On the Front Lines: Protesting The Last Airbender in Hollywood

By Ken

I grunted at Chris Tashima. I’ve known him for 20 years, long before he won the Academy Award for Best Live Short for his film Visas and Virtue. I adore the man, but all I could manage was a grunt.

Last Friday night at the Arclight Theatres in Hollywood, we protested against The Last Airbender, the latest in the trend of movies displacing APIs in favor of Caucasians. There, amongst several long-accomplished actors and community leaders, we lent our voice and visibility to a cause that we take extremely personal. But it’s a fight that we’re pissed we are still fighting.

20 years ago, the casting in Miss Saigon, their use of racist cosmetics and the content of the show incited us to protest the Broadway musical. For many of us, that coalescence of community was a turning point in our career focus. We also hoped that the image of our community would improve.

And so I grunted at my buddy at the Airbender protest, because it was, “Here we are again.”

No one can articulate it better than Eugene Franklin Wong, especially in his book, On Visual Media Racism. It should be a must read for any API in the arts. Every day I am more impressed with Mike and Dariane at Racebending.com, and so it is with humility that I address some of the counter arguments about why we are protesting. And I promise not to scream, “Just go to your college library and check out On Visual Media Racism!”

There are a lot of other problems in the world. What’s one movie to you?

Media images are full of impact. As a kid, I heralded each time Kelly Hu came on the tube in her Jack in the Box commercial or an Asian person was a contestant on Jeopardy. Conversely the absence as well as the continual negative images affected my self-image. I not only disliked who I was but those who looked like me. The negative message is not limited to APIs. It pervades how society views and interacts with APIs. Unless chips in that wheel are made, the cycle will continue and increase. So there is a larger issue than one movie.

Concern for positive representation in media does not make one myopic. Who’s to say we can only focus on one issue?

There are Asians in the movie. Aren’t you protesting them at the same time?

There is a continual practice of relegating Asians to the background. This is an iniquity in economics as well as representation. Viewers are more apt to humanize characters in the foreground despite the fact that they are killing those who look like us in the background. We root for those we identify with—not who we resemble but who the film tells us to identify with. And usually the main villain is one dimensional compared to a well-developed hero and commits heinous, inhumane acts that we’d be near sociopathic to root for him. Thus, just because there are Asians in the movie does not mean it’s an equitable and positive representation. Again, this is a trend that has compounding effects.

Aren’t you just a bunch of disgruntled actors bitching about a part you didn’t get?

This is a common tactic: to make politics personal. While this issue hits hard to our core, that does not mean that we are crying because we got passed over. I look at the larger picture. More positive portrayals and more equitable representations will lead to more opportunities for me, regardless if I get passed over. At least give me an equal chance to get rejected.

Again, it’s about the images, the effects, the iniquity, the representations, and the economics and how it relates to everyone. Not just me.

What about the “best actor for the job?”

APIs were summarily dismissed in the initial stages. Again this is a trend. There was no attempt to see if we could be the best actors. Inclusively in the current climate, APIs have not been given the opportunity to refine their craft on the job. Have you seen all those “Before They Were Famous” clips of well-known movie stars? Opportunities existed for them to progress; for APIs, the norm is to be halted at the under-five line stage.

In adjunct, if there were equal opportunities for Asians to cross over and play traditionally white roles, it would be different. Just because Lucy Liu or Daniel Dae Kim play one role that is not written as specifically Asian does not warrant the opening of flood gates for whites to play Asians. The scales are not balanced yet.

Aren’t you attacking one of your own? M. Knight Shymalan is an Indian American.

This is a trend; it’s a perpetual occurrence in Hollywood. Shymalan is supporting the displacement of APIs and continuing the cycle of stratification of APIs. So it’s both the structures in place as well as Paramount and Shymalan for fostering them.

Why don’t you put up and shut up? Make your own movies.

We are. Realize that the institutional racism and structures that are in place. Their effect on society and the business of Hollywood has encumbered efforts. However there are those of us who are resolute, and we can be both vociferous and creative—they are not mutually exclusive.

In fact, it was inspiring to be at a table post-protest with heavy hitters like Tzi Ma, Mike Hagiwara, Greg Watanabe, Don Li, and Elizabeth Sung. 20 years after Miss Saigon, we know that we don’t want to protest the same thing in 2030. We talked about what we don’t like, but we also discussed what we want to do about it. With those at the table and like-minded souls, it’s my belief that we can relax our fight gloves–if only a little bit.

Ken Choy is an actor, writer, community organizer, and producer of Breaking the Bow. He is gay, green, and gluten-free. (Photo attribution: LA Times Blog)

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