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The Last Racebender


Actor Jet Li in the film Kiss of the Dragon

CREDIT: Flickr/maya-chow

It’s pretty difficult to think of Asian male actors in American media off the top of your head. When asked most people would easily name Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Bruce Lee, or Chow Yun Fat.

Nowadays people might name actors such as Steven Yuen, Harry Shum, Jr., and Reggie Lee. Fortunately, modern television shows are beginning to embrace Asian male actors, who you can see in television shows such as "The Walking Dead," "Glee," and "Grimm"– an encouraging sign for diversifying casts.

For a long time the only Asian-American characters were either martial arts experts or nerdy oddballs, perpetuating ethnic stereotypes. Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Chow Yun Fat, some of the most popular Asian American film actors, usually had to perform acrobatic stunts in their films. Other iconic characters, such as ‘Long Duk Dong’ (played by Gedde Watanabe) from Sixteen Candles, or ‘I.Y. Yunioshi’ (played by a white Mickey Rooney) from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, were portrayed as bizarre nerdy foreigners. While we have come a long way from such portrayals, there is still little diverse representation of Asian-Americans in today’s media.

When the film, The Last Airbender was released in 2010, there was a lot of controversy surrounding the casting of white actors into lead roles that were originally meant for people of color– this practice, called "racebending," has been unfortunately popular in the film industry.

"Avatar: The Last Airbender," the American television show the film is based on, is set in an Asian-influenced world that incorporates elements of Chinese martial arts and various East-Asian, Inuit, Indian, and South-American societies. There are Asian actors in the film (mostly in the background) but the main protagonists are white– a departure from the original Asian characters. In other films based on Asian media, such as Dragonball Revolution and Speed Racer, the casts were predominantly white actors as well.

Spike Lee announced last year that he would be doing an adaptation of the Korean film Oldboy, an announcement met with much excitement considering the success of the original. But this doesn’t necessarily mean an opportunity for Asian-American actors. It was later revealed that Josh Brolin would be cast into the leading role of Oldboy, but Lee via a twitter back and forth with claimed “the cast of Oldboy will be diverse.”

Doug Liman, director of the soon-to-be-made adaptation of the Japanese science fiction novel "All You Need Is Kill," claims his film will be “All American." One could hope that means the actors will reflect the diversity that is American culture, but so far the cast list is boasting Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt. For a long time American media has lacked diverse representation, and while filmmakers such as Spike Lee has increased the presence of African-Americans in American cinema, there is no such pioneer for Asian American actors. Noting that a film is “All American," and casting solely white actors, is only adding insult to injury as an all-white cast is far from representing what it means to be ‘American’.

In today's society we are constantly submersed in media messages via television, film, and the Internet, and people of color have limited role models that actually resemble themselves. Are people of color supposed to aspire to be white Americans? Time after time, filmmakers claim to cast leads that audience members can relate to, but continually branding a relatable character as white further isolates people of color – pushing the idea that people of color cannot be relatable to general audiences.

While we see a growing diversity in our television media – with eclectic ensembles in shows such as "Community," "Grimm," "Glee," and "The Walking Dead" our film industry has yet to catch on as swiftly. Fortunately there is reason for optimism with films such as Beasts of the Southern Wild, Colombiana, White Frog, which all star people of color. Hopefully we can look forward to films with not only diverse casts, but portrayals that provide broader perspectives of various cultures.

Jamilya Ramos is a reporter for Campus Progress. Follow her on Twitter @callmejam.

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