When Marvel Studios first announced last year that it was in talks with Tilda Swinton to play The Ancient One in the upcoming Doctor Strange movie, a number of eyebrows were raised. Swinton, a white woman of English and Scottish ancestry, was slated to portray an immortal, Tibetan sorcerer born in a fictional village in the Himalayas.
In an interview with BirthMoviesDeath, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige attempted to justify Swinton’s casting, explaining that this particular incarnation of the character would be distinct from its comic book counterpart.
“There have been multiple [Ancient Ones], even if this one has been around for five hundred years, there were others,” Feige said. “This is a mantle, and therefore felt we had leeway to cast in interesting ways.”
Feige’s explanation did little to assuage early concerns that Doctor Strange might be another example of Marvel whitewashing a traditionally POC character, but it wasn’t until the first set photos and teaser trailer for the movie dropped that people realized just what the studio was working with. The trailer depicts Swinton with a shaved head, dressed in flowing white robes performing magic in a style that looks a hell of a lot like martial arts.
Soon, Tilda Swinton herself and writers of the movie’s script attempted to dispel any concerns of whitewashing with explanations of their own. Speaking with Den of Geek, Swinton said that the script she’d been presented with never featured a character portrayed by an Asian man and that critics would understand the decisions that had been made once the film hit theaters later this fall.
Marvel’s justification was a bit more complicated.
In an interview on the Double Toasted podcast, Doctor Strange co-writer C. Robert Cargill broke down his team’s thought process in writing The Ancient One with Swinton in mind by starting with some truths about the character.
“The Ancient One was a racist stereotype who comes from a region of the world that is in a very weird political place,” Cargill explained. “He originates from Tibet, so if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he’s Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people.”
Cargill’s right. In his original incarnation, the Ancient One was a (literal) magical minority tasked with training a white man to become the hero of the story. It’s Cargill’s point about “alienating” a billion people, though, that some considered indicative of his and Marvel’s problematic thinking. He’s referring to the fraught relationship between China and Tibet. While casting a Tibetan man or woman as the Ancient One would have been truer to canon, Cargill implicitly argues that the decision might have upset Chinese audiences.
As The New York Times points out, though, the Chinese don’t make a point of pretending that Tibetan people don’t exist. The Chinese government just thinks that they should control Tibet. What Cargill was speaking about—in a roundabout way—was the fact that China is the second-largest box office in the world, one that accounts for a substantial portion of Marvel’s international revenue.
When asked why the studio didn’t cast a Chinese actor to play the role, Cargill dismissed the idea by saying that he’d have to be “out of his fool mind” to even consider casting a Chinese actress as a Tibetan character. Marvel has yet to explain why the Ancient One could become Celtic but not Chinese or even just stayed Tibetan.
The logical answer, though, is that Marvel’s keeping in the long Hollywood tradition of whitewashing Asian characters out of stories about Asian people.
In 1938, Luise Rainier won the Oscar for Best Actress for her portrayal of O-Lan, the wife of a Chinese farmer, in the cinematic adaptation of The Good Earth, a book about a family living in a Chinese village before World War I.
Pearl S. Buck, the book’s author, intended for the film to feature Chinese or Chinese American actors, something the studio that produced the movie, MGM, refused to do. Instead, the film’s leads were both white people made out to resemble Chinese people.
At the time, MGM’s logic was guided by the Hays code, a set of moral guidelines that prohibited miscegenation. Initially, Anna May Wong, one of the most prominent Chinese American actresses of her time was slated to play O-Lan, but casting the movie’s male lead, Paul Muni, meant that the film would have technically featured an interracial couple.
Instead, MGM offered Wong the role of Lotus, a villainous, supporting character, which she rejected, allegedly calling the studio out in an interview.
“You’re asking me—with Chinese blood,” she said. “To do the only unsympathetic role in the picture featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters.”
Other films like, Dragon Seed, Anna And The King of Siam, and The King and I, followed in the same tradition that effectively codified the rule that it was preferable to cast white people as characters of Asian descent.
Even though Miyoshi Umeki won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 1957 for her role in Sayonara, it already had become conventional wisdom that Asian actors could not become box office draws in the U.S.
All of that changed in 1973 when Bruce Lee’s Enter The Dragon hit theaters. After years of playing middling, supporting roles in the States and eventually finding more acceptance and financial success abroad, Enter The Dragon put Lee square in the Hollywood’s spotlight.
“There was an intensity, realism, dynamism and energy to this stuff that no one had ever seen before,” screenwriter and Lee historian Stephen Chin told the Los Angeles Times last year, describing how the movie had a tangible impact on his life. “It was a profound transformation, for me as a kid, to go from being mocked to being admired was amazing.”
Enter The Dragon raked in an astonishing $21,483,063 domestically ($121,943,909.46 when adjusted for inflation) and was met with widespread critical acclaim. Lee’s death that same year at the age of 32 ended his career, but his influence on Hollywood’s position on Asian actors was profound.
On the one hand, both film and television studios saw that Asian actors could, in fact, make them ridiculous amounts of money. Rather than giving Asian actors entree into a broader variety of roles, though, Hollywood sought to replicate Lee’s success by limiting other actors to the martial arts-heavy roles that made him famous.
Since then, Hollywood’s operated with something of a flawed double consciousness when it comes to casting Asian-American actors in lead roles. That same, old fear that Asian leads can’t be lead to commercial success persists despite films like the Rush Hour trilogy ($850 million) the Charlie’s Angel’s films ($523 million), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon ($213 million), and Pacific Rim ($411 million).
Ironically enough, a number of Hollywood’s biggest movies featuring whitewashed leads have performed horribly in recent years. The Wachowski’s reimagined Speed Racer movie, which was based on the classic anime series, cast Emile Hirsch, a white man, as its titular character. Similarly, M. Night Shyamalan’s live-action adaptation of Nickelodeon’s racially-diverse cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender notoriously whitewashed all three of its lead actors.
Not only did both of these movies fail to meet their box office expectations, they were also nominated for Razzies—the awards given to the worst movies in any given year.
Movies like the upcoming Ghost In The Shell adaptation, starring Scarlett Johansson, show that Hollywood is still resistant to featuring Asian actors in lead roles even when the source material focuses on Asian characters. But now, people are speaking out.
This week, Twitter exploded with the hashtag #WhiteWashedOUT, a rallying cry aimed at Hollywood’s continued obsessed with casting white people as Asian characters. The hashtag drew support both from those hurt and upset at the Doctor Strange casting and prominent Asian American actors.
“You cast a white actress so you wouldn’t hurt sales…in Asia?” George Takei questioned in a Facebook post. “They cast Tilda Swinton because they believe white audiences want to see white faces. Audiences, too, should be aware of how dumb and out of touch the studios think we are.”
In response to #WhiteWashedOUT, Doctor Strange director Scott Derrickson took to Twitter and said that the outcry was not falling on deaf ears.
Marvel has insisted that it’s committed to bringing more Asian characters into its cinematic universe, but it keeps passing up on the chances to do so. When it had the opportunity to reimagine one of its iconic characters as an Asian man, it chose instead to stick with a white actor and surround him with Asian background characters.
In order for Marvel and other film studios to live up to the promise of a truly egalitarian Hollywood, they’re going to have to break away from their canons and use a bit of imagination when building imaginary worlds. If you can make a movie about a magical surgeon who fights demons while wearing a velvet cape, you can just as easily cast a person of color alongside him.