“The Last Airbender” protesters at the ArcLight Theater in Hollywood on July 1. Photo credit: Ray Quan, M.D.

When Yun-Sook Kim Navarre learned about a protest against “The Last Airbender”, she grabbed two picket signs, her six-year old daughter, and headed to the ArcLight Theater in Hollywood.

There, she marched alongside UCLA students, followers of Racebending.com, and members of Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA), Korean Resource Center (KRC), and National Korean American Service and Education Consortium (NAKASEC) on July 1.

Their target was the movie based on a children’s animated television series “Avatar: The Last Airbender”. While the TV show features Asian and Inuit characters, the film version, directed by Indian American M. Night Shyamalan, stars Caucasian actors.

As early as 2008, Racebending.com called for a boycott of the then-unreleased movie it accused of “whitewashing” Asian cultural landscapes with non-Asian performers because the original animation is based on Asian and Inuit traditions.

“I’m tired of the lack of representation,” says Kim Navarre, explaining why she was moved to participate.

The activist and writer learned about the protest from a Facebook friend and “as a woman of color, trans-racial Korean adoptee, consumer and parent,” felt a responsibility to get involved.

“We Asians need to take a stand on issues,” warns Kim Navarre citing immigration reform debates initiated by Latinos, and movements involving GLBT, Jewish and African American communities that drive their agendas into public view.

“They’ve all gotten more hype than us,” she said.

Organizers Lori Lopez (VP, MANAA), Guy Aoki (founder, MANAA), and Michael Le (racebending.com) discuss strategy outside the ArcLight Theater in Hollywood on July 1. Photo Credit: Jason Lopez.

As soon as he saw the original casting call, Guy Aoki cried discrimination. According to Aoki, the founder of MANAA, it specified a preference for white actors. When questioned, Paramount Pictures called it “a mistake” and as allegations of racism surfaced, Aoki claims a different copy not stipulating race was circulated.

In January 2009, unable to get protest letters delivered to Paramount, Racebending.com contacted MANAA. A meeting with producers was requested, but a response wasn’t received until late March after casting was complete. Paramount wrote Aoki that their reason for hiring Caucasians to star in a film about Asian civilizations was to make it more diversified.

“When they’re faced with an all-Asian project, they suddenly cared about diversity?” laughs Aoki.

For the protest, he helped coordinate the various organizations involved. Besides helping choose chants, he also dispensed instructions for marching—keeping protesters moving and not blocking theatergoers. Aoki also spoke with security, notified the area’s police sergeant, debriefed theater management and talked to reporters covering the event.

The turnout of over 100 protesters, he says, “went beyond my wildest imagination”; he was especially moved by the presence of children and non-Asians.

“An African American Racebender told me she flew down from San Francisco just for the protest!” Aoki exclaims, “And, two other black women led their own chants, demanding to see Asian American heroes!”

Actors Jodi Long, Tzi Ma, Jack Ong, Elizabeth Sung and Chris Tashima also demonstrated, surprising Aoki who said they could jeopardize future roles by being labeled “troublemakers.”

He adds that many still believe Asian Americans are docile, and thinks a “loud, angry protest” is effective.

Aoki suggests continuing vigilance against “whitewashing” by not supporting movies that practice “taking source material written for Asian/Asian Americans then … using white actors as the main stars.”

He also hopes that press will pressure studios by criticizing “whitewashing” in their film reviews.

For I. Der, a Los Angeles entertainment PR professional, learning about the controversy began with social networking.

“I only knew the movie was based on a popular kids anime,” the Chinese American admits, “But after doing some research on the Internet, I recognized how unfair the casting was for the main characters.”

Der was further disappointed after realizing Shyamalan was in charge.

“Being a director of color, he should be the first to recognize and correct whatever issues there are with accurate representation,” says Der.

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