Hollywood's whitewashing of typically-Asian roles in movies has become a heated source of debate in recent weeks. As well as the uproar over Scarlett Johansson's part in Ghost In The Shell, there's Marvel's decision to cast Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One in Doctor Strange. In the comics, Strange's mentor is a wizened Tibetan male. If you've seen the first trailer for the movie you'll know that Swinton is playing the part as an English female. So why make a massive change to such a beloved character in the first place?
According to one of the movie's writers C. Robert Cargill, it wasn't a decision anyone took lightly. “There is no other character in Marvel history that is such a cultural landmine, that is absolutely unwinnable,” Cargill said on the Double Toasted podcast. “The really frustrating thing about it this week, is that most of the people who have thoughts on it haven’t thought it all the way through and they go, ‘Why didn’t they just do this?’ And it’s like, I could tell you why. I could tell you why every single decision that involves the Ancient One is a bad one, and just like the Kobayashi Maru, it all comes down onto which way you’re willing to lose.”
Cargill goes on to say that the fundamental problem stems from the character's comic book origin, which is in his words "a racist stereotype who comes from a region of the world that is in a very weird political place. He originates from Tibet, so if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he’s Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people who think that that’s bullshit and risk the Chinese government going, ‘Hey, you know one of the biggest film-watching countries in the world? We’re not going to show your movie because you decided to get political.’"
With Chinese box office receipts now such a huge part of a movie's international takings, it's no surprise that Marvel wasn't keen to alienate foreign officials. What if the creative team had opted to cast a Chinese actress? Cargill says that would have been just as troublesome. "If you think it’s a good idea to cast a Chinese actress as a Tibetan character, you are out of your damn fool mind. Oh, 'she could be Asian!’ Asian? She could be Japanese, she could be Indian, really? The levels of cultural sensitivity around this thing is, everyone is staking out their one particular place and not realizing that every single thing here is a losing proposition.”
By the sounds of it, race-swapping The Ancient One was a 'necessary evil' in order to include Strange's iconic guru in the movie. Some might argue that the simplest move would be to create a new character for the film. But, to paraphrase Cargill, there's always going to be an offended party when dealing with such a sensitive issue. You definitely can't please everyone, that's for certain. With Swinton embracing the role in a new, fresh way, here's hoping her performance will be judged on its own merits.
Directed by Scott Derrickson and starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tilda Swinton, Benedict Wong, Scott Adkins, Rachel McAdams, Michael Stuhlbarg and Mads Mikkelsen, Doctor Strange is released in UK cinemas on October 28, 2016 before opening in US theatres on November 4, 2016.