The Avatar: the Last Airbender Netflix Adaptation Should Have Color-Conscious, Diverse Casting
Nickelodeon is working on a live action adaptation of Avatar: the Last Airbender, and as a loyal, longtime fan of the original series, I‘m somewhat excited but mostly apprehensive. Live action adaptations of animated classics do not typically perform well, whether they’re big-budget Disney films with all-star casts or low-budget anime remakes that are inexplicably white-washed.
I take issue with the live action remake trend entirely. There’s no need for animated content to be “upgraded” to live action because animation is no less worthy of critical praise than live action. Animation imparts a level of beauty, fluidity, and vivid color to films that can rarely be achieved under the constraints of our physical world, even when CGI is thrown into the mix. But unfortunately, animation is not considered as broadly appealing as live action in American culture, given that most mainstream American animation is geared towards children (though shows like Bojack Horseman, Rick & Morty, and The Midnight Gospel are working hard to change that).
So the live action A:TLA piece is already in production and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. I might as well try to maintain some positivity. Considering the quality of the source material, though, I can’t help but have high expectations, especially with regards to the casting. It’s imperative that the Netflix show avoid the mistakes that Shyamalan made with his disastrous 2010 live action film, so let’s take a deeper look at identity as a concept in the world of A:TLA and how best it can be translated into a live action form.
Book 1: Observations on Disney’s Live Action Remake Trend
Disney is at the forefront of the live-action remake trend, and there’s little mystery as to why. Nostalgia is a powerful selling point, and remakes, reboots, and sequels are therefore an easy cash grab. In addition to profitability, remakes serve as a convenient way for Disney to improve the optics of its brand optics and maintain its beloved status in the mass media hierarchy. The original 1992 Aladdin film, while lovable, has several undeniably racist elements. While the 2019 remake managed to right some of those wrongs, the original still exists in all its Orientalist glory. Is there value in re-writing the past, or should studios simply charge forward and try to do a better job with new projects by hiring more people of color and conducting better research?
Disney did something similar with The Lion King. While the original film owed its scenic beauty to the natural landscapes of Kenya, the voice cast was mostly white. Therefore, the all-Black cast for the 2019 remake was one of the film’s major selling points, an easy way for Disney as a corporation to perform racial diversity. I don’t believe reparations were the first thing on Disney’s mind when pitching the remake–I think they mostly wanted to flex their CGI and rake in some nostalgia cash– but marketing-wise, attaching Beyonce, Childish Gambino, and a slew of other Black celebrities to the project was a deliberate move. Justice was seemingly restored, until the movie flopped for its complete lack of originality or beauty. I’ll never forget the remarkably realistic yet utterly emotionless faces of the animals in the film. Was the project wholly unnecessary and a total waste of everyone’s time? Yes. Did it make a lot of money regardless? Of course.
On the other hand, the critically-acclaimed Lion King musical continues to achieve what the remake could not, not only by employing a visible all-Black cast, but by paying homage to various South African cultures with its creative costume design and larger-than-life dance sequences. I do believe a Black writer might have leveled the musical up even further (POC presence in writers’ rooms is equally, if not more important as POC presence on-screen) but the fact remains that the musical saw a great deal more success than the live action film in every way.
Recently, Disney announced its decision to cast Halle Bailey, a young Black R&B singer, as Ariel for its upcoming live action remake of The Little Mermaid. Some fans were outraged by the decision, and the hashtag #notmyariel trended for a couple of depressing hours. Other fans pointed out that Ariel’s skin color has no real bearing on the story, and also that she’s a fictional mermaid. Making her Black is in many ways a Hamilton-style move that creates opportunities for actors of color in an industry that’s generally disadvantageous for them. I remember how disappointing it was to discover that the first Black Disney princess would spend a majority of her screen time as a frog. The Little Mermaid remake may be an attempt by Disney to right that wrong, or it simply may be a performative show of diversity similar to Aladdin that’s intended to win social justice points for the studio’s brand.
Again, I would much rather Disney create new content with Black characters than try to rewrite the past, but I personally find no problem with the casting of Halle Bailey, and not just because I’m a fan of ChloexHalle’s music. Young Black girls deserve to see themselves as princesses, not frogs. I’m happy that The Little Mermaid will provide representation for Black girls today in the same way that the TV musical Cinderella (1997) represented us 90s kids with its multiracial cast. And I would much prefer a Disney princess that can really sing over one who merely resembles her animated counterpart so that we don’t have to suffer another autotune situation like with Beauty and the Beast.
With regards to A:TLA, however, there are no white roles that need to be handed over to people of color. The characters themselves are already either Asian or Indigenous. It seems like more of a Lion King situation here, where the purpose of the remake may simply be to flex some cool special effects, bring the show to a wider (ie adult) audience, and perhaps, as a bonus, atone for the white-majority voice cast of the original show. This brings us to the disastrous 2010 M. Night Shyamalan film, a film that most fans prefer to deny as vehemently as Ba Sing Se denies the war. There is no war in Ba Sing Se. There is no Live Action A:TLA Film From 2010 Directed By M. Night Shyamalan. We should all stop talking about it. But as I re-watch the show — my beloved, perfect show with its beloved, perfect characters— I can’t help but ruminate on what went wrong with the film, and more specifically, on why M Night Shyamalan, an Indian American like myself, cast it the way he did.
Book 2: Addressing the Elephant Koi in the Room: M Night Shyamalan’s Disastrous 2010 Film
Shyamalan’s first mistake was to cast white people. There are no white people in A:TLA, just as there are no Asian people in the Lord of the Rings universe. A:TLA is an Asian-inspired universe. I would be alright with maybe one or two token white characters — maybe a few cameos from the original voice cast — but to cast a whole tribe of people as White in an Asian-Inspired universe is completely unforgivable.
Image description: A tweet by Twitter user Mommy that says “white people love asking what bender they would be. Baby There are no white people in avatar"
But to be honest, what bothers me more than the existence of white people in the film is the assignment of highly specific racial groups to each of the four nations, a decision which likely came from a desire to achieve some sense of realism. The theory goes that in ancient times, nations were not as racially diverse as nations are today, and that you would be hard-pressed, for example, to find a Black person in the middle of Ancient Greece. This is why all the Ancient Grecians in Julius Caesar (1953) are white: the audience was White America, so the cast was White American (never mind the Black and Brown American audiences at the time). Many believe it’s unnatural to portray ancient cultures as ethnically diverse because diversity is supposedly modern and therefore ahistorical.
I’m not here to debate this idea because I’m not an anthropologist, but I personally don’t think diversity poses a threat to authenticity or convincing world-building. With regards to historical films, I understand the desire for authenticity and realism, but I still don’t think that realism is an inherently better choice. In some cases, like in the lauded German film Das Leben Der Anderen, it’s true that realism and authenticity can improve a film’s appeal for historians, laypeople, and living members from the time alike, but Das Leben Der Anderen documents life in East Berlin, which is very recent history. The farther back one goes in time, or the more undocumented a historic moment is, the murkier the concept of realism becomes. These historic moments already necessitate a high level of speculation and creativity given the relative lack of documentation, and attempts at “realism" often end up reflecting the filmmaker’s current political and sociocultural views rather than an objective truth. The concept of realism is therefore entirely subjective and oftentimes highly deceptive; we can never be sure of a work’s “accuracy" without performing time travel.
Regardless, I’m not here to talk about real-world history. A:TLA is firmly fantastical, with its bending and flying and glowing lights. In my opinion, when it comes to historical fantasy and fantasy in general, attempts at realism undermine and dull the creativity and wonderment that fantasy necessitates as a genre. I find it very strange that fantasy filmmakers feel tempted to assign groups of people in made-up worlds to real-life racial categories simply for the sake of visual coding. From an audience perspective, it makes some sense: if each citizen of a fantasy colonizer nation looks one way, and each citizen of a fantasy rebel nation looks another way, audiences can easily tell who to root for and who to hate. But from an artistic perspective, it’s a total cop-out because homogeneity is boring, outdated, and lazy.
I believe a similar inability to separate nationality from race, masquerading behind surface-level racial diversity, is what resulted in Shyamalan’s cast. Visually, it’s easy while watching the film to distinguish Earth Kingdom citizen from Water Tribe citizen from Fire Nation citizen simply because each nation looks different. The Earth Kingdom actors are East Asian, the Water Tribe actors are white, and the Fire Nation actors are South Asian. Evidently, this schematic doesn’t extend to the Air Nomads, given that Aang is also played by a white actor, but the point is that Shyamalan essentially color-coded his characters.
This casting schema represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the Avatar universe and of the modern world at large: in the Avatar universe, there is no way to determine what nation a character belongs to solely based on their physical attributes, just as there is no way to determine someone’s nationality simply by looking at them. It’s why people of color in the United States take mild offense at people asking them where they’re “really” from — the same would never be asked of white Americans, so the assumption being made here is that American identity is equivalent to whiteness, which is absolutely not true.
In Book Three, Aang, Katara, Sokka, and Toph are able to walk freely in enemy Fire Nation territory simply by dressing up in Fire Nation clothes. They look like Fire Nation citizens not because of any genetic features but because of their red clothing. No one recognizes them as foreign. Similarly, in book two, Zuko and Iroh travel undercover in the Earth Kingdom without being recognized as colonizers. It isn’t until Zuko reveals himself as the banished Fire Nation Prince that the villagers turn against him.
Maybe this is simply cartoon logic, and I’m reading too much into it —in a live action adaptation, I would do away with color-coded clothing simply because it seems impractical and a little boring — but that logic allows us to envision a can be a liberating idea, especially for POC. In the United States today, people band together not only on a racial basis but on a cultural basis as well, and these two identifiers don’t always align. I know a girl from Delaware who’s more thrilled to meet other people from Delaware than she is to meet people of her own racial group. Avatar is like this, except that race is taken out of the equation entirely. In many ways, Avatar is colorblind.
This begs another question: if race can’t be an identifier of nationality in the Avatar world, shouldn’t all the characters more or less belong to the same racial group? This is a fair point, and certainly possible to execute in live-action. Hollywood films already cast Chinese actors as Japanese and Korean characters, and vice versa, despite the fact that this perpetuates the harmful, racist idea that East Asians look the same and are therefore interchangeable. An example of this is the casting of Zhang Ziyi, a Chinese actress, as the lead Japanese character in Memoirs of a Geisha. Perhaps with Avatar, the live action cast could be made up entirely of East Asians without that choice being unethical, given that the Avatar world is broadly pan-Asian in influence (though, in my opinion, it would be very unethical to ignore the Indigenous influences in the show for the more prevalent Asian ones).
Yet under this pan-Asian theory, I find that even tried-and-true Avatar fans cling to a Shyamalan-esque one-to-one mapping of Avatar nation to real-life nation, albeit one that is better-researched. The popular theory maps the Fire Nation to Japan, the Earth Kingdom to China, and the Air Nomads to Tibet. Only the Water Tribes are Inuit-influenced, rather than Asian. I understand why this mapping is so popular. The imperialist Fire Nation, with its industrialized military and its strict honor code, bears a stark resemblance to World War II Japan. The Earth King Kuei looks distinctly like the last Chinese Emperor, Puyi, and the city of Ba Sing Se itself resembles the Forbidden City. The culture of the Air Nomads is modelled after Buddhist monasticism in Tibet and Southeast Asia, with Aang’s mentor Monk Gyatso bearing a resemblance to the Dalai Lama himself. And the Water Tribes, located at the southern and northern poles of the Avatar world, plainly resemble the Inuit-Yupik cultures of Greenland, Canada, and Alaska.
Although this schematic is more informed and not as starkly color-coded as Shyamalan’s, I still find it reductive. For one, it transforms the unique sociopolitical issues within the A:TLA universe into real-world issues. With an all-Japanese fire nation cast, the live action show would become a story about a Japanese military that uses not only industrial weaponry but fire-magic as well to oppress the Chinese, Tibetan, and Inuit peoples of the world. It would inadvertently become a critique of World War II Japan as a whole, which, while not undeserved— Japan committed horrible war crimes against several of its neighbors — is not really something I want out of this children’s TV show. Call me naïve, but I would rather A:TLA serve to unite Asians than single out Japan as some overarching Asian enemy, which it currently is not.
A:TLA is simply an Asian-inspired universe with its own socio-political issues that stand independently of our own and that introduce Eastern ideals of nonviolence, balance, and spirituality to a Western audience. The Fire Nation commits violent genocide against the Air Nomads; couldn’t it be argued, then, that Fire Lord Sozin harkens back to any and every historically genocidal maniac? Ultimately, the Fire Nation is an amalgamation of all the real-world colonizers and imperialists that history has witnessed, not just World War II Japan.
Finally, this schematic is not only reductive, but also extremely limiting, because it excludes the various other cultures that influenced the world of Avatar, including my own. And I’m honestly not okay with that! I want to see South Asians in Avatar the same way M. Night Shyamalan did, because the world of Avatar is South Asian too.
Book 3: Representation is Complicated
Let’s talk about representation for a moment and what it means. I am a South Asian American woman with dark skin. I’m very conscious of my dark skin and of often being the darkest-skinned person in a room. As a child watching Avatar, I felt represented by Katara and her dark skin, and I know I wasn’t the only Brown or Black child to feel the same way. Representation is a strange thing, especially in fantasy. Many dark-skinned folks cosplay Katara, Sokka, Yue, and even Master Piandao at conventions each year, despite not being Indigenous or Asian. I know Katara isn’t Indian, because India doesn’t exist in the Avatar universe, but I feel a kinship towards her simply because she looks like me. It’s more than I can say for most Indian films, which have a notorious tendency to cast only the palest women possible as leading ladies. Even in Hollywood today, colorism is a major issue, where roles for Black characters often go to the lightest-skinned actors possible. So to see a dark-skinned girl as the main lead and the love interest, widely considered beautiful by everyone she encounters, was very important for me.
This is also where I extend genuine empathy towards Shyamalan’s decision to throw South Asians into the mix: A:TLA lore is peppered with Sanskrit words, and the root concept of the Avatar itself is derived from Vedic mythology. The concept of four core elements is derived from the five element theory, which can be traced not only to Chinese Wuxing philosophy but to Vedic philosophy as well. In Wuxing, the five elements are fire, earth, water, wood, and metal. In Hinduism, the five elements are fire, earth, water, air, and space. Moreover, the creators of the show revealed in an interview that the scene where Aang consults his past lives for advice was directly inspired by a Hindu text called the Bhagavad Gita in which the warrior Arjuna calls upon Krishna, a God, for spiritual counsel during the war. I must stress here that while South Asia is not singularly Hindu — South Asia is home to people of several faiths, and I have no wish to perpetuate Hindu supremacy, which is a major, major issue in India right now — Hinduism is singularly South Asian. Part of the reason I’m so deeply attached to this show is that the universe feels intimately familiar to me. Indian films have been tapping into the romantic and emotional potential of reincarnation for ages, but this was the first time I saw it portrayed in American media in a way that was respectful, beautiful, and well-written.
But despite my culture’s influences on the show’s lore, Avatar’s only visibly South Asian character is Guru Pathik, who is somewhat of a caricature of Indian gurus. This is likely because the art style of Avatar is influenced by anime, which is a Japanese medium and which therefore reflects East Asian aesthetics in its character design. It’s mildly disappointing to be a South Asian Avatar fan and to be represented solely by a goofy Indian uncle trope, but it is what it is. Everything has flaws, and this is one of Avatar’s.
My unpopular opinion is that Dev Patel, who was casted as Zuko in Shyamalan’s film, was the least problematic casting choice of the main four characters, considering he’s the only nonwhite lead. He’s a great actor, and he brought life to what was an otherwise poorly written film. Also, Dev Patel is just as much of a teen heartthrob as Zuko is. Have you seen him in Lion? But what matters more to many fans is that the live-action Zuko simply resemble animated Zuko more than Dev Patel does, and I can’t really fault them for that.
So do South Asians have a place in the live-action Avatar cast at all, considering there are no “visibly” South Asian characters other than Guru Pathik? In my opinion, we do, but not on nearly as large of a scale as Shyamalan envisioned. I see no justification for making the entire Fire Nation cast South Asian. I think it was an overall terrible decision, primarily because of the problematic race/nationality equivalence I’ve mentioned already, but also because the Fire Nation characters in the show don’t look traditionally South Asian at all. And what I mean by that, of course, is that most of them don’t have brown skin.
But what does it mean to “look” South Asian, anyways? Are there not South Asians who have pale skin? Are there not South Asians from Northeast Indian states such as Assam and Manipur and Meghalaya who are sometimes perceived as East Asian? What does it mean to look East Asian, anyways, and isn’t it strange to assume that there exists a fixed set of “East Asian” features? Are not all Asian countries incredibly diverse? What merit is there in being overly divisive with regards to casting? What are the consequences of not being divisive enough? Sure, Princess Jasmine is played by an Indian woman, which is definitely better than a white woman, but wouldn’t it have been much better for them to have cast a Middle Eastern actress, considering that the people of the MENA region don’t have as much representation as South Asians do in Hollywood today? While the casting of any Asian or Indigenous person in Avatar is a win for people of color as a whole, isn’t it harmful to assume that any old POC will do?
Ultimately, there are no easy answers to these questions because representation means something different for every minority. I feel represented by dark-skinned women who aren’t Indian because dark skin is something that Asian culture finds shameful, but I also feel represented by South Asian women who don’t have dark skin because I feel connected to my South Asian identity as a whole. Identity and representation are complex and casting directors should take great care to reflect that complexity.
On social media, it’s endlessly fun to watch people fancast their favorite Avatar characters. For example, many fans believe that Zuko and Azula should be Japanese, given the aforementioned parallels between the Fire Nation and World War II Japan. And yet others point towards the Sun Warriors civilization — also within the Fire Nation — as a counterexample, given that their civilization draws architectural design influences from the ancient Aztec, Mayan, and Incan empires. Perhaps some Fire Nation characters could be Indigenous or South American.
Some believe Toph should be Chinese, given the Earth Kingdom’s aforementioned resemblance to the Ming and Qing dynasties of China. And yet other fans notice that Song, the Earth Kingdom girl whose family gives shelter to Zuko while he travels alone, wears a dress that resembles a hanbok, indicating that some Earth Kingdom characters could be Korean as well. Other fans point towards the Kyoshi warriors as proof of Japanese Earth kingdom characters, given that the Kyoshi warrior makeup is Geisha and Kabuki-influenced. And while the Water Tribes are indeed largely influenced by the Inuit tribes of Greenland, Canada, and Alaska, there are also the Swamp Benders to consider, who some fans argue are Vietnamese, given their names. Waterbending is also based off of Tai-Chi, which is a Chinese martial art form, so couldn’t some Water Tribe characters be Chinese as well?
Image description: A tweet by Twitter user chrysanthemum transsexualism that says “i know it’s jokes but they’re not white! all swampbenders have vietnamese names as a reference to the Vietnamese diaspora in louisiana"
All of these fans are absolutely correct in noticing these parallels, which is precisely what makes Avatar so exciting. Each nation in Avatar is influenced by a wide, diverse net of cultures, and the live action remake has a responsibility to pay homage to that diversity. The answer lies in a color-conscious casting call. The creators should pay close attention to the aesthetic and cultural influences of each individual character and cast them accordingly. Moreover, diversity should exist not only across the Avatar world but within the four nations themselves so as to broaden the range of people represented by the show. This means that family members, or two characters from a single nation, might differ ethnically from one another, the way that Whoopi Goldberg’s character in the 1997 Cinderella movie has an Asian son with her white husband. It’s fantasy. Real-world logic doesn’t matter, because the world of Avatar does not follow the logic of our world. Maybe Sokka is played by a young Inuit man while his sister, Katara, is played by a Polynesian woman. Maybe Zuko is played by a Korean actor while his sister, Azula, is played by a Japanese actress. Maybe Master Piandao, a relatively minor Fire Nation character, is played by a South Asian actor or an Afrolatino actor, given his darker skin tone.
Ultimately, I want to see Avatar portray a truly diverse world, like some idealized future United States where cultural ties trump race. I want every single person of color who sees themselves in the show to get the representation they deserve, representation that is long overdue and that the Avatar universe is practically built to celebrate. The live-action trend is here to stay whether I like it or not, so I urge filmmakers and writers everywhere to think seriously about how to create opportunities for people of color in ways that are sensitive and well-researched.