Two of the season’s most expensive films spark protests for casting white actors in ethnic parts

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Since its release, the video game franchise Prince
of Persia has become notable for the acrobatic grace of its
dagger-wielding, balloon pants-wearing hero as well as for what the
games didn’t do: affront gamers of Middle Eastern and Muslim descent
with stereotypical depictions of people from the region as terrorists
or religious zealots.

Independent filmmaker and blogger Jehanzeb Dar,
to name one such player, remembers his favorable first reaction to the
swashbuckling action game, which is set amid the sands and ancient
cities of Persia (as ancient Iran
is known) and follows a hero with a magic sword caught between forces
of good and evil. “You could see clearly the protagonist had distinct
Middle Eastern features and darker skin,” said Dar, 26, who pens the
blog Muslim Reverie from Langhorne, Pa. “People could develop some respect for that culture instead of seeing it vilified.”

So when Disney
studios announced plans for a live-action adaptation of Prince, Dar
held out hope it would be a “serious story that would dispel a lot of
stereotypes and misconceptions.” Then came the bad news regarding
“Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” (the movie that arrives in
theaters on Friday). None of its principal cast members are of Iranian,
Middle Eastern or Muslim descent. And playing Dastan, the hero and
titular heir to the Persian throne in the $200-million tent-pole film, is none other than Swedish-Jewish-American prince Jake Gyllenhaal.

“My first reaction was, ‘Really?!'” said Dar. “It’s
insulting that people of color — especially Middle Easterners or South
Asians — are not allowed to portray ourselves in these roles. That’s a
big problem a lot of people in the community are having with this film.”

Of course, Hollywood, has a rich history with this kind of thing. Think: John Wayne playing Genghis Khan in “The Conqueror,” Peter Sellers’ bumbling Indian character in “The Party” or even more notoriously, Mickey Rooney’s buck-toothed Mr. Yunioshi character from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” the grandfather of all “Yellowface” stereotypes.

Although these portrayals took place decades ago,
their legacy lives on. Even now, in the age of Obama — when the newly
installed Miss USA Rima Fakih is Lebanese American, Will Smith is the biggest movie star in the world and Sonia Sotomayor became the first Latina to sit on the Supreme Court — the movie
industry can still seem woefully behind the times when it comes to
matters of race.

Consider the latest evidence. This summer, two of
the season’s biggest budgeted films have sparked controversy by
installing white actors in decidedly “ethnic” parts. And some early fan
reactions have varied from indignation to righteous fury to organized
revolt over a perceived “whitewashing” of multi-culti characters, a
practice that is known as “racebending.”

In addition to Gyllenhaal and British actress Gemma Arterton’s portrayal of Iranian characters in the swords-and-sandals action epic “Prince of Persia,” Paramount has come under attack for its live-action adaptation of the Nickelodeon
animated series “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” Directed by “Sixth Sense”
auteur M. Night Shyamalan, “The Last Airbender” (as the movie is called
to distinguish it from a certain James Cameron-directed
3-D blockbuster) has enraged some of the show’s aficionados by casting
white actors in three of four principle roles — characters that fans of
the original insist are Asian and Native American.

And with just weeks until the movie’s July 2 release — after a year-and-a-half-long letter-writing campaign to the film’s producers and a correspondence with Paramount President Adam Goodman to underscore the importance of casting Asian actors in designated
Asian roles — members of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans
and an organization called are urging fans to boycott “Airbender.”

The movie’s detractors have spoken against the film at six college campuses, including M.I.T., New York University and UCLA, also setting up booths at events such as San Francisco’s
WonderCon pop culture expo to publicize their discontent. At last
count, the group’s Facebook group had 7,125 supporters and attracted
petitioners against the movie’s casting in 55 countries. The stated
goal: to prevent “Airbender” from blooming into a lucrative three-part
franchise via negative word of mouth.

“It’s unfortunate that it’s come to this,” said spokesman Michael Le.
“They’ve constructed a film that is contrary not only to what fans
expected to see but is also contrary to what America expects to see in
a film released in 2010 featuring Asian culture and Asian and Native
American characters as heroes.

“We want to raise awareness of the discriminatory practices of Hollywood,” Le continued. “We want to tell people this is important. It really matters.”

Guy Aoki, head and co-founder of MANAA — a crusading
organization that has skirmished with TV networks and movie studios for
a decade for more positive representations of Asian Americans — put a
finer point on the boycotters’ concerns. “If ‘The Last Airbender’ does
really well, it sends the message in Hollywood that discriminating against Asian Americans works,” he said.

Although the studios behind both “Prince of Persia”
and “Airbender” have taken costly steps to not seem insensitive toward
— or out of touch with — the minority constituencies represented in
their respective films, no Disney or Paramount executives would comment for this article. Nor would the producers — “Prince of Persia’s” Jerry Bruckheimer or “Airbender’s” Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall. Directors Mike Newell and Shyamalan similarly declined.

Camille Alick, project manager for MOST — Muslims on Screen & Television, a resource center providing Hollywood
productions with connections to Muslim actors and accurate information
on Muslim populations — had not seen the films but remains sympathetic
to the studios’ decisions, and contends that her experience in the
field allows her insight into such casting choices. “The hope is to
have an authentic depiction, but casting directors have huge jobs in
front of them,” Alick said. “They’re trying to find the best person for
the part. And when it’s a big-budget movie, it’s going to come down to
a business decision. If a major actor can carry a film, that plays a
big part. It’s not malicious intent.”

Still, those among the anti-racebending camp feel
that such rationalization provides a convenient excuse for keeping the
prevailing system — a glass ceiling for actors of color in major movies
— firmly in place.

can make anybody into a hero,” Aoki said. “And yet these people
continue to use a conservative attitude. When are they ever going to
put an Asian American as a star to disprove that thinking? For Paramount to assume people wouldn’t pay to see Asians as leads is presumptuous and insulting.”

For the uninitiated, the cartoon series “Avatar: The
Last Airbender” was aimed at children but enjoyed broad crossover to
all ages during its 2005-08 TV run. Set in a Pan-Asian universe,
identifiably Asian and Native American, anime-inspired characters
battle one another using martial arts manipulation of the four
elements. The series follows a 12-year-old named Aang (played by
non-Asian actor Noah Ringer in the movie) and his
band of cohorts who must save the world by toppling the evil Fire Lord
and ending war with the Fire Nation.

But when word leaked out last year that a casting
call had gone out for the movie version requesting “Caucasians and
other ethnicities,” “Airbender” fans freaked. Many of the film’s
detractors felt that Shyamalan, an Indian American, had betrayed his

On the “Airbender” set in Philadelphia,
Shyamalan took issue with the accusation that “Airbender” was anything
less than inclusionary to characters of color. “Ultimately, this movie,
and then the three movies, will be the most culturally diverse
tent-pole movies ever released, period,” he told the Los Angeles Times
last summer.

Paramount provided a statement about “Airbender’s” casting
choices. “The movie has 23 credited speaking roles — more than half of
which feature Asian and Pan Asian actors of Korean, Japanese and Indian
decent,” it reads. “The filmmaker’s interpretation reflects the myriad
qualities that have made this series a global phenomenon. We believe
fans of the original and new audiences alike will respond positively
once they see it.”

(In an effort to short-circuit further criticism,
the studio says it will screen a print of the film to
boycotters once its last-minute conversion from 2-D to 3-D is complete.)

During “Prince of Persia’s” scripting process, Disney hired BoomGen Studios, a niche marketing firm specializing in creative content about the Middle East,
to help address issues of historical congruity and cultural contexts.
Consultants advised the filmmakers to avoid specifically characterizing
religion by setting “Prince” in a “mythological time” before the
arrival of Islam. As well, the company worked to assure members of the
Iranian-American community that the film was the antithesis of a recent
action-adventure movie felt to vilify the people of Persia.

“We said, ‘This is the anti-‘300,'” said BoomGen’s co-founder Reza Aslan.

Asked point blank by the Times of London,
“Isn’t Gyllenhaal a bit pale to play a Persian?” Bruckheimer delivered
this history lecture. “Persians were very light skinned,” he said. “The
Turks kind of changed everything. But back in the 6th century, a lot of
them were blond and blue-eyed.”

Aslan confirmed the veracity of Bruckheimer’s
historical appraisal. “Iranians are Aryans,” Aslan asserted. “If we
went back in time 1,700 years to the mythological era, all Iranians
would look like Jake Gyllenhaal.”

Gyllenhaal maintains that “Prince of Persia” is simply a slice of Hollywood
fantasy that’s as light in spirit as the vintage serials.   “To me,
it’s not something I gave a lot of thought because all of it is such a
fantasy,” he said last month at San Francisco’s
WonderCon. “It’s based on a video game, not something out of history.
There’s nothing real about this. It’s just an adventure and it’s fun
and it’s strange in a way to hold one part of it and say, ‘That’s not
real or right.'”

Jack Shaheen, author of “Reel Bad Arabs” and a commentator on Hollywood’s
distortions of Muslim cultures and people, refused to condemn “Prince
of Persia’s” depiction of ancient Iranians until seeing the film. But
he critiqued the industry’s conventional wisdom that mainstream
audiences won’t shell out to see a non-white lead in a big-budget film.
is making a mistake,” Shaheen said. “As a society, we’re not seeing
color like we used to. We’re more integrated than we used to be. The
country is changing. But I don’t think Hollywood is at the forefront of that change.”


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