Thursday, July 1, 2010

Call to boycott The Last Airbender and other racist movies

I love movies. But the movies don't always love me back, especially if those movies are from Hollywood. For all its reputation as a place overflowing with liberalism, the simple fact is that Hollywood is racist. And they think you are too.

Recently, the Guardian posted an article about the controversy of casting a black actor Idris Elba as a god in the upcoming film of Thor. I responded with a piece defending that decision as a long time coming, and a small bone to throw to minorities in a still primarily white-dominated world of film. Someone posted a response that was itself vaguely racist, and claimed that "it's not that we are racists, but to us white people the white people are more atractive [sic]." Not true, by the way, as recent studies have shown (Mixed-Race People Perceived as 'More Attractive,' UK Study Finds). But the post left a useful suggestion that I came to on my own anyhow - that it's time we simply call for a mass boycott of racist films.

It shouldn't be hard since they are usually terrible anyhow. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and Sex in the City 2 were both lousy films that were offensive to Middle-Eastern people. The Hollywood Reporter called  Sex in the City 2 "proudly feminist and blatantly anti-Muslim." Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Gemma Arterton as Persians, and none of the principals are Iranian, Middle Eastern or Muslim. Jerry Bruckheimer defended their casting by claiming that 6th-century Persians were blond and blued-eyed Aryans. Odd, hearing a Jewish producer speak about his Swedish-Jewish leading actor using an Aryan defence. But Aryans weren't all light-skinned and Aryans could be found as far as India.

The latest example of racial insensitivity from Hollywood is M. Night Shyamalan's The Last Airbender. So far it has been receiving horrible reviews (a dismal 7% on Rotten Tomatoes), for it's incomprehensible story, poor effects, and awful retrofitted 3D. But it has been criticized from the start for its casting of Caucasians in roles based on Asian and Inuit characters. Check out this detailed look at the history of white-dominated cinema leading up to this film.

It's especially disappointing that this example of racism came from a person of colour himself. But most of Shyamalan's films have been pretty much white-only except for his own vain cameos. And people are finally cluing in that Shyamalan is a one-hit wonder who made feature-length Twilight Zone episodes.

In his defence, I will say that I've been disappointed that Asian directors like John Woo and Ang Lee also go white-only when they work in Hollywood. Clearly, they don't have a problem working with Asian actors. But I can't think of a single Asian in any of the American movies they've made. So perhaps it isn't always a directorial choice, but an attitude that emanates from producers, studios or Hollywood itself. It's amazing to me that decades after we've had black leads in movies, the only mainstream cinema with a North American Asian like myself in a lead role has been the two Harold and Kumar movies. I seriously doubt that I will ever see an Asian win the Best Actor Oscar in my lifetime.

But it isn't something we just have to take sitting down. Money talks, and I encourage everyone to withhold their money from movies that are racist. Hollywood thinks they can get away with it because they make the business argument that audiences supposedly want Caucasian leads. In other words, ethnic viewers won't have any problems watching white actors, but white viewers are too racist and intolerant to watch ethnic actors. Paying to see films made with this attitude is simply agreeing with them.

We should spend our money on films such as Clint Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima or Gran Torino. He made the sensible decision to cast Japanese actors in the Japanese roles, and Hmong-Americans in the Hmong-American roles. Both movies were also quite excellent. That type of attention to detail, artistry and intelligence always seems to produce immeasurably better results.

So let's all do our small part. The only way Hollywood will ever wake up is if we show them that it is in their financial interest to do so. It also just makes sense for us as viewers to see racially-sensitive movies that are excellent rather than insensitive movies that are crap.

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