The Despicable Last Airbender

Alright, so I caved. I broke The Last Airbender boycott! Eek! I had the choice of staying at home watching instant Netflix on my computer (like I do every other day in my unemployed life) or I could get out into the world and watch The Last Airbender, with someone else paying my ticket. Meh. I chose the latter.

But lucky for you I can now share something new I actually gleaned from the movie that I didn’t already suspect going in:


If you don’t already know why there was a boycott and why it’s such a big deal, there’s a BUNCH of stuff you can read. (And to remind y’all that Yellowface ain’t new, check out this piece at Racialicous titled Casting White Actors In Asian Roles: 1957 to Today.)

Yes, I knew it was going to be oh-so-bad going in so, believe me, I had low expectations. But, really, I had no idea the movie was going to be that blatantly racist. Let me explain.

I was prepared for the white protagonists. I was prepared for the brown villain. But I was not prepared for the visual experience clearly demarcating the line of good and evil by color of skin.

Oh yes, Asians were not completely left out of this movie! They had a
chance to be cast as one of the poor, decrepit masses in the
countryside! And one Asian guy, cast as an imprisoned earth-bender, even
got to exclaim to the white heroes “They won’t let us use our powers
anymore!” and then fade away into oblivion.

It was a painful experience. Just imagine these token white
protagonists and their family members, who had a voice, a story to tell
and agency, put against a backdrop of silent, poor, helpless Asian

And then of course there was the villainous Fire Nation. Kudos for
the massive casting opportunity for South Asians! Now take away those
kudos and then some for the depiction of all whites as good and all dark
folk as evil. The ending scene in which the southern water tribe wars
with the fire nation is just a massive headache. They set it up as a
nation of good, gentle, heroic white people versus the selfish and
malicious nation of dark people. Come fucking on. It doesn’t even make
sense plot-wise as clearly the original series is made up of Asian and
Inuit characters and using all these white people put it in some sort of
European ice setting? Just… frustrating and weird!


Ahhh, and lest I forget… there was Zuko’s
uncle. Darling Zuko’s uncle. The one person in the Fire Nation who
seemed to have a brain, who convinced the Princess to give up her life
to restore order and balance in the spirit world and eventually helped
Aang to save the day. In an entire nation of South Asian actors, he was
the one white guy. Doh!!!

To top it all of, the acting was terrible. Katara was
painfully one-note and Aang was just completely transparent. I didn’t
believe a single line he said. The script was horrible too! My cousin
and I found ourselves looking at each other in surprise like, “What the
hell? That was completely unnecessary and corny.”

And I’m an easy person to please!

As an Asian woman who’s been in theatre, who’s had very limited roles
available to her, and as a friend and family member to so many talented
Asian actors who deserve to be cast, this was just a slap in the face.

Join the Conversation

  • Brianna G

    What especially sucks for me is making the Waterbenders white. I would pay a lot of money to see real Inuit actors playing roles that aren’t “Inuit background character–” usually even if there are Inuit characters, they are actually just Asians or MAYBE Metis.
    It wouldn’t have been too hard to do Water– circumpolar peoples, with a mix of Inuit, Yupik, Sireniki Eskimo, and Aleut, because I do concede that you might not be able to get that many trained and available Inuit actors and actresses to do the large battle scenes, Earth- Chinese, Air–Tibetan, and Fire–Japan. You only need like 10-20 Tibetan actors with only one major role, and there are TONS of available Chinese and Japanese people with training– since they’ve been typecast for so long, most Japanese and Chinese actors have some preexisting training in martial arts, which would make them more qualified for these roles.
    Here’s hoping that 5-10 years from now they do a remake of the movie and we forget this ever happened! Who would you cast?

  • MishaKitty

    My little brother is a huge huge fan of the cartoon series and he too caved in and saw the movie opening weekend. He agreed with all the things everyone had/has been saying about it and also…? It was just a horrible, badly done movie! He was so upset that he wasted his money on the “whitewashed piece of garbage” (his words). And, like I said, this was coming from someone who was a huge fan of the cartoon.
    It’s a shame because I really think they could have done wonderful things with a movie for this show from the way my brother has described it to me.

  • daveNYC

    It got an 8% on Rotten Tomatoes, just what the hell were you thinking when you bought the ticket?

  • Jack

    It doesn’t even make sense plot-wise as clearly the original series is made up of Asian and Inuit characters and using all these white people put it in some sort of European ice setting?
    No, it isn’t. The Water Tribe of the original series is inspired by Inuit and Native American culture, along with a splash of various other cultures. Inuit does not mean “brown person who lives somewhere cold,” it has a specific meaning.
    The one person in the Fire Nation who seemed to have a brain, who convinced the Princess to give up her life to restore order and balance in the spirit world and eventually helped Aang to save the day. In an entire nation of South Asian actors, he was the one white guy.
    Shaun Toub is Iranian. So I guess this would be the inverse of the Prince of Persia complaint, wouldn’t it? “Jake Gyllenhaal is too white to be a Persian! But Shaun Toub is too Persian to be South Asian!”
    The race fail stopped bothering me a few minutes in. It was stupid, but honestly, there was so much more that was bad about the movie:
    1. Gender fail. Katara was reduced from a strong, competent, headstrong woman to a shallow weakling whose only job is to say nice things to Aang. She was supportive on the show, but that wasn’t all she was. Princess Yue had a greatly reduced role as well, only there because the plot called for her to die; the other female characters that should have appeared in the first season didn’t. No Suki, very little mention of Avatar Kyoshi. In fact, the Kyoshi Warriors, an exclusively female group of fighters that should have featured in the Earth Kingdom town that Aang rescued? Didn’t. Also, no Jun the female badass bounty hunter.
    2. Plot fail. In the original series, Fire Nation soldiers would capture Earthbenders one at a time and transfer them to a prison out in the middle of the ocean, where they couldn’t access Earth to bend it. This made sense. In the movie, they just stick them wherever, surrounded by dirt. Which is stupid as all hell, because it’s like building a prison out of shivs and shotguns and expecting the audience to believe that it just never occurs to anyone to use them.
    3. Writing fail. The entire plot is moved by the machinations of the Fire Nation. Aang could easily have been replaced with a box of Cocoa Puffs and the plot wouldn’t have changed all that much. Zuko and Zhao get all the screentime and do all the plot moving, and significant roles that the Avatar is supposed to play in the plot, such as killing Zhao and wiping out the Fire Nation fleet either get done by NPCs (killing Zhao) or don’t happen at all (wiping out the Fleet). Which ties into the next complaint.
    4. Theme fail. Aang works as a Messianic figure, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The problem is that M Night Shyamalan doesn’t seem to understand that that doesn’t make him Jesus. Aang was flawed in the show: he was a bit flighty, he could be self-centered, he was dangerously naive, he was prone to letting his emotions have too much control over him. These flaws very rarely make an appearance in the movie. Instead, he’s completely watered down, because the Avatar is suddenly not supposed to hurt people. So he doesn’t kill Zhao, he doesn’t wipe out the fleet, he doesn’t do much of anything. But that’s not enough. After the battle in the North Pole, he raises a huge tidal wave that looms threateningly over the fleet. Then, they turn around and go home, so he dismisses it. THEN he finds that the fighting has stopped, and everyone–Water Tribe and Fire Nation alike–is bowing to him. They “accept him as their Avatar.” Which gives the war this really uncomfortable religious feel to it. The Fire Nation become infidels who have questioned the Will of the Avatar rather than savage imperialists looking to take over the world.
    5. This movie sucks and I don’t like it.

  • Ariel

    My boyfriend and I wasted $20 on this movie. We’re two white folks but even we could see how bad the racism was. Dark people are evil? Asians are silent and helpless? Gah! Oh and the storyline was just awful. The acting was bad too. We’ve been watching the entire cartoon series to purge our minds from this awful movie.
    Also, I love the irony of their excuse, “We couldn’t find Asian actors.” But they could clearly find Asian extras. I call bullshit.

  • LLLyns

    Except you COULD get lots of Inuit actors to do those scenes. I have seen plenty of amazing performances by Inuit actors in Canadian movies, one just has to look outside of the Hollywood bubble:
    Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001)
    The Journals of Knud Rasmussen (2006)
    Before Tomorrow (2008)
    Definitely check these films out if you actually want to see indigenous actors in indigenous roles, especially ‘Before Tomorrow.’

  • Jpowell

    I have to admit it: I’m a total geek and love the animated series. I saw the movie last night and could simply not relate to my partner how awful it was, we’re both theater people with lots of experience critiquing performance, but despite this I was at a complete loss of how to convey the shittiness of this movie. I can’t forgive the white washing, but even if one was to put that aside, it was still one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen.

  • JJ

    Shaun Toub (Uncle Iroh) is Persian, not white.
    And have you seen all three seasons of the series? If you had, you would know that the earthbender story line is based off of the original material of the series, not something sprung from Shyamalan or Paramount. Yes, they cast the nation to be Asian–but if you’re familiar with Book 2: Earth, you would be familiar with Toph who is, in my opinion, the most bad-ass bender of the entire series (in the unlikely event that a sequel is made, she will be Asian; that’s a pretty awesome role for the Asian actress who would get it…assuming hell freezes over and she is actually written well the second time around).
    I’m not trying to defend the racial casting choices of Shyamalan or Paramount. However, it’s getting to the point where the complete storyline needs to be spoiled as a means to ensure intelligent conversation about the movie. So here, I’ll spoil it for you.
    The only things driving this Fire Nation conflict are two members of the royal family (the Fire Lord, who is Zuko’s father, and his psychopath daughter, Zuko’s sister) and the military, which is forced to take orders. In Book 3: Fire, you see Fire Nation children in a classroom being indoctrinated with the royal family’s forced propaganda–but Aang interacts with some of these children and they are not bad or villainous people. The children aren’t even allowed to have fun! Katara encounters some other Fire Nation people who are struggling because of the royal family’s choices. Zuko’s OWN MOTHER–who is the extremely kind Fire Lady, if you will–was banished by Zuko’s father. Again, this conflict is led by two members of an extremist family in power–not the Fire Nation as a collective bunch of villains. Everyone is being oppressed by the evil half of the royal family, INCLUDING THE FIRE NATION.
    I’d also like to point out that The Last Airbender is not really about Aang but, rather, about Zuko. Zuko is the best, most complex and the most beloved role of the series (along with Uncle Iroh). Zuko is the true hero. As an Asian myself, I’m pretty ecstatic that Dev Patel ended up with the role…and I think we should all be. Quality of how his role was written in the movie aside. Anyone claiming he is a villain is very much misinformed.
    That being said, I think it would have been wonderful to have seen Inuit actors. However, I happen to be of the opinion that the Bending identity is what’s central to the cartoon characters, not their Race. Race is never, ever discussed in the series. For that reason, I could have cared less if white people were villains and Persians were the heroes or the other way around. I wouldn’t have blinked to learn that everyone in the movie was Asian.
    That being said, the main thing that upset me about this film was how Katara’s character was treated. As someone mentioned already, she was reduced to a scared little girl instead of the powerful, strong and kind-hearted bender she was supposed to be. Oh, and the fact that the film was paced horribly. But mainly Katara’s character and, to a certain extent, the irrelevance oozing out of Princess Yue’s character (“Meh, she can die for us….so what? It’s not like she had any redeeming qualities. She’s just a sacrificial object.”)
    I loved, loved, loved the cartoon series….but I just don’t know if I could handle seeing Toph butchered by poor writing in the next movie.


    I’m curious as to what the director’s reaction to this is, as a American person of colour himself. Has he taken responsibility for it or is it seen more as a studio decision? (i.e.: they think they needed white main characters to make money).
    Either way, seems like a total fail.

  • BrainPickerTem

    I saw this with another fan of the cartoon and we were both surprised by how blatantly racist it was. Fuck this movie.

  • Brianna G

    Iranian is considered white in much the same way that Jewish is considered white– it is white, and more white than black or Asian, but sometimes Westerners distinguish it because they like to pretend “white” only applies to Europeans when they want to other someone. Traditionally, Semites, Arabs, North Africans, and Persians are white. In the case of Toub, he will definitely be considered to be 100% white by the average American– he is very light-skinned.

  • Brianna G

    He beleives that he was actually not being racist. According to him, “The irony is that I’m playing on the exact prejudices that the people who are claiming I’m racist are doing,” and calls it “the most culturally diverse movie series of all time.” He claims he chose actors who were the best for it, with a conscious effort to create a diverse cast.
    Of course, when they cast Aang, Katara, Sokka and Zuko, they didn’t advertise for “any ethnicity,” he called for “Caucasian or any other ethnicity,” which is traditional agent-code for “only call Caucasians”; I’m also not aware of any characters who were African-American.

  • KatieinNewYork

    Right? Zuko is a huge hero, and an incredibly complex character, and that’s why people so enjoyed watching his arc over three seasons. That arc is exactly what redeems the Fire Nation as well – you think of the whole of the Fire Nation (minus Iroh, maybe) as being evil, only to have that notion turned on its head in Book 3 when you learn that the Fire Nation’s people are being oppressed as well.
    And that’s the problem with the movie. This movie is so epically awful that Book 3 is, in all likelihood, never, ever going to be made into a movie. The arc won’t happen. So all those redeeming qualities? All those plot twists that makes you think about the nature of oppression/oppressive societies? Are never going to be seen by anyone who hasn’t seen the cartoon. Zuko, as far as the movie franchise is concerned, will always be evil. It’s a bad movie about glorious white people and evil brown people, and it’s going to die that way, because no one is going to fund it all the way out to Book 3, no matter how redeeming it could be.
    AT LEAST if it were cast closer to the race of characters in the cartoon, it would be more than that, more then another movie where white = good, brown = bad. But honestly, I’m glad it’s tanked because at least they can’t blame its failure on American audiences not wanting to see Asian actors.

  • KatieinNewYork
  • katemoore

    That said, with how astoundingly badly this did, and how nicely that poor performance fits with the general consensus about Shyamalan now (i.e. a hack; most people don’t really get that this was an adaptation, especially since it can’t be called Avatar now), there might not be those next installments.

  • battle angel alita

    “Shaun Toub (Uncle Iroh) is Persian, not white.”
    if you’re mean white as in “caucasian” your wrong, Persians, along with other Middle Easterners, are Caucasians.

  • battle angel alita

    check out racialicious, they has his response some time ago on there.

  • Jack

    There would be no African-American characters, as The Last Airbender takes place in a world without an Africa, or, come to that, an America. However, Monk Gyatso, Aang’s father figure and Airbending teacher, was black.

  • Auriane

    If you read the first paragraph, you’ll see she went because someone else bought her ticket for her.
    What THAT person was thinking is another matter entirely.

  • rhian

    It really bothers me that people are discussing “white” or “Caucasian” as though they have some actual true scientific meaning that differs from just social perception. Although “Caucasian” does have a quasi-scientific origin, it has had an extremely narrow definition that certainly doesn’t include Shaun Toub, and “white” frankly has no biological or geographical definition at all.
    I do not know many Iranians who are perceived as “white” in this country, and I certainly didn’t think Shaun Toub was “white” when I saw this movie.

  • Chris

    I wonder how many people loved avatar but hated this movie.

  • Chris

    I do wonder how much the producers had to do with the casting.

  • battle angel alita

    first of all your assessment is problematic because you are assuming race essentially = skin colour. it doesnt.
    and while it is true there are debates about whether race actually exists the reason some of us feel the need to point these things out is because in the west we are informed about other cultures through a lens. many of these things tend to be exaggerated or mistranslated, and certain cultures are constructed as bad by “othering” it.
    “I do not know many Iranians who are perceived as “white” in this country”
    he fact that somthing as small as people not knowing that Middle Easterers are caucasian because they have been told/believe otherwise leads onto legitimate questions about what else we have been mis-informed by.

  • Devonian

    To be fair, a lot of that is probably the result of condensing an entire season worth of episodes into a movie…

  • JJ

    Indeed. I find it bittersweet, actually–making TLA into a movie was a really, really great idea…..but it was managed so unbelievably horribly.
    I would really love to see a better equipped team of directors, producers and actors take a swing at it again 10+ years down the road.

  • JJ

    I corrected myself earlier but the comment didn’t make it into this discussion for some reason.
    What I meant to say was that Toub is Iranian; I did not mean to generalize. Must’ve been thinking about the Prince of Persia controversy as I was typing…. :)

  • rhian

    “first of all your assessment is problematic because you are assuming race essentially = skin colour. it doesnt.”
    Actually, I’m not. I’m assuming race is as it is socially defined. In this country it does happen to roughly–but certainly not entirely–correlate with skin color. I live in an area with a high number immigrants from the Middle East, including Iran, and those people certainly do not live with the invisibility and privilege afforded to “white” people in this country.
    I hear what you are saying about othering, and I agree that that does happen, but I think that trying to call people “white” who do not have that privilege is dismissive of the experience they do have.
    “Caucasian” is an enormously problematic word, showing up in practically every introductory example of historical attempts to turn race into science. It was originally assigned to skulls from the Caucasus (because they were thought to be most attractive) and then extended to Europeans. Sometimes now, and this is the definition I think you’re using, it means people descended from the “European” migration out of Africa, including people from the Middle East and South Asia. (Though… the US census doesn’t seem to agree with that.)
    By equating “white” with “Caucasian”, you’re treating race is as though it’s biological and as though skin color doesn’t matter in the slightest. Do all “Caucasian” people live as “white” in the US? Dev Patel? Shaun Toub? I sincerely doubt it. So I’m not sure why you are insisting that he is “white”.

  • MishaKitty

    I’m thinking a lot. Like a lot a lot.
    My brother went with a whole group of people that loved the show and they ALL hated the movie. Not even just somewhat disliked it. They HATED IT. He said that in order to even understand what was going on you HAD to have seen the cartoon and have been very familiar with it and that should not be a requirement for seeing any motion picture on the big screen. It should be able to stand alone. And that was just one of his complaints. One of many. Also, I’ve read many reviews of the movie and not a single one was positive.


    And with the acting being so damned terrible, the excuse that there aren’t enough “trained or talented” non-white actors flies out the window.
    You’d be hardpressed to find worse acting skills if you pulled the names out of a hat. The actors they picked couldn’t even pronounce the names right half the time :/ If they’d avoided the racefail and still wound up with bad actors, then they could have at least had the hard-to-find excuse, as well as looking like they had some integrity for casting characters that at least physically fit the characters somewhat.

  • jdv1984

    People should check out as well as it’s Livejournal group. They’ve already covered all of the fail extensively.
    But seriously – why are people continuing to pay to see this? Talk with your money. Don’t support this racist, sexist crap.