This last weekend, I went to see Airbender in 3D.
I enjoyed it.
This puts me in a minority.
As a fan of M. Night Shyamalan films, I’m used to being a minority defender of his work. And before you ask, no, I haven’t yet seen the cartoon series Avatar: The Last Airbender on which this latest film is based, although I am deeply interested in doing so.
Whether or not you like the way Shyamalan constructs his scripts and tells his stories is, right now, a secondary question. Having blogged about his style before, I’ll just add this: he’s not a twist/thriller storyteller, and never has been. No matter how his films are marketed, Shyamalan writes speculative fiction – has always written speculative fiction – and not assessing or even identifying his films as such does them a great disservice. Yes, he sometimes ends up with stilted dialogue, but that’s a small price to pay for characterisation that isn’t conveyed exclusively through the usual methods of American schmaltz, and while his films aren’t traditional three-act narratives, that’s not because they’ve tried to be and failed. Shyamalan is doing something different with Hollywood cinema, and for all people seem to keep missing the point, it’s something I enjoy.
But when it comes to Airbender, there’s another, more important issue to be considered: race.
Let me be clear from the outset: I don’t think turning black characters white is a good idea. Undeniably, racism is part of the Hollywood machine, and it’s something I’d rather change than encourage. For instance: 300 annoyed the everloving shit out of me, because it was basically a film about evil, decadent, heathen Persians being taken down by a bunch of proto-Westerners. Possibly I was occupying the wrong corner of the internets back in 2006, but I don’t remember there being a hell of a lot of controvery over that fact. Instead, everyone was cheering about how faithful an interpretation of the graphic novel it was, and how cool the slow-mo blood looked. Sorry? A racist adaptation of a racist story is still racist. Being faithfully racist is not a state of moral or narrative superiority. And when I say racist, I don’t mean at the very simplistic level of Good White Guys Fighting Bad Brown Guys, which – while relevant to casting, equal opportunities and latent perceptions of race – pays no attention to actual character development, morality and behaviour. No: I mean Xerxes was dripping with gold, acting like God and sitting in a tent with burned, mutilated women who writhed about him like demon succubi, his wars fought by hoardes of unnamed, frequently burned men and his ambush laid with the help of a hunchback whose physical imperfection was stated to be the sole reason for his traitorousness.
Or, another example: the Southron hordes allied with Sauron in Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, all of whom are both evil and black. Tolkien might’ve written it that way, and we might be willing to take his own society and upbringing into account when criticising his reasons for doing so, but as with Zac Snyder’s 300, Peter Jackson escaped major criticism – why? Because it was a faithful adaptation. Never mind that the Southron are such minor characters that he could easily have cast them as white or a mix of races without drawing ire from the even the hardcore, everything-must-be-perfect crowd, especially as doing so would be in service to addressing a racist narrative function. Was anyone furious at the number of Uruk-Hai being played by people of colour, either? Evidently not.
And then, of course, we have Avatar. Now: I won’t claim to be the world’s most observant person, especially not when my higher brain functions are being distracted by pretty 3D vistas with dragons in them. It took my husband’s comments outside the cinema for me to realise that yes, all the Na’vi had been played by people of colour, a decision that doesn’t seem unrelated to James Cameron’s desire that their whole race look “exotic“. In terms of narrative, Avatar is basically Disney’s Pocahontas in space – there was some nifty worldbuilding and gorgeous scenery, but the script and characterisation were nothing special. When it comes to the racefail issues of Na’vi casting, however, I don’t recall that anyone was calling for a boycott of the film the way some people are doing with Airbender – possibly because, given Avatar’s massive popularity, it would have been a futile gesture, but also, I suspect, because even while people were offended by the recreation of Noble Savages on a different planet, the insult was seen to be softened by the fact that Privileged White People were still the villains.
A slight segue: does anyone remember the episode of South Park where everyone gets up in arms over whether or not their town flag is racist? The moral of which, to quote neatly from the Wikipedia summary, is that sometimes “perceiving things according to race leads only to further racism“?
Yeah. About that.
Cinema is a visual medium. I want to see actors of all nationalities in my films, and I don’t just want to see them typecast because of their nationalities, either. A surprising recent example of such diversity is, arguably, the first Twilight film, wherein various characters whose race was never mentioned in the series were played by non-white actors. That is a positive trend, and one I want to encourage. But in a recent interview, Airbender star Dev Patel lamented the lack of meaty roles for Asian actors, saying he was “likely to be offered the roles of a terrorist, cab driver and smart geek.” Looked at from this perspective, it is notable that his character in Airbender constitutes the most interesting and well-developed role in the film, driven by the most compelling narrative arc – far more so than the supposed protagonist, Aang, and his offsiders. Shyamalan has said as much in defending the film, and while that defence has been roundly mocked as glib in some quarters, having actually seen the film, it certainly holds up.
Which brings me back to the racefail debates surrounding Avatar and Airbender, and the weird double-standard that seems to have crept into their respective criticisms. James Cameron, who is white, has written, directed and produced a fantasy film where the majority of the villains are played by white actors, except for one who switches sides and fights with the overwhelmingly POC heroes. M. Night Shyamalan, who is Asian, has written, directed and produced a fantasy film where the majority of the villains are played by Asian actors, except for two who switch sides and fight with the mainly white heroes. Nobody has ever suggested that Cameron might be a self-hating white man, and yet that seems to be the implication when criticising Shyamalan. Neither does anyone appear to be interested in the fact that, by reducing both films to the level of Coloured People Versus White People (note the helpful capitalisation, blogsphere!), actors of colour ended up damned regardless of whether they’re playing heroes or villains. The Na’vi are Noble Savage Heroes, which is denigrating to people of colour. The Fire Nation are Devious Warlike Villains, which is denigrating to people of colour.
I’m not saying it’s impossible or irrational to take offence in either instance. Looked at from that perspective, both films are suggestive of Noble Savages and Warlike Villains still being the dominant dichotomy of race in Hollywood cinema. We need to get past those options, and fast.
But! Remember Dev Patel and his request that Asian actors be given meatier roles? Can we all agree that sometimes, meaty roles are straight-up villainous roles, a la Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men? Writing strong parts for people of colour is not the same as always making them the good guys. Neytiri is a thinner character by far than Prince Zuko: for actors looking to expand their skills, being on the side of righteousness doesn’t matter. Compared to the uniformly despicable Persians of 300 or the evil, barbaric Southron of The Return of the King, the Fire Nation of Shyamalan’s Airbender is awash with diversity – not in terms of casting, but in terms of range; much more so, in fact, than are the Na’vi of Cameron’s Avatar, all of whom are somewhat idealised, empty and two-dimensional.
But then, of course, we have the additional charge of whitewashing to lay at Shyamalan’s feet. Why? Because Katara and Sokka, whose characters in the Airbender cartoon are depicted as having blue eyes, brown hair and brown skin, are played by Caucasian actors with blue eyes, brown hair and white skin. Not having seen the original cartoon, I’m not in a position to gauge how representative these characteristics are of the Water Nation as a fictional race; neither am I going to try and pass judgement about which of these features – eyes, hair or skin tone – is most important when casting a real, live actor in place of their animated equivalents. Understandably, it remains the most contentious aspect of Airbender. But in a debate which has ostensibly been about the failure of Hollywood to treat race with respect, I find it ironic that it’s M. Night Shyamalan – and not James Cameron – who’s ended up copping the most abuse.
Bottom line: I don’t appreciate detailed narratives being reduced to simple forms purely so their detractors can pretend they lacked complexity in the first place. Whatever its failings, Airbender deserves a better critical reception than trial by media.