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Sunday, April 21, 2024

Commentary: The ongoing, awry adaptation of ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’

Netflix neglects to fulfill its promises of improved inclusivity efforts with the live-action cast of “Avatar: The Last Airbender”

By SUN YIE — arts@theaggie.org 


Nickelodeon’s “Avatar: The Last Airbender” (AtLA) is an acclaimed and beloved show that became popular in part due to its incorporation of multiculturalism. The show is centered around a team of “benders” — people who can manipulate the four elements of earth, fire, wind and water — who use their powers to stop the aggressive, imperialistic fire nation from its barbaric conquest of neighboring countries and tribes. 

When Netflix announced in 2018 that it was going to produce a live-action adaptation of this show with the creative oversight of Bryan Konietzko and Martin DiMartino, the original show creators, fans began to look forward to this show, anticipating a much more diverse cast that reflected the show’s multiculturalism in a way that M. Shyamalan’s “The Last Airbender” failed to accomplish.

However, fans were soon met with Konietzko and DiMartino’s announcement in 2020 that they would be departing from Netflix’s creative team. Though the creators didn’t elaborate further upon their reason to separate from the large production company, DiMartino pointed to irreconcilable “creative differences” as their main source of conflict. “Netflix’s live-action has the potential to be good… but… it will not be what Bryan and I had envisioned or intended to make,” DiMartino claimed in a Tumblr post addressed to eager AtLA fans. 

Since this announcement, other news outlets, such as FandomWire, have claimed to have dug deeper into the cited creative differences by speaking exclusively to sources within Netflix and have since revealed a few reasons for the creators’ departures — one of which concerned issues about cast diversity. 

Reportedly, Netflix had wanted to extend their casting process to include white people — an idea that was met with vitriol by Konietzko and DiMartino, who had promised their fans an all-diverse cast to accurately reflect and honor the assortment of Asian cultures that inspired the show’s origins, especially since the last live-action adaptation of the beloved show had whitewashed the characters and erased the cultural influences of the story. 

Despite the public break up between Netflix and the original AtLA show creators a few years ago, the new casting list of characters that the production company released a year ago seemed to respect the original creators’ intent in producing a diverse team composed of ethnic minorities.

When asked about his vision, Albert Kim, AtLA’s showrunner, claimed that his casting decision process was influenced by his desire to portray Asian and Indigenous characters as real people, especially since there was still little media representation of the two minority groups. He claimed to have pushed for “authenticity to the story… and the cultural influences” in the casting process. 

However, it has since come to light that Ian Ousley, the actor who plays Sokka, an Indigenous character hailing from the Southern Water Tribe, has lied about his Cherokee heritage. Though his management listed him as an actor from the Cherokee tribe, fans have discovered that he is not affiliated with any of the governmentally recognized Cherokee tribes. A Google search also identifies Ian Ousley as Caucasian, further dismantling this narrative that both Ousley and his management have pushed forth about his ethnic heritage.

Though both fans and the Cherokee Phoenix have reached out to Netflix and have demanded a deeper background check on Ian Ousley’s heritage, their requests have gone unanswered, leaving AtLA fans questioning the credibility of their promise of inclusivity a year ago, in which they claimed they were “committed in… inspiring change within [their] industries – so more people can feel seen, heard, and supported.” 


Written by: Sun Yie — arts@theaggie.org





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