‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ Netflix trailer sparks debate over representation: ‘Why is it so hard to cast dark-skinned characters?’

On Tuesday, Netflix dropped the full trailer for Avatar: The Last Airbender, the live-action adaptation of Nickelodeon’s animated series of the same name, which ran from 2005 to 2008. The series focuses on the journey of a young hero called the Avatar, who can control all four elements, and his friends as they travel the world to stop the Fire Nation’s takeover. Offering first looks at some supporting characters, the trailer has also reignited a conversation around casting and colorism.

The debate centers mostly on members of the Water Tribe, the community the main characters, siblings Sokka and Katara, come from. The Water Tribe was reportedly inspired by Inuit culture, and fans have been open about their desire for the live action to stay true to the animation and include actors who have darker skin tones.

The majority of fans were thrilled that the cast was a major improvement from the “whitewashed” 2010 live-action adaptation, The Last Airbender, which included non-Asian actors voicing Asian roles. But some still felt that Netflix was holding back with more accurate casting for some of the major characters — especially Sokka, played by Ian Ousley. (Both Ousley and Kiawentiio Tarbell, who plays Katara, identify as Indigenous.)

Netflix did not immediately respond to Yahoo News’ request for comment.

When Netflix first announced its plans to release a new live-action adaptation, this time with the original creators on board and promising casting announcements like Tarbell, Indigenous actress Amber Midthunder and Korean-Canadian actor Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, fans were excited.

One of the showrunners, Albert Kim, said the show was “a chance to showcase Asian and Indigenous characters as living, breathing people. Not just in a cartoon, but in a world that truly exists, very similar to the one we live in.”

The original series drew inspiration from several Asian and Indigenous cultures. In addition to the Inuit inspiration for the Water Tribe, the animation itself was a homage to Japanese anime, while there were also general influences from Chinese culture and Buddhism.

Other concerns from fans stemmed from the original creators of the animated show leaving the Netflix series over “creative differences.” Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko signed on to the project in 2018 and then announced in a blog post two years later that they would no longer be involved with the live-action show.

“Netflix’s live-action adaptation of Avatar has the potential to be good. It might turn out to be a show many of you end up enjoying,” DiMartino wrote. “But what I can be certain about is that whatever version ends up on-screen, it will not be what Bryan and I had envisioned or intended to make.”

X user @LowArctic, who identifies as Yup’ik, tweeted about the trailer and went viral in 2018 for their thread on the show’s Inuit representation. In an interview about Netflix’s Avatar casting, they pointed out that there are two questions to consider when it comes to Inuit representation in pop culture.

“In anything where Inuit people, culture or knowledge are used there are two related questions,” they said. “One is representation: do Inuit see themselves on the screen in a way that respects us? The other is exploitation: are the creators who use Inuit culture giving back to Inuit communities in a reciprocal relationship or are they profiting off Inuit culture without giving anything back?”

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