Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Don't Get Me Started on The Black Transformer

When I was a kid, playing at Star Wars, I wanted to be Lando Calrissian. I like to think that my childhood self recognized that, even more than Han, Lando represented the lone morally gray character in the Star Wars universe, but really it was the cape. I fucking practiced walking around with a blanket on my shoulders, trying to keep it up on sheer force of awesome. Keep in mind I was, at most, six. I don't still do this. Very often.

Why I bring this up is that the trailer for M Night Shyamalan's adaptation of popular kids' show 'Avatar: The Last Airbender' has debuted, and it's reinspired some ire from late last year, when the casting was announced. Take a look at the below pictures:

The little Asian kid who's the star of the show has been effectively replaced by a cherubic-looking little White kid. As has ninety percent of the cast, except, as it happens, for the main bad guy. He still gets to be brown. Now of course, lots of people are naturally quite up in arms over this, and though I haven't seen frame one of the cartoon, I'm with them.

Because I feel insulted. I feel insulted to learn that Corporate Media doesn't think I, or kids anyway, can empathize with and root for someone who isn't white. It insults me and every time I played Star Wars or pretended to be Mr. Sulu in Star Trek because he got to FLY the ship and every book I've read that doesn't have some White lead or every movie I've seen not starring John Wayne.

This is Cherry Chan, Me-Make-Pee-Pee-in-Your-Coke, flat out racist. And further it perpetuates the myth that we can't get along, that we have nothing to say to or learn from each other, that we're incapable of seeing anything of value in the experiences of another race or culture--not even that! That we are somehow so stunted that the random adventures of an Asian-looking, Buddhist-inspired kid in some mythical Earth THAT ISN'T EVEN THIS PLANET somehow has to be sanitized.

Note, of course, that nobody thought it was a good idea to make Boromir black or Pippin Indonesian or give Legolas a wheelchair. That movie had more white people than a John McCain rally.

I hope this movie dies a death so momentous and unmourned as to serve as an example to generations of film students and Corporate Heeewers that some bullshit comes at too high a price.


  1. I'm glad I'm not the only person who tried to wear a cape like Lando. I loved him.

    Speaking of Jazz, have you heard that the sequel makes Jazz's characterization look like Sidney Poitier? They pretty much have a transformer-ized blackface version of Dumbo's Jim Crows.

    And, c'mon, didn't you see 21? Don't you know that racebending is not a biconditional: minority => white not the converse. The only exception to this rule is if a character is a villain, then they should be made more "brown"/"ethnic" (see Jafar in Aladdin). It's why Christopher Lee almost played Saruman as a repeat of his role as Fu Manchu.

    While race fails are always annoying and insulting to audiences, the biggest losers are the non-White actors who struggle to find roles (especially roles that aren't offensive) and non-White kids who grow up not seeing people who look like them portrayed positively in the media (see Brown v. Board of Education's doll test). I saw B. D. Wong give a talk many years ago talking about growing up as an Asian-American where the few people he saw like him on TV were rarely positive and little changed once he became an actor (see also Nobody's Asian in the Movies ( from Commentary, The Musical!).

  2. If only that Avatar movie were directed by an Asian.. oh, wait.

  3. What a twist! Bo, you bring up a good point, tangentially. We tend to refer to use "Asian" as the politically-correct version of "Oriental" but of course there are over a billion people in the rest of Asia who look nothing like that. I think in Britain up until recently at least "Asian" was meant to refer to people of Indian extraction whereas they still used "Oriental" to refer to east Asians.

    All part of our ingenious ways to keep labeling the Other.

  4. Many universities in the UK still have an Oriental Studies department. And their definition of "Orient" is quite broad: Among subjects in the humanities, Oriental Studies is unique in introducing students to civilisations that are radically different from the Western ones that form the basis of the curriculum in most British schools and colleges. The courses present both the major traditions of the regions studied and, in most cases, their modern developments. [...] Islamic World, Hebrew and Jewish Studies, Eastern Christianity, Egyptology and Ancient Near East, South and Inner Asia and East Asian Studies.

    They don't even try to hide it: "Orientals" are crazy different from the rest of us, and they pretty much exist only in the past to remind us how awesome we are. Though it can be fun to take "exotic" excursions to see how different they are from us before returning to God, Queen, and Country.

    Orientalism in England takes a slightly different form that it does in the US in terms of terminology: "Black" means South-Asian and "Sambo" similarly refers to South-Asians. But, yes, "Asian" usually refers to South-Asians in a bit of erasure for non-South-Asians. "Orient" is still very broadly applied to North Africa through East Asia.

    From what I've noticed from observing Orientalism in both the US and Europe, the US tends to focus on East Asia while Europe is still focused on North Africa and South-West Asia. While East Asia is gaining popularity (Belgium and France are quite enamored with anime and will reach US-levels of otaku-dom soon), it still has a ways to go before reaching the pervasive levels of Orientalism directed at North Africans and South-West Asians.

    To my shame, I didn't think Said had a contemporary point when he spoke of Orientalism's impact. Then I went to France and saw it everywhere. Now I'd have to be blind and deaf not to be aware of it all over the US.

  5. My comment about Oriental Studies should have come with a link:

    And the part after the colon should be in quotes. Yes, I'm quoting directly. Bile-inducing and ire-inspiring to say the least.