belengar: Merlin's Gwen (Gwen (M))
Belén ([personal profile] belengar) wrote2010-04-23 03:04 pm

Interview with Loraine Sammy about The Last Airbender movie and Racebending.com

What was the first aim of the campaign and how far did you think it would reach in December 2008? Looking back, what do you think you've achieved?
- The first aim of the campaign was to make Paramount Pictures, the Frank/Marshall Production company and M Night Shyamalan aware that their casting policies for The Last Airbender was discriminatory. The four main leads asked for 'Caucasian or any other ethnicity' when casting for a movie that was about an Asian-based fantasy world. This initial leg of the protest was spearheaded by the founder of the blog community 'aang-aint-white'. We encouraged fans of the show and anyone disturbed by the casting of the film to write to the main companies in charge of creating this film and make their disappointment known.
- Since I wasn't spearheading the letter-writing campaign, I didn't have any set goals other than to hope that our letters would be acknowledged. We contacted media groups (online, tv and magazines) to try and create buzz. We also sent letters out to Asian awareness groups to familiarize them with this latest round of discrimination.
- What we achieved at that point: we weren't ignored. Online, discussion and debate was generated in many different forums, blogs and articles. Despite the lack of response at that time from Paramount Pictures, there was other evidence that they knew we existed; but at that point I think they hoped that ignoring the problem would just make it go away. I think they had confidence that we were simply loud obnoxious fans who would lose interest once the next shiny thing came along.

You made a letter sending campaign to Paramount. Did anyone received any answers?
No, not in the original letter writing campaign under 'aang-aint-white'. However, a year later once the organization 'racebending.com' was created, we built a mission statement and goals. Under the racebending.com organization, we have received responses via letters from the president of Paramount Pictures. We're currently in dialogue with him to figure out how next to proceed.

Recently, the producers and the director of the movie are starting to answer the questions about the casting instead of outright dismissing them. Do you think they are trying to make some damage control before the movie premiers?
Most definitely. A year ago, producer Frank Marshall stated publically (via Twitter) that his company did not discriminate against anyone; and he was done talking about it. Now, he is claiming - after all this time, after a year of our protesting - to be completely ignorant of the casting practices as they were handled by an outside agency, and his intention was not to discriminate. Once again, Marshall has missed the point about our cause.

Shyamalan too tried to justify the casting by saying that the cartoon was ambiguous, despite interviews he'd done in the past in which he voiced his enthusiasm for the Buddhist and Eastern cultures in the cartoon. Like Marshall, Shyamalan is trying to cover his past tracks and hoping that our memories are short and selective.

I don't know if you are aware that in the Wikipedia page of The Last Airbender, the information about the whitewashing cast is very small and there is a big discussion about the edits. Are the people opposing Racebending as active as you are?
I am aware of the Wikipedia page edits happening constantly. To put our cause in perspective, the Facebook group for fans of 'The Last Airbender' movie has ten times more people than the racebending protest Facebook group. We are fully aware that we are in the minority among fans; however, being in the minority does not mean we are wrong.

In the Saturday Links at Racebending, you include news related to other possible problems in the media: Disney renaming “Rapunzel” to appeal boys, the problems of openly gay actors in the movie industry... I guess it would have been easier to focus just on racial problems, but do you think it's important to impel people to think about the media they consume? If you do, why do you think so?
The racebending group encourages people to question the media. I do it in my personal live as well; not because I think I know better, but because of how much my life has changed since I started questioning media. It's a change for the better, because it helps people challenge their beliefs and ideals. It helps people to think about situations, lives and beliefs beyond what exists in their immediate environment. It also gives people a chance to realize just how much the media intends to conform society by dictating what is supposedly normal and default. These are dangerous messages.

racebending.com has expanded out beyond racial issues because we know that many issues in media and the entertainment industry are intersectional and equally valid.

This is not the first time Hollywood does something similar recently, in 21 the characters in which the movie was based were mostly Asian and in the movie they're white.

21 is just one in an 80-year history of movies that were whitewashed to (apparently) appease to marketing. One of the recent instances is a Harrison Ford movie called 'Extraordinary Measures' which is based on a real-life story. The Taiwanese-American doctor Dr. Yuan-Tsong Chen was white-washed for the movie. Instead of casting an Asian-American actor, Harrison Ford took on the character. His name was changed, his identity erased and in this 'based on a true story' film, Dr. Chen's breakthrough medical achievements were credited to a white man.

What has changed for you in your personal life, if anything, since you became involved in Racebending?

A lot! I have personally become more aware of media policies in television, advertisements, books, movies, music...everything. I use my friends as testing grounds for debate, which can be helpful, but also incredibly exhausting. It's a delicate balance to have discussions about race and also about questioning media, as people would rather just not think about what they consume.

Have people changed around you? If so, how?

In a way. It's really cool to have these conversations with my family, who are all very open and willing to think about media constructively. My friends are always willing to listen - particularly if it's a one-on-one situation, rather than in a mob-mentality group - which is a relief for me. I'm fortunate to live in a city where people are very earnest about having a liberal mindset, and so it's mostly working through people's privilege that poses a bigger challenge.

Do you think of yourself as an activist? Do you think more about the media you consume?

To the first part: in a way. I come from a generation where 'activist' still conjures up images of taking to the streets with posters and chants and skulking police. It's a little hard to wrap my head around the fact that phone and online interviews, attending conferences, manning booths at conventions, creating social network forums etc is a new type of activism for this information era.

I definitely think a lot more about the media I consume. My own personal tastes are changing and I no longer want typical stories with a default hero (aka: white, straight and male). I realize that there are other people with their own fascinating stories. It's a little harder to find though, and I don't watch as many movies as I once used to. Ideally, I'd love if 'default' heroes were heroes of any race or gender.

Do you think that the Racebending fans (or fans in general) have power? If so, what are they able to do/change?
Our long-term goal is to bring awareness. I think we are invested in showing people that what happened in the casting of The Last Airbender was not a solitary incident and nor is this sort of discrimination relegated only against Asian-American actors. I don't think anyone expected we would last this long, or gain this much renown. I have to give full credit to my fellow organizers in racebending.com, whose ideas, determination and activist professionalism has kept the group active and relevant.

We have affiliated ourselves with media awareness groups; we've been acknowledged by the media; and we have the studio and production company publicly reacting to our protest's causes. We have gained a reputation of being a media watchdog both online and off; and after the movie is released, I hope we remain that way.