Airbenders, Persians and Racefail, oh my!

Seeing the trailers for the big budget action flicks The Last Airbender and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time during the Super Bowl last night added a touch of racefail to the primarily misogynistic slant of this year’s commercials. 

Both films — one based on a cartoon and the other on a video game — feature white actors in roles that were originally minority ones. But hey, wait, they’re not totally whitewashed movies, dude: the villains are brown. Doesn’t that just warm the cockles of your heart?

The Avatar: The Last Airbender controversy has been well-documented over the last year or two. It’s a cartoon set in a fictional universe but with distinctly East Asian themes. The team behind the film dropped Jesse McCartney (ex-JR, All My Children) and cast Slumdog Millionaire‘s Dev Patel in an effort to quell all the outrage over the film’s whitewashing. And, oh, The Daily Show‘s Aasif Mandvi is a villain, too. Let me make it more clear: All the kids who are the root-for heroes are still white instead of vaguely East Asian and the bad guys are brown. Newsflash: That doesn’t give you cool points, that’s not “better.” M. Night Shyamalan, who is, himself, Indian and had such a celebrated career just a few years ago, really has lost the plot; it saddens me that he’s at the helm of this project. But I guess that only helps excuse the fail in the film. Defenders can say, “Shyamalan’s involved and he’s a minority, so it must be okay!”

Prince of Persia suffers from a similar problem. On what planet would it make sense to have Jake Gyllenhaal and Gemma Arterton play Persians? Ours, apparently. Because, hey, denying Gyllenhaal the part just because he’s white would be racist, right? And he can be made to look more Middle Eastern with a good tan. (I’ve also seen a few arguments claiming that because many Persians are pale-skinned, Gyllenhaal’s casting is fine. But I’m not even going to get into that.) Still, don’t worry, just like The Last Airbender, there ARE people of color in the film! Naturally, it’s people of South Asian descent instead of Persian/Iranian, since we all look alike anyhow. Sir Ben Kingsley, paying his rent for the year, is the baddie, Nizam. And an actress named Ambika Jois is listed as playing “Tamina’s attendant.” There are a few other funky foreign last names rounding out the background cast as well. Bad guys and servants…how progressive!

I continue to marvel at how this can fly in 2010. I don’t understand. It’s not like this is “back in the day,” when segregation was in full effect, there weren’t many well-known actors and actresses of color working in Hollywood and slapping on a little shoe polish turned an actor into Sinbad the Sailor. And it’s not just that there are now myriad actors and actresses of color out there to fill the roles, it’s that Hollywood is deliberately erasing minority representation from minority stories. Imagine the uproar if Slumdog Millionaire had been cast with Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart. (But ten bucks says they’d have been bandied about for Oscars and others top honors, unlike Patel and Freida Pinto.) And who would be surprised to see an actor of color in a movie called Prince of Persia? I mean, it’s not like it’s Prince of Pittsburgh!

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