As Hollywood adjusts to a globalized economy where films must appeal to a wider and more diverse audience than ever previously planned for, awkward casting controversies continue to be a growing concern – particularly in a blockbuster realm dominated by adaptations of books, comics, games and other material originally created in times with much different sensibilities. Perhaps the most prominent controversy in that realm of the moment is focused on an older issue: “Whitewashing”, or the casting of white actors in roles originally written for actors of other races.
The most prominent recent example of this would be the casting of Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, which followed on the heels of the whitewashing controversy from earlier this year, surrounding Alex Proyas’ Gods of Egypt (where actors like Gerard Butler played the Egyptian deity Set). Tilda Swinton has recently received similar criticism for her turn in Marvel Studios’ Doctor Strange, where she plays a character originally concieved as being of Asian descent.Now, the Oscar-winner has responded to those criticisms, while also teasing more details about her character.
In the film, Swinton portrays The Ancient One, a master of the mystic arts traditionally depicted in the original Marvel Comics as an elderly Asian man. Her casting, while it did not draw an outcry on the same level that has greeted the first image of Johansson in Ghost in the Shell (as “The Major”, a formally Japanese protagonist), has nonetheless been criticized particularly in light of Marvel’s ongoing perceived lack of diverse casting. While it’s true that the studio has taken an open minded approach in some cases such as Idris Elba playing a Norse god in the Thor movies (and Tess Thompson rumored to be doing the same), to many fans the change to The Ancient One’s casting was seen as a step backward.
Speaking to THR during a recent event at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Swinton offered her first public response to the ongoing discussion surrounding her role in Doctor Strange:
“Well, it’s not actually an Asian character — that’s what I need to tell you about it. I wasn’t asked to play an Asian character, you can be very well assured of that.”
“You just have to wait and see, because it’s not an Asian character.”
For those who missed it, Marvel Studios head honcho Kevin Feige provided a similar explanation for the casting of Swinton in Doctor Strange back in 2015:
“I think if you look at some of the early incarnations of the Ancient One in the comics, they are what we would consider today to be quite, sort of, stereotypical. They don’t hold up to what would work today. Also, within the storyline of the comics, and our movie, ‘the Ancient One’ is a title that many people have had. We hit very early on on, What if the Ancient One was a woman? What if the title had been passed and the current Ancient One is a woman? Oh, that’s an interesting idea…”
As such, The Ancient One’s character has seemingly been reworked into being a figure not necessarily connected to conventional definitions of humanity or human ethnicity. Unlike the Ghost in the Shell situation (which has included rumors that FX tests being commissioned to make white actors look Japanese) where complaints have centered on the effective loss of a rare positive Japanese lead role in a Western production, characters like The Ancient One (who, like Strange, was created in the early 1960s) are often viewed as crude racial stereotypes in their original form, as Feige noted.
Of course, some might (and no doubt will continue to) reasonably argue that changes could have been made to the role of The Ancient One to make the character less of an Asian stereotype without changing their ethnicity and/or backstory in the Doctor Strange movie. There is clearly more yet to be discovered in Swinton’s version of The Ancient One than what was shown in the film’s teaser trailer – and she may not even be fully understood until the film opens in theaters – so this discussion should continue to evolve until then.
Captain America: Civil War will release on May 6, 2016, followed by Doctor Strange – November 4, 2016; Guardians of the Galaxy 2 – May 5, 2017; Spider-Man: Homecoming – July 7, 2017; Thor: Ragnarok – November 3, 2017; Black Panther – February 16, 2018; The Avengers: Infinity War Part 1 – May 4, 2018; Ant-Man and the Wasp – July 6, 2018; Captain Marvel – March 8, 2019; The Avengers: Infinity War Part 2 – May 3, 2019; Inhumans – July 12, 2019; and as-yet untitled Marvel movies on May 1, July 10 and November 6, 2020.