy continues, I will be unable to continue supporting Avatar, and I'll be more than happy to see it crumble into the dust. Perhaps in a long time to come, if that does happen, someone will come and pick the series up again, and produce a live-action film that actually does it justice.
But until then, I must sit and hope, sit and hope.

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