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Gene Luen Yang to Boycott ‘The Last Airbender’ Movie Over ‘Yellowface’

The Last Airbender” movie — based on the much beloved, award-winning animated series “Avatar: The Last Airbender” about a young boy caught in the middle of an elemental war — is coming to theaters on July 2nd in both 2D and 3D. And listen: We’ve seen the trailer (and it’s after the jump, if you want to see it too). It looks awesome, no question.

I really wish I could end there — with a glowing recommendation of the animated series, a link to the lovely new Dark Horse art book about it, and a kick-ass movie trailer. Unfortunately, there were some… problematic elements of the movie that bear mentioning, and were recently spotlighted by artist Gene Luen Yang, creator of the National Book Award-nominated graphic novel “American Born Chinese.” Yang has announced that he will be boycotting the movie, a decision he explained in a comic strip posted on his website.

So what happened that turned Airbender fans like Yang — and other detractors, including cartoonist Derek Kirk Kim — against a movie that they had once eagerly anticipated? The fact that the movie took a cast of entirely Asian (or Inuit) characters set in a fantasy world that was distinctly based on Asian culture, and recast all of the main characters with white actors.

As Yang explains in another post:

“To be clear, I don’t believe that director M. Night Shyamalan and the other creators of Paramount Pictures’ The Last Airbender movie are motivated by intentional racism. They probably just want to make the most entertaining (and profitable) summer blockbuster they can, the best way they know how. But intentionally or not, they are adding another chapter to Hollywood’s long, sordid history of Yellowface. By giving white actors roles that are so obviously Asian – and by stating from the get-go their preference for Caucasians – they tell Asian-Americans that who we are and how we look make us inherently inadequate for American audiences, even in a movie that celebrates our culture.”

The post by Kim is also must-read and pretty heartbreaking, particularly he talks about his childhood dream of acting, and why he never felt like it was a real possibility for an Asian-American man:
“But we never even entertained the notion of actually pursuing it as a career. Not because we didn’t want to, but because we had too much pride to spend our entire lives pretending to be Long Duk Dong, or a Chinese food delivery boy with one line, or a Kato to some Green Hornet. Or even worse, having our hearts broken over and over going after roles that specifically call for Asian Americans like “Avatar, The Last Airbender” only to see them go to white actors. Back in my Drama days in high school, I used to dream of being white so I could pursue acting. With discrimination like this “Avatar” casting continuing to happen uncontested in Hollywood, my future kids will nurse the same pitiful wish.”

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