But some of these excuses are worth listening to, not because they excuse white actors getting jobs that actors of color might have wanted to compete for, but because they tell us more about what it’s going to take to make Hollywood a more equitable place.
Take “Doctor Strange,” which has roused fans’ ire for turning the Ancient One, the titular character’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) teacher, from a Tibetan man into a Celtic woman (Tilda Swinton) who for some reason teaches in a Tibetan fortress. Maybe Marvel just really wanted to cast Swinton — who to be fair, oozes engimatic authority — and the whole mishegas is an example of the way Hollywood seems to create opportunities for women or people of color, but not both at the same time. But C. Robert Cargill, who wrote the movie, had another explanation: He said in an interview the concern was that having a prominent Tibetan character in the movie might make it harder for “Doctor Strange” to get access to Chinese audiences.
If Cargill’s summary of China’s relationship to Tibet didn’t quite capture all the nuances of this particular piece of geopolitics, he’s not wrong that when it comes to the movies, things in China are complicated.
In 2012, the United States and China reached an agreement that would allow an additional 14 foreign movies into China, up from the 20 previously allowed. Those additional movies must be either in 3-D or exhibited in IMAX formats, which means that action movies, which are often already tailored to be screened that way, have an advantage when it comes to getting access to this increasingly lucrative market.
But 34 movies is still not very many. As of last October, the Chinese government hadn’t implemented the part of the agreement that would allow another distributor to bring foreign movies into China. And the road to becoming one of those lucky movies isn’t always clear. As the Motion Picture Association of America wrote to the staff of the United States Trade Representative last fall, China’s censorship practices are “opaque, unpredictable and slow and can often result in de facto discrimination against foreign content.”
All of this is a long way to saying that if Cargill, “Doctor Strange” director Scott Derrickson, Marvel and Disney were overly cautious about anything that might prevent the movie from being screened in China, they weren’t insane to be so. And invoking Chinese sensitivities about Tibet is a shoddy excuse for racism. They — and all filmmakers who rely on overseas box office — are operating in an environment where President Xi Jinping says things like “Chinese art will further develop only when we make foreign things serve China.”
Obviously, the circumstances surrounding “Doctor Strange” are highly specific. But anyone who wants to see more actors of color on his or her movie screens needs to seriously reckon with the role the international market plays in Hollywood decision-making.
In 2014, the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA released a report that suggested that movies where between 21 percent and 30 percent of the casts were made up of people of color performed better than films with casts that were 90 percent white. That number has become a popular talking point, and with good reason: It adds an economic argument to the moral case for proportional representation in Hollywood. But what happens when studios believe they’re facing a choice between casting an actor of color* and getting access to one of the biggest movie markets in the world? Sometimes, they’ll be wrong. But not always.
The fight for equality in the movie industry might be a matter of making Hollywood live up to the American values it claims to represent so well. But the barriers to equality, and the solutions it will take to remove them, require us to take a clear-eyed look beyond our own borders.
*An alternative solution might have been to cast a black actor as the Ancient One, but given renewed attention to the representation of Asians in mass culture, I suspect that choice still might have prompted a lot of justified discussion.