It's not a "post-racial" Hollywood

It's not a "post-racial" Hollywood

Posted by Sean Stangland on Wed, 04/22/2009 - 19:30

Kim Voynar over at Movie City News wrote this intriguing column about the casting of M. Night Shyamalan's movie version of "Avatar: The Last Airbender," which will smartly drop the first part of its name so as to not be confused with James Cameron's forthcoming sci-fi epic. For the uninitiated, which includes me, "Airbender" is a highly popular animated series with, as Voynar puts it, "interesting and complex Asian and Inuit mythology woven through it."

Yet it seems Shyamalan has cast white kids in all the lead roles. So one of the biggest "name" directors in the business, who was born in India, apparently cannot convince a studio to populate a big tentpole action picture with Asian actors. One has to wonder if that wouldn't be the case if "Lady in the Water" and "The Happening" hadn't flopped commerically and critically, but it's not like we shouldn't expect this from an American movie studio -- Voynar mentions last year's "21," one of the worst movies I've ever seen, in which two Asians from the real-life story are replaced by Jim Sturgess and Kate Bosworth.

(The most ridiculous example of Hollywood white-washing in a long while is coming next summer. In what world is it a good idea to cast Jake Gyllenhaal as the "Prince of Persia"?)

I'm betting some thought Hollywood's cultural blinders had come off after "Slumdog Millionaire" won best picture, an idea as ludicrous as the assertion we live in a "post-racial" America now that Barack Obama is president. I think the blinders are fastened as tightly as ever -- one can easily imagine the old, white Hollywood establishment voting for "Slumdog" because they found it to be cute and exotic, not because they truly thought it was the best film of the year. I had to cringe a little when the film's director, Manchester-born white guy Danny Boyle, called his film a "love letter" to Mumbai. If that's Boyle's love letter -- a depiction of a filthy, crime-ridden cesspool where children are bought and sold -- I'd hate to see his Dear John letter.

But the stars of "Slumdog" certainly didn't seem to mind how their homeland was depicted in the film; it's hard to find any pictures of Dev Patel, Frieda Pinto and Anil Kapoor where they're not beaming with happiness, and the Oscars telecast was brimming with love and optimism for the Indian community. Will these three actors who impressed so much of the American moviegoing public get a chance at true American stardom? Patel has just one role slated, and guess what? It's in Shyamalan's "The Last Airbender." (Never mind the fact he's the "wrong kind of Asian" for the part, as Voynar puts it.) Pinto has two upcoming projects with two highly regarded directors, Woody Allen and Julian Schnabel. And Kapoor? The Bollywood star will join the cast of "24" next season as a Middle Eastern leader. We'll see if he has to suffer Shoreh Aghdashloo's fate and play the bad guy.

It's not going to be a very diverse summer at the movies -- the lead roles in most of the tentpole pictures are played by whites. You've got pretty much the entire cast of "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince"; Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox in "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen"; Hugh Jackman, Liev Schreiber, Ryan Reynolds and Danny Huston in "X-Men Origins: Wolverine"; Christian Bale, Sam Worthington and Bryce Dallas Howard in "Terminator: Salvation"; Ben Stiller, Amy Adams and Robin Williams in "A Night at the Museum 2" (that one has a bonus white-washing with Hank Azaria playing an Egyptian pharoah); Will Ferrell, Anna Friel and Danny McBride in "Land of the Lost"; Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen and Leslie Mann in Judd Apatow's "Funny People"; and the protagonist of Pixar's animated epic, "Up," is an old white man with a young counterpart who appears to be an overweight Asian boy with a set of comically large choppers.

The only two big studio pictures I can find on the slate with non-white leads are "The Taking of Pelham 123," starring Denzel Washington, and "Imagine That," with Eddie Murphy.

Our best bet for diversity this summer? The multi-ethnic, multi-species crew of the Starship Enterprise in J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek." And those characters were created in the 1960s. How's that for progress in America?

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