Diversity Casting and The Last Airbender Controversy

The Last Airbender is receiving the worst reviews of the year so far, and critics have not been shy in sharing their reasons about why the movie is such a disaster. One of the biggest criticisms is the unsurprising but disheartening choice by Indian-American writer/director M. Night Shyamalan to cast white actors as the leads in a big screen version of the beloved anime series.

Floating World offers a smart takedown of “face painting” in The Last Airbender that is highly worth reading. For an Asian actor’s take on the issue, the A.V. Club has an interview with Airbender and Daily Show star Aasif Mandvi. When asked about the casting controversy, he gives a vague, P.C. response about how the movie reflects “the world’s overall cultural diversity,” which is to be expected from an actor who wants to keep working in Hollywood. (I can’t imagine he’d be so understanding if a movie studio greenlit a big budget version of The Ramayana, starring Brad Pitt and Reese Witherspoon.) But the interview is more interesting for what it says about the typecasting he has endured, and how he deals with it.

When asked about the fact he’s played a lot of doctors and cab drivers, Mandvi says, “That’s just the reality of Hollywood. When you’re brown and Indian, you get offered a lot of doctor roles. I used to get the cab-driver roles all the time, and the deli owner. Now I’ve moved up to the medical profession. ”

It’s an odd sort of progress:  you know you’ve made it when you can ditch the cab for a white coat. Law & Order provided Mandvi a strange variation of climbing the corporate ladder, in which his first role was a hot-dog vendor and his last was a judge. Mandvi made sense of this to himself in an amusing way:

To me, he was always the same guy. I mean, he had different names, but he was always the same guy to me. I had a little narrative for him. He started out as a hot-dog vendor, then he was selling porn in a video store, then he was a ballistics expert. All the same guy.

Mandvi goes on to say that typecasting doesn’t bother him, and rather than focusing on the fact that he was playing yet another doctor, he would instead focus on how multi-dimensional the character was on the page. It’s a reasonable tactic; instead of focusing on the unending crush of MD roles, he seems to be evaluating them on who they are beyond their job titles. He’s also not waiting around to be offered a dream role outside of the deli man/doctor spectrum—he is starring in an Indian-food comedy called Today’s Special later this year, based on his own one-man show.

Whether consistently regulated to the sassy best friend, the terrorist or the doctor, I’m sure non-white actors all have their own ways of coping with Hollywood’s weird, unbending notions about race when it comes to casting film and TV roles.  And as the as The Last Airbender controversy proves, they seem like they will be necessary for a long time to come.

4 thoughts on “Diversity Casting and The Last Airbender Controversy

  1. Brilliant analysis.

    “To me, he was always the same guy. I mean, he had different names, but he was always the same guy to me. I had a little narrative for him. He started out as a hot-dog vendor, then he was selling porn in a video store, then he was a ballistics expert. All the same guy.”

    This part made me LOL. I thought I was one of the only people who noticed this (outside the actor himself).

    • Thank you! After reading that quote, it made me wonder how many other actors have followed that trajectory on Law & Order over the years.

      I guess if you start out as a corpse or hot dog guy, being cast a judge means you’ve finally arrived–almost like L&O’s equivalent of getting your diploma or something.

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