Earlier this month, Avatar: The Last Airbender co-creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino publicly broke ties with the live-action Netflix adaptation of the Airbender series. The news was quickly followed by unverified rumors that Netflix is trying to “whitewash the series.”
The fandom at large is leery of another disaster in the vein of the infamous 2010 film adaptation by M. Night Shyamalan. But I believe that it’s still possible for Netflix to create a live action Avatar series that retains and celebrates the qualities that made the original great.
When the original cartoon series premiered 15 years ago, it was groundbreaking for its faithful and thoughtful depiction of Asian and Native cultures on an American series. The show itself garnered accolades and a passionate following that appreciated the rich world-building, complex characters and beautifully rendered animation.
For many Asian Americans, the show filled a void in terms of seeing ourselves and our heritage depicted with the kind of care and nuance typically reserved in Hollywood for white characters and white stories. And to have two white creators invest so much thought and consideration to telling our stories was deeply heartening in a time long before Fresh Off the Boat, Crazy Rich Asians, and other media began to normalize the idea of Asian leads in American media.
Exactly because Airbender was so unique for its time, the casting of the live action film felt like a gut-punch. It was such a betrayal of a show that through three years demonstrated that a wide American audience could embrace characters of color who were deeply embedded with Asian and Native culture.
The uproar over the casting was an early example of activism driven by social media and fandom. While our protest efforts ultimately failed to get Paramount Pictures to change course, it did lead to greater attention being paid to “racebending” and “whitewashing” in Hollywood. A wide variety of news outlets covered the story, from geek news sites like io9 to traditional outlets like the LA Times and Public Radio International.
A lot has changed in the intervening decade, but the whitewashing and marginalizing of Asian roles continues even alongside the strides made for Asian American representation. Hollywood has been quick to exploit Asian culture and properties, but slow to cast actual Asian people as protagonists. Jim Sturgess, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, and Emma Stone are just a few of the many white actors who have portrayed either explicitly Asian characters or characters heavily appropriated from Asian culture.
In 2017, Netflix itself produced a widely panned adaptation of Death Note with a mostly white cast in place of the anime’s originally Japanese characters. In fact, Dan Lin, the same producer for Netflix’s Death Note, is attached to the new Airbender live action series.
All that history underlines how fraught another live action adaptation of Airbender would inevitably be, much less with the very public departure of the show’s original creators. As someone who fought hard against the casting of the Shyamalan film, I am as uneasy as anyone at the prospect of the show going on without the original creators at the helm.
At the same time, I still believe there is a way for Netflix to adapt the series successfully, in a way that can honor both the richness of the original story and the cultures from which its mythos and world are so powerfully rooted. While making a successful adaptation will involve innumerable choices over the course of production, it can at least begin on the right foot by giving AAPIs a chance to take control of a narrative that was built on our cultural identities.
Ethnic background does not guarantee fidelity or competence (see again Shyamalan’s adaptation). However, after decades of being relegated to the background of Hollywood productions, it is long past time for AAPI stories to be told by AAPI storytellers.
With an Asian American showrunner, actors who are true to the Asian and Native ethnic identities of their characters, and a diverse writing staff, Netflix has a chance to empower the marginalized communities that inspired the original series.