When the first teaser for Marvel’s Doctor Strange premiered, the masses were pissed. A white woman was cast as the Tibetan sorcerer who mentors Dr. Stephen Strange. The white culprit in question is Oscar-winning actress Tilda Swinton.
In an interview with Den of Geek, Swinton addressed the controversy:
“The script that I was presented with did not feature an Asian man for me to play, so that was never a question when I was being asked to do it,” she responded. “It all will be revealed when you see the film, I think. There are very great reasons for us to feel very settled and confident with the decisions that were made.”
It’s extremely imaginable that Swinton had never read a Doctor Strange comic prior to accepting the role. She frequently bases her role decisions on the script and what works for her.
“Those opportunities to make films like the Narnia film, like anything from the Marvel Universe, that is going to touch generations and particularly young generations, is really worth considering,” she said. “In both those cases, the Narnia film and this, they presented me [with] something that I was really intrigued by and I’m really happy that they did.”
Swinton’s reassurance that she and the studio feel “settled and confident with the decisions that were made” is a huge seal of approval from a woman who is a frequent and prolific champion of human rights and equality.
This issue is a valid, historical one. Whitewashing, casting white actors to play roles that could or would normally be played by non-white actors, has existed as long as theater has. During the Golden Age of Hollywood it was extremely common to both cast white actors in so-called ethnic roles (e.g. John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror) or use any person of color, regardless of heritage, for such roles (e.g. Rita Moreno as Tuptim in The King and I).
The funny thing is people aren’t totally against interchanging ethnicities as long as the skin color is right. When Antonio Banderas, a Spaniard, was cast as a Mexican mariachi player in Desperado no one batted an eye. During his career he has very often played Mexican and Cuban roles with an Argentinian and Chilean thrown in occasionally. Nothing against Banderas, of course, but you can’t point fingers and cry racism yet assume any ethnic role should belong to anyone who looks close enough. It’s a total double-standard.
When several Chinese actors were cast in Japanese roles in Memoirs of a Geisha there was a ton of backlash because it illustrated that double-standard. Chinese, Japanese–it’s all the same. Such an idea is an insult not only to the nationalities involved but to the mentality of Western audiences. It’s assuming we can’t or don’t care to tell the difference. Sadly, that latter bit isn’t too far off.
Regarding Doctor Strange, the Internet has concluded a Tibetan should clearly be played by a Tibetan. Oh wait, did that say the Internet wants a Tibetan to play a Tibetan? That’s not entirely accurate. Many have stated they would like to see an Asian in the role. So basically, it doesn’t matter if the actor is Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Thai or Tibetan. As long as they’re Asian that’s good enough because, you know, all Asians are interchangeable.
In any event, Baron Mordo, another major Doctor Strange character, is a Transylvanian nobleman played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, an English black man of Nigerian descent. While you’d think that would be a point in Marvel’s favor, many are quick to rail against that one, too. The claim is that it’s yet another example of casting a black man to play sidekick to a white hero. We wouldn’t call Baron Mordo Doctor Strange’s “sidekick” by any stretch of the imagination, but we won’t get into that because spoilers. Marvel also came under fire for casting (white, English, what else?) Finn Jones as Iron Fist aka Daniel Rand–an American martial artist.
Marvel seems damned if they do, damned if they don’t. Casting a comic book movie (or show) has proven to be a human rights minefield. That being said, gotta give them props for even attempting diversity in their high profile projects. It’s more than many big studios can say.
Images via Nars Cosmetics, Sony Pictures, Gramercy Pictures