The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Thursday, July 01, 2010

"The Last Airbender" (2010)

No, I haven't seen it, and almost certainly will not. If ever there was a movie that deserved to fail, it is "Last Airbender," with its disgraceful whitewashing of an Asian motif. If ever an artist sold himself out, it is M. Night Shyamalan. What white director has never made a film with Caucasians? Female director who has never made one about women? He has cut himself off at the root, and I doubt he will ever find his way home again. Reports say it is an incomprehensible mess. How could it be otherwise? Films and novels are too complicated to hold purely in the conscious mind. And on some deep level, Shyamalan has to KNOW what he has done. Ang Lee or John Woo can dabble in Hollywood...but can go home and work with the mythologies of their own people, or look back on a body of work that reflects their own culture and genetics. What director, ever, has been in such denial? There are damned few writers who have never labored in their own vineyards, culturally speaking. And speaking from my own personal experience, there would only be a few reasons to do this:
1) A genuine and deep fascination with the "other." There are a few white writers who are so fascinated with, say, Asian culture that they have created characters set in ancient China, and to my knowledge have written nothing or little else. This is really remarkable, and rare
2) Money. The knowledge that if they write about "their own" they risk rejection and/or poor sales. This is the road to hell, because that artist has to deal with a few ugly things, for instance the belief (valid or invalid) that the group he creates for has contempt and/or disinterest/ disconnection from people who look like him.
3) Fear/Protective coloration. This is the "self-hating Jew" path: changing the name, bobbing the nose, and pretending to be Protestant. Or the self-loathing Gay conservative who votes against gay marriage while cruising the bars at night, courting self-destruction. It is the "see? I'm just like you! Don't hurt me! I actually agree with you about "those" people. I'm not one of them!" This is a horror. I would say that maybe 2% of such artists are case #1. I don't think Shyamalan is one of them. I think that if you go deep enough, he would want, at the least, to create multiethnic stories . At best, nurture and create stars of his own "kind" to tell stories that reflect his culture and genetics. To CHOOSE to do otherwise is one thing. To be FORCED to in order to have a career, to sell out your heart for money and fame, is something else all together.

When we do that, we are raping the creative child within us. I think he is a brilliant man. I also think he is lost, and can no longer recognize the sound of the human voice. He has nothing but intellect now, no heart to guide the way. And was he right to believe he couldn't reflect his own reality and appeal to America? I would say absolutely. I would reiterate that Hollywood is LESS racist than America as a whole, and America more open to those "others" than the world as a whole. The problem is human perception itself, tribalism, deep survival patterns that kept our ancestors alive in ages past. It is not "America," "Hollywood" or "white people." It is us. The way Liberals and Conservatives each use language suggesting they are more human, wiser, smarter, more ethical than their political opposition. The way most religions quietly assume their own superiority, and that everyone else is going to hell. The way nationalism assumes that everyone's country is "exceptional." Or that most people think they are above-average drivers or lovers.

This is what we are. We are all victims of it, and we all oppress. The only difference I see is that some people are aware, and try to swim against this tide, and others believe if we all just stop acknowledging differences and "special interests" it will all work out. All that is necessary for bigotry to triumph is for people of good will to believe we are "Post Racial."

I think the trainwreck that is M. Night Shyamalan's career is a classic example of self-denial devolving to self destruction. If I was an Asian actor, I would want to strangle him. On some deep level, M. Night would probably want to help.


Shady_Grady said...

This is pretty deep, Steve.
I have noticed that Shyamalan is getting a lot of criticism for his casting decisions.

Nancy Lebovitz said...

Would making a movie with Chinese actors have been enough like his own people to have done Shyamalan any good?

Travis said...

I'm not sure what the original statements are intended to reflect. According to online bios (yes they may be chock full of lies but I doubt it) his parents lived in the US and only went back to India to be with family for his birth. He remained there for a whopping 6 weeks. " look back on a body of work that reflects their own culture and genetics" WTF?

He's an American folks.

Steven Barnes said...

1) Nancy--yes, I think so. He would then have been able to sink deeply into their culture, revel in their joy at representing themselves, take pleasure in widening the cultural conversation.
2) He's an American who cannot create art based on his own heritage. Tons of American directors explore their own Italian, Irish, English, or whatever heritage, and take great pride and pleasure in it. Shyamalan CANNOT do this without alienating the very people he needs to further his career. I've spoken to many, many artists of color who, for financial reasons, cannot address their own cultures. And in every single case, there is anger and fear under the surface. Often a sense of frustrated self-loathing, and a sense that they love America far more than America loves them. It is poisonous to the soul. I'm sure that Gays who cannot express their sexuality, Jews who cannot express their religion, and so forth, deal with versions of this as well. Trust me...if the positions were reversed, whites would be dealing with the same thing, and suffering similar wounds. There is a limit to human strength, and most of us decide to go along to get along. It just costs us.

Travis said...

His first movie WAS about a guy who was raised in the US and then went to India to rediscover his ethnic heritage.

Yeah, maybe now that he's a hit the economic factors steer him away from doing work like that. Or maybe he just feels like he's ALREADY done that story.

Some people care about 'connecting to their roots' . Some people don't. My wife and all her relatives are first generation immigrants. Only one of the ones raised in the States has ezxpressed any particular desire to go back to the 'old country' or learn about it in any great detail.

I would actually consider it more odd if M. Night Shayamalan was obsessed with making movies in and about India.

Of course none of this proves that Mr. Shyamalan DOESN'T feel disconnected from his heritage. It's simply a critique that there isn't any reason to ASSUME that he does. Maybe he's said something that's out there that provides more evidence but I just don't see it in the movies.

AF1 said...

The really sad thing is that the The Last Airbender tv show was a great story and very well done.

All Shymalan had to do was translate that brilliance to film as faithfully as possible and he would have had a hit movie franchise on his hands.

gmccrash said...

Here's Shyamalan's take:

Nancy Lebovitz said...

Did anyone predict that The Last AirBender was likely to be a lousy movie?

The pre-release posts I saw on about it were "boycott it because it's whitewashed", not "it's whitewashed and you don't want to bother anyway".

Shady_Grady said...

"You can relax, bloggers. The dearth of racially appropriate casting in the U.S. simply means that fewer Asians were humiliated by appearing in what is surely the worst botch of a fantasy epic since Ralph Bakshi's animated desecration of The Lord of the Rings back in 1978. The actors who didn't get to be in The Last Airbender are like the passengers who arrived too late to catch the final flight of the Hindenburg.",8599,2000996,00.html#ixzz0shAxQ9jN

Steven Barnes said...

Having spoken with many artists of color who feel forced to avoid depictions of "their own" in order to make a living, I can promise you that there is a repeated theme of anger, shame, and frustration. I can't read Night's mind, but I don't think "been there, done that" covers it since almost all other directors deal primarily with people of "their own" ethnicity FAR more often than Shyamalan has. I think he sold out, I think on some level he knows it, and I think that's responsible for the fragile ego he is famous for having. Like the hero in his first movie, he needs to "return to his roots" to find himself, or he is lost. What white director has ever made 90% of his films starring blacks or Asians? There is something wrong here.

Steven Barnes said...

Here's a simplification of what I have heard from artists of color who do not represent people who look like them in their work. It is similar to:
1) A vegetarian who has to work in a steak house.
2) A gay man forced to make public statements that are anti-gay
3) A feminist who has to work for Hustler magazine
These are all similar to comments I've gotten. The feeling is one of alienation, rejection, fear. It is irrefutable that Shyamalan would have made 1/10 the money if he had made movies about Indians--if that. Based upon my conversations, this leads to a nagging sense that you are spending your life and core creative energy entertaining people who dislike you. So long as you pretend not to care, you get paid. This is horribly damaging, on a low-level, chronic level. Your theory of how human beings operate in the world may be different. This is totally consistent with mine, and I'll stand by it.

Shady_Grady said...

Steve, what is the difference in Hollywood now and what was going on circa 1967-1974 when it appeared, at least in hindsight that there was more of an opportunity for successful niche marketing?

Also what are some of the common elements possessed (mind/body/soul) by black/non-white artists/writers/etc who HAVE been financially successful-more so than the average?

Filmdiva said...

I understand your reluctance to watch the last airbender Steve
but read this and reconsider