Gwen Florio

writes the Native American

news blog, BuffaloPost.net

M. Night Shyamalan's sixth sense seems to have failed him. Because when it came to casting for his most recent movie, The Last Airbender, due in theaters Thursday, he saw white people.

Just one problem. The characters in the Nickelodeon anime series on which Airbender is based are, you know, not.

Much rightly has been made over the fact that even though the original series mostly features Asian themes, the lead roles in the movie went to three white actors and an Indian, Dev Patel. Who plays the bad guy.

Contrast that with the Twilight teen vampire series, which generally gets high marks for casting Native American actors in the roles of Quileute Nation members. Interestingly, the release date for Airbender has been moved up to the day after Twilight: Eclipse, the most recent in the series, comes out.

The website Racebending.com airs its outrage over the situation, and it urges a boycott of the movie. But Racebending's focus - like that of most of the accounts of the controversy surrounding the casting of Airbender - has to do with the Asian-white divide.

Hello? What about the Inuit? As in, the Folks Formerly Known as Eskimo. As in, two of the four main characters in Airbender, Katara and Sokka - who will be played in the movie by the decidedly non-aboriginal Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone.

Racebending's extensive website has only the most cursory references to Katara and Sokka being drawn from Inuit culture. Let's just take a moment to appreciate the insult-to-injury fact that a protest of tone-deaf miscasting nearly completely ignores an entire facet of that miscasting.

And then let's turn to Neil Diamond, who might reasonably wonder why we're so surprised.

Diamond - who's probably even more sick of "Sweet Caroline" jokes than he is of Native Americans' being played by Caucasians - is a Cree filmmaker whose documentary Reel Injun was released this year.

The movie takes a look at Hollywood's from-the-start stumbles when it comes to native people, from white guys miscast as American Indians (Think Boris Karloff is a stretch in beads and feathers? Try William Shatner) to Indians miscast as, well, Indians - but not the right kind.

"I had to learn Lakota," actor Graham Greene, who is Oneida, reminisces about his role in Dances With Wolves. "I can't even speak my own language."

As Diamond points out, movie Indians are almost invariably Plains Indians. Not Urban Indians, or Southwestern Indians or Coastal Indians, and certainly not Inuit.

"I remember watching an Inuit film, Agaguk [the English version was titled Shadow of the Wolf] based on a Quebecois novel. The Inuit characters were played by Lou Diamond Phillips and Jennifer Tilly," Diamond said in a telephone interview recently from his home in Montreal. "I couldn't get into it."

Just as he predicts audiences won't really get into The Last Airbender. "I think people are starting to realize that in order for a filmmaker to mesmerize an audience, your actors have to be as close to the main characters they're playing as possible."

Rathbone was widely quoted dismissing any concerns about ethnicity with the airy statement, "I definitely need a tan. It's one of those things where, hopefully, the audience will suspend disbelief a little bit."

Oh, yes, he did.

Here's the thing. The audience probably will do exactly that. Look at Avatar, which caught some flak for its portrayal of the happy native-like Na'vi people - Dances With Pocahontas In Space, Diamond called it - and went on to sink Titanic in terms of earnings.

But James Cameron took the criticism of Avatar from indigenous people to heart, traveling this spring to the Amazon on behalf of tribes who are fighting the Brazilian government's huge Belo Monte dam. That project, he says, is inspiring work on an Avatar sequel.

Shyamalan can't undo the damage done by bizarre casting for Airbender. But in his next venture, from his position of enormous privilege and power as a director, he could strive to see, really see, brown people - and ensure that everyone else watching his movies can see them, too.

E-mail Gwen Florio at gwenflorio@gmail.com.