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A whitewash for 'Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time' and 'The Last Airbender'

Two of the season's most expensive films spark controversy by casting white actors in ethnic parts, a practice seen before in Hollywood.

May 23, 2010|By Chris Lee, Los Angeles Times
  • LEAD: No stars in "Prince of Persia" are of Middle Eastern or Muslim descent, including Jake Gyllenhaal.
LEAD: No stars in "Prince of Persia" are of Middle Eastern or… (Andrew Cooper / Disney Enterprises )

Since its release, the video game franchise Prince of Persia has become notable for the acrobatic grace of its dagger-wielding, balloon pants-wearing hero as well as for what the games didn't do: affront gamers of Middle Eastern and Muslim descent with stereotypical depictions of people from the region as terrorists or religious zealots.

Independent filmmaker and blogger Jehanzeb Dar, to name one such player, remembers his favorable first reaction to the swashbuckling action game, which is set amid the sands and ancient cities of Persia (as ancient Iran is known) and follows a hero with a magic sword caught between forces of good and evil. "You could see clearly the protagonist had distinct Middle Eastern features and darker skin," said Dar, 26, who pens the blog Muslim Reverie from Langhorne, Pa. "People could develop some respect for that culture instead of seeing it vilified."

So when Disney studios announced plans for a live-action adaptation of Prince, Dar held out hope it would be a "serious story that would dispel a lot of stereotypes and misconceptions." Then came the bad news regarding "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time" (the movie which arrives in theaters on Friday). None of its principle cast members are of Iranian, Middle Eastern or Muslim descent. And playing Dastan, the hero and titular heir to the Persian throne in the $200-million tent-pole film, is none other than Hancock Park's own Swedish-Jewish-American prince, Jake Gyllenhaal.

"My first reaction was, 'Really?!' " said Dar. "It's insulting that people of color — especially Middle Easterners or South Asians — are not allowed to portray ourselves in these roles. That's a big problem a lot of people in the community are having with this film."

Of course, Hollywood, has a rich history with this kind of thing. Think: John Wayne playing Genghis Khan in "The Conqueror," Peter Sellers' bumbling Indian character in "The Party" or even more notoriously, Mickey Rooney's buck-toothed Mr. Yunioshi character from "Breakfast at Tiffany's," the grandfather of all "Yellowface" stereotypes.

Although these portrayals took place decades ago, their legacy lives on. Even now, in the age of Obama — when the newly installed Miss USA Rima Fakih is Lebanese American, Will Smith is the biggest movie star in the world and Sonia Sotomayor became the first Latina to sit on the Supreme Court — the movie industry can still seem woefully behind the times when it comes to matters of race.

Consider the latest evidence. This summer, two of the season's biggest budgeted films have sparked controversy by installing white actors in decidedly "ethnic" parts. And some early fan reactions have varied from indignation to righteous fury to organized revolt over a perceived "whitewashing" of multi-culti characters, a practice that has come to be known as "racebending."

In addition to Gyllenhaal and British actress Gemma Arterton's portrayal of Iranian characters in the swords-and-sandals action epic "Prince of Persia," Paramount has come under attack for its live-action adaptation of the Nickelodeon animated series " Avatar: The Last Airbender." Directed by "Sixth Sense" auteur M. Night Shyamalan, "The Last Airbender" (as the movie is called to distinguish it from a certain James Cameron-directed 3-D blockbuster) has enraged some of the show's aficionados by casting white actors in three of four principal roles — characters that fans of the original property insist are Asian and Native American.

And with just weeks until the movie's July 2 release — after a year-and-a-half-long letter-writing campaign to the film's producers and a correspondence with Paramount President Adam Goodman to underscore the importance of casting Asian actors in designated Asian roles — members of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans and an organization called http://www.racebending.com are urging fans to boycott "Airbender."

The movie's detractors have spoken against the film at six college campuses, including M.I.T., New York University and UCLA, also setting up booths at events such as San Francisco's WonderCon pop culture expo to publicize their discontent. At last count, the group's Facebook group had 7,125 supporters and attracted petitioners against the movie's casting in 55 countries. The stated goal: to prevent "Airbender" from blooming into a lucrative three-part franchise via negative word of mouth.

"It's unfortunate that it's come to this," said Racebending.com spokesman Michael Le. "They've constructed a film that is contrary not only to what fans expected to see but is also contrary to what America expects to see in a film released in 2010 featuring Asian culture and Asian and Native American characters as heroes.

"We want to raise awareness of the discriminatory practices of Hollywood," Le continued. "We want to tell people this is important. It really matters."

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