When M. Knight Shyamalan cast non-Asian actors in his film adaptation of the Asian inspired series “Avatar: the Last Airbender” it sparked major controversy resulting in multiple boycotts and protests from the Asian community. When CBS cast Asian American actress Lucy Liu as Watson in their modernization of the Sherlock Holmes franchise “Elementary” nobody paid much attention at all causing me to wonder “What’s the difference?” Was it racist to change the races of these characters from Asian to white or vise verse? As Webster’s dictionary defines it, racism is the belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and those racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race. Do you think these race changes are because either race is being interpreted as inferior or superior? Let’s take a look.
I’m going to go ahead and throw out the case of “The Last Airbender”” because the movie takes place in a world where Asia doesn’t even exist… so the casting of non-Asian actors is irrelevant. Instead let’s take a look at one of the first movies I remember where a character’s race was intentionally changed, 2003’s Daredevil. Now, most comic nerds know that the Marvel Comics villain known as the Kingpin is white but “Daredevil’s” creators decided for some reason he should be portrayed by a black actor (Michael Clarke Duncan). Kingpin wasn’t cast as a black actor because its creators felt the black race is superior to all others. In all likelihood a black actor was cast in this role in an effort to appear more inclusive to other races since all the other cast members were white. In the case of “Elementary” I’m sure it’s creators thought that casting Watson as not only Asian but also a woman would cause a bit of positive buzz about the show so it doesn’t necessarily point to racism just an attempt at cheap promotion. The character Watson could have been cast as an asexual robot and achieved the same effect. So no, the action of switching out the race of a character is not in and of itself racist… unless done for racist reasons. I mean, if someone felt that changing a character’s race would improve that character how else could you interpret that action other than racist?
In 2007 a British movie titled “Death at a Funeral” was released in America to critical acclaim. Three short years later Chris Rock decided the movie would be much better if 98% of the cast was replaced by people of a different color skin. I will never know exactly why Chris Rock feels this way but the very fact that he does makes me a little uneasy. Just think, “Boyz n Da Hood” is a great movie, perhaps Clint Eastwood could improve upon it by replacing all the black actors with white ones…. But wouldn’t that be racist? Yes, for those reasons it would be racist. So why is a black version of “Death at a Funeral” acceptable but an all-white version of “The Last Airbender” is an outrage? You see it’s one thing to say “This is racist and shouldn’t be done!” and it’s another to say “This is racist… but not when I do it.” We have a word for that and it’s called hypocrisy and it happens all the time. What if the 2008 “Iron Man” movie portrayed the iconically black character James Rhodes’ (aka War Machine) as a white actor? I can see the picket lines forming at the mere thought of it but in the very same movie the character Nick Fury has been changed from white to black without a fuss. Another example is the 2005 movie “The Honeymooners” based on the iconic show from the 50’s.The entire cast was portrayed by black actors for no apparent reason at all. Were there protests, boycotts and public outrage? None at all. I doubt an all-white version of “Goodtimes” might produce the same results. Why the hypocrisy America?
I think the best way to keep everybody happy is to just end the practice of changing races all together, not only for political correctness but for the mere fact that race IS an important character trait. Sure, being white doesn’t define the Kingpin character in “Daredevil” but it’s certainly a big part of who he is just as being black doesn’t make War Machine who he is but changing his race would alter the character beyond recognition. Just imagine if the color of Superman’s cape in the new “Man of Steel” movie is green … sure, the cape doesn’t define the Superman character but such a drastic change just wouldn’t feel right for the sole reason that…. Well, it isn’t. Superman’s cape is red simply because it’s supposed to be; it’s as simple as that! So there you have it folks, race doesn’t necessarily define a character but Hollywood should still stop tinkering with ethnicities not because it’s racist (unless it’s done for racist reasons) but because it just isn’t right.