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Bend it Like Jaden - When "Racebending" Works

Shadow and Act By Wendy Okoi-Obuli | Shadow and Act July 28, 2014 at 6:10PM

Let's hope that Hollywood has been taking notes.
2
The Karate Kid Sequel

It's a been a period for calling foul on casting actors to play characters of different enthnicities. In recent years, there's been Jake Gyllenhaal in the titular role of Mike Newell's "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time." Then, of course, there's the casting of Angela Jolie to play Cleopatra. But apparently the hue and cry here is uncalled for as Cleopatra was actually a Ptolemy, i.e. of Greek descent. Few during the verbal melee over her casting, however, seem to mention her portrayal of the real-life mixed race woman (half black and half default), Mariane Pearl, in "A Mighty Heart" a few years ago. But then Jolie ended up getting an award from the NAACP for that role, so... 

For my white fanboys out there! Let's not forget the brouhaha (or maybe that should be "bruh-haha") over Idris Elba being cast as Norse god Heimdall in the "Thor." But, hey, sometimes the casting of a name as box-office draw is more important than casting from the factually appropriate race, right guys?!

And then there was the "racebending" debate over M. Night Shyamalan's "The Last Airbender," in which the twist in the tale happened to be the casting of the major roles in a film based on an animated TV series set in a fantasical, Hayao Miyazaki-inspired universe. Apart from Dev Patel ("Slumdug Millionnaire"), a Brit of Indian descent (Indian as is Asian, not Native-American - so at least the right continent is referenced), most of the cast consisted of white (and relatively unknown) actors. However, Patel's character, Zuko, is a baddy, while all the hero parts are played by white actors.

So what does Jaden, i.e, Jaden Smith, progeny of the world famous actor and producer Will Smith and his lovely actress and producer wife, Jada Pinkett-Smith, have to do with any of this? Well, it's actually more to do with the film in which Smith-the-younger starred - the 2010 update of "Karate Kid," produced by his parents.

Thanks to my twitter feed, I was directed to a 2010 post by one Q. Le entitled FacePainting, in which Le gave several reasons why he would not, "for professional, philosophical and personal reasons" support "The Last Airbender."

A few years late, but still very relevant today.

It's a long post, one in which Le charts the history of white actors playing so-called ethnic minorities, from redface, in the late 1820s, through the popularity of blackface in the 20th century, to brownface, where he cites the case of "West Side Story" - which never really occurred to me before, even though it is one of my childhood favourites - where Natalie Wood was cast as Maria, the Puerto Rican love interest and female lead. 

Essentially, he sees films like "Prince of Persia" and "The Last Airbender" (hello, yellowface - though my earliest example of this would be Yul Brynner as the King of Siam in "The King and I," another of my childhood favourites) as just the latest examples of Hollywood's racially imperialist tradition. The post then goes on to cite the various levels of racism that whites never have to contend with and their effect; He lambastes Paramount for its whites-only casting call and Shyamalan for his shameful and despicable role in the casting decisions for "Airbender;" He also goes into issue of race and factual vs. fictional universes... and more.

I highly recommend you read the whole post, which you can get to by clicking here.

However, for the purposes of this site, and finally getting back to the Smith dynasty, Le had this to say about the 2010 "Karate Kid" movie:

I was never a fan of the original “Karate Kid” because despite it’s casting of Noriyuki ‘Pat’ Morita as the famous Kesuke Miyagi (aka Mr. Miyagi), the story was a classic Western-style coming-of-age parable that, in a sense, shallowly alluded to Eastern philosophy for Western application and usage.

The newer adaptation with Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan – while not without its editing faults – dealt not only with a coming-of-age story but also with a universal message of humane goodness that unites us all despite cultural differences. The 2010 remake went even further to highlight these differences, and instead of exoticizing such discrepancies breaks away from traditional ethnocentrism and endorses cultural humility, a willingness to step away from an “all-knowing” outsiders approach.

This deep respect for Eastern cultural roots in the 2010 “Karate Kid” is gapingly missing from Paramount’s and Shyamalan’s approach in “The Last Airbender,” in which they so thoroughly believe in the appropriateness of their sidestepping Asian actors for White actors in the main roles, actors who could never fully empathize with the Eastern philosophies and aesthetics they are set to act out.

So, love 'em or hate 'em (and I can't say I really get the level of hate I keep seeing leveled against them), seems the Smith family are doing something right, and making box office tills trill, to boot! 

Let's hope that Hollywood has been taking notes. Smith-the-elder proved some years ago now that a black man can open a movie without damaging box office receipts, and now with his son following suit, maybe he can also get Hollywood to recognise that cultural respect and sensitivity is not anathema to commercially successful movie-making.

Oh, and while they're at it, maybe the Smiths (seeing as they're blazing trails, here) can start a trend for black leading ladies too - black women characters who aren't just a white girl's sassy best friend, and who are more bad-ass than bitter. Hey, a girl can dream...

This article is related to: Jaden Smith, Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith


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