I’ll admit: When the outcry over Tilda Swinton’s casting in “Doctor Strange” hit a fevered pitch, I didn’t blink.
Swinton’s character in the comics, the Ancient One, was a mystical old Asian man in Tibet who teaches Doctor Strange martial arts and magic. Her casting arrived around the time Asian American voices began to loudly protest the whitewashing of several roles (most notably Scarlett Johannson’s controversial casting in the very Japanese anime tale “Ghost in the Shell”).
Director Scott Derrickson’s initial defense of the casting was that the Ancient One was a racist stereotype. He added if they had cast an Asian woman in the role, she might’ve come off as too much of a “Dragon Lady.” Good point, I thought.
Now that I’ve seen the film, I can say this: Swinton is predictably wonderful as the Ancient One. Her beatific appearance fits neatly with a character whose ability includes hopping between parallel dimensions and spiritual levels of existence. She is the film’s best performance. But ultimately, her casting is a symptom of a bigger problem: It’s jarring that a film almost entirely set in Asia features only one Asian actor with a speaking role.
The most important question is this: Why did Derrickson feel his only options to portray the Ancient One were to either make the character one racist stereotype or another? This wasn’t some Catch 22. You could still write the ancient mystic leader role with nuance. And for the most part, Derrickson and his co-writers succeeded — but with a performer who isn’t Asian. The Ancient One makes her case as one of the most powerful creatures in the Marvel cinematic universe. She is also clever, tender and quick with a wink. And she knows full well she makes some bomb-as-hell tea (“with a little honey”), sort of a spiritual successor to “Pulp Fiction’s” Jimmie and his “serious gourmet” coffee.
And they elevated the Wong character (played by Benedict Wong, the film’s only Asian in a speaking role). In the comics, Wong was merely Doctor Strange’s cabana boy (yet another stereotype, the Asian sidekick). But in the film, he is Strange’s philosophical superior. Wong has agency in the plot, answers to almost no one except his own work and also owns the funniest sequence in the film. The director and writers clearly have the talent and imagination to dodge or upend stereotypes.
Marvel does as well, as the company has shown in the way it’s recently revived another leading man: Luke Cage. His origin story is firmly rooted in the stereotypes of when he was created: He was Marvel’s answer to blaxploitation films of the 1970s. And even in the recent Netflix series, “Luke Cage” ticks off a similar set of boxes: He’s a falsely accused ex-convict working part time at a Harlem barbershop. Time to dial up the outrage right?
Nope. Not only has “Luke Cage” been praised as a complex and fleshed-out character, but the show has even garnered praise for its non-stereotypical portrayal of Cage’s Asian American landlords.
— 김현 (@HyunINC) October 1, 2016
The “Strange” creators claim that geopolitics was a big part of Swinton’s casting. Screenwriter C. Robert Cargill had this to say on pop-culture show “Double Toasted”: “The Ancient One was 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 1 billion people” — people in China, which doesn’t recognize Tibet’s sovereignty. In 2012, the United States and China reached an agreement that only 34 foreign films would enter the lucrative Chinese market, and it was imperative to ensure that a film like “Strange,” budgeted at $165 million, made it past Chinese censors.
I do have some sympathy with directors who have to navigate the complicated geopolitics of Hollywood movie distribution, as my colleague columnist Alyssa Rosenberg wrote back in April. But the film ultimately didn’t even take place in Tibet. Swinton’s Ancient One resides in Nepal, and the film is almost entirely set either there or in Hong Kong. So much for that excuse. Asia, as it stands, is mere window dressing, a movable Oriental rug to tie the whole room together.
Cargill has another explanation that doesn’t quite work. Listen to what he says beginning at 21:25 in the video below: “We knew that the social justice warriors would be angry either way.”
He has the gall to lump legitimate and historical complaints about the Hollywood erasure of Asian Americans with Internet “social justice warriors.” In doing so, he erases the voices of Asian Americans by lumping us all into one big SJW troll hivemind. It’s an appalling lack of empathy with no interest in meaningful conversation.
Director Derrickson, to his great credit, says he wants to listen and engage in that conversation.
“I don’t feel that they’re wrong,” he told the Daily Beast. “I was very aware of the racial issues that I was dealing with. But I didn’t really understand the level of pain that’s out there, for people who grew up with movies like I did but didn’t see their own faces up there.”
I don’t blame Cargill for vehemently defending his work. He should be proud of a fun and, probably, successful film. But it’s ironic that the most damning criticism against Cargill and his cynical dismissal comes from his own film, spoken by none other than Swinton’s Ancient One. Early in the film, Strange is recovering from a car accident that destroys his ability to perform surgery. For decades, his work defined him. And he lashes out at anyone who doesn’t understand how his sense of self is tied to his work.
“Your ego has taken you far in life. But it will take you no further,” the Ancient One coos to Strange, asking him to bridge a better understanding of the world around him.
As far as advice for the screenwriter goes, I couldn’t have written it better myself.