left: prince dastan from the two thrones, right: jakegyllenhaal

now that it’s out, i find myself going back in my mind to seeing the previews for the new prince of persia movie last year.  i recall watching it a couple of times, trying to pinpoint what exactly my problem with it was.  was it because it was just another video game/comic to movie conversion that ran the high risk of being horrible?  well, probably.  hollywood is, after all, completely out of material, and we all remember how fantaaaaastic jean clade van damme was in street fighter.  but that wasn’t it.  not totally.  after a while what irked me was clear – the prince of persia (that’s persia – a region of land across the sea betwixt africa and asia, just south of europe) was to be played by jake gyllenhaal.  now i don’t dislike they guy – he’s been in some solid flicks.  donnie darko was really good, and an apocalyptic rabbit will live forever in my mind.  but the casting still just seemed off – in addition to the prince, the main chick, tamina,  is played by british bombshell gemma arterton.  while her bond girl appeal has been augmented some by some artificial brown decently applied to her for the role, it’s still not enough to make me forget that she’s still “strawberry fields” from quantum of solace, and that “tamina” never existed in the original sands of time game.

ben kingsley sir ben kingsley gets a pass.  for life.  he’s naturally half brown, played gandhi, i.e. the mahatma, and is just awesome in general.

the whole thing made me think about the tremendous surge of movies in the last few years based on video games, comic books and anime, which bothers me, and has for some time, for a multitude of reasons.  for starters, it’s the repackaging of the nerd culture from our youth (well, my youth anyway) that has been mainstreamed enough to be saleable to the very same type of people who antagonized us for being a part of that nerd culture to begin with.

ugh, i could really get too far into that, so we’ll leave that for another post for another day.

but in relation to that recent surge of movies, we’ve seen a healthy dose of “racebending” throughout, as the kids call it these days, from a splendidly caucasian son goku in dragonaball evolution to the recent whitewash of aang and company in the big screen adaptation of the last airbender, where again, the main characters are recast as suburban-friendly children, without a trace of foreign flair to them.  to those not familiar with the last airbender anime series – aang, the main character, is a young asian boy, in a world that is explicitly based on and rooted in asian and inuit culture.

sometimes i don’t mind this, if it doesn’t take away from the story too much, but in the case of prince of persia’s prince dastan, a detailed description of the hero, including background, is in the damn title.  and it’s set in the persian kingdom.  you really can’t get around that without people scratching their heads for at least a little bit.  now yes, persians are a little light skinned as far as denizens of brown town go, and a few hundred years ago you would see them as almost white.  but this movie isn’t based on middle eastern history – it’s based on a video game.  it’s not about persians in general, it’s about one specific fictional one – prince dastan.

left: ra’s al ghul from the comics, left: liam neeson

and as a bonus example, i still haven’t forgotten about liam neeson’s ra’s al ghul in the batman reboot, batman begins.  even for those that don’t follow the batman mythos, does “r’as al ghul” sound like anything other than brown town to you?  ra’s the immortal and his lazarus pits was the last bastion of brown power in comicdom.  oh yessss, detective.

now before you lay into me if you think i’m being one sided, yes, i will mention that this does happen the other way – kingpin was played by michael clarke duncan in daredevil, and sam jackson plays nick fury but for the majority of the time, there’s not too much ground to pose a strong argument to what i’m saying here.  that doesn’t bring balance to the force.

in actuality, the last airbender is far worse.  the airbender camp maintains that it has a culturally diverse cast.  while airbender and these other films do technically have a diverse cast, to me, and plenty others, the problem is where that diversity is seen.  minority players are mostly extras or villains, nailing huge roles like “henchman,” “musician,” and “assassin.”  impressive, i know.  but not often are they the heroes or principal characters based on a minority source.  airbender’s casting call actually listed that they were specifically looking for “caucasians and other races.”  you broke my heart, m. night shyamalan.  not you too!

i know some of you may be thinking that i’m going a little over the top here, and that this isn’t a trend but more of an isolated coincidence.  “tushar, you’re crazy” says you.

well allow me to retort.

the book 21 was based on was about a group of MIT students that was mostly asian.  enter jim sturgess and kate bosworth, and the asian characters are now supporting instead of main.  wanted’s fox was black in the comic, portrayed by angelina jolie in the movie.  akira’s live action version will be starring leonardo dicaprio and joseph gordon levitt as kaneda and tetsuo.  and sean farris will be playing kyo kusanagi in king of fighters.  i could go on.


now i get it, on some level.  american movie studios, as all businesses must, cater to their majority markets (usually by betraying the fan base of the source material).  it’s been going on since the 50’s so no one should really see it as something new.  but what does this say about how hollywood views the masses?  do they think that american moviegoers still won’t pay to see a movie unless the hero is flying high the banner of white america?  it’s 2010, people. give it a rest.

and to all of the hollywood studios out there – i am of course available and you can contact me if you decide to make an action adventure blockbuster that calls for a suave brown hero that shoots and asks questions simultaneously.

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3 Comments

Lex June 3, 2010 at 6:26 pm

Spot on assessment my friend. I'm really surprised by M. Night, I figured since he was an admitted fan of the anime he would want to keep the characters true to themselves.

Your post reminds me of how of I felt when the Spawn movie came out 97 and the character Terry Fitzgerald, a black man in the comics, was turned into a white man for the movie. Mcfarlane stated the change was made because the studio didn't want too many black leads for fear that people would label it a "black movie". They even offered an extra $20M for the movie budget if Terry was made white.

Jason June 7, 2010 at 4:15 pm

I don't think it's entirely fair to bring up Dragonball: Evolution. There is far, far too many things deeply wrong with that movie to worry about the race of Goku… besides, Goku was a Saiyan, not Japanese. In point of fact, I don't know if ANY character's race was ever clearly identified in that series, except for Mr. Popo and Commander Black.

While the characters all speak Japanese, keep in mind that's only because the AUDIENCE is Japanese. There are TONS of anime titles around where the characters should clearly be speaking English, French, German, Chinese or any of a dozen other languages, but they end up speaking Japanese because it was made for a Japanese audience.
Black Lagoon, Monster and Gunsmith Cats all come to mind.

As for the racial bending as a whole, look on the bright side: you can always claim those movies suck BECAUSE they star white people.

tushar June 9, 2010 at 5:00 pm

thanks lex, somehow i forgot to mention spawn in this – a black man in a starring role doesn't exactly make it SHAFT – which for the record, was awesome. i can't really blame mcfarlane though, $20M is a big chunk to tack onto a movie budget. but i am really glad he was open about the reasoning, and not trying to hide behind "well the rest of the cast is diverse."

and jason even if we take dragonball off of the table as far as intent, there's still a pretty big list.

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About Tushar

Author and creator of Technical Fowl. IT/Tech hero. Jiu Jitsu purple belt. Enjoying the venn diagram intersection of tech, gaming, business, and politics.

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