Day 74: Was Doctor Strange wrong to have Tilda Swinton as ‘The Ancient One’?

This question has swirled around in my head before, during, and after seeing the film on a plane. I’ll have your answer to this question at the end of the post. (I actually don’t know it at this point.)

Before the film

Here we go again….

It’s no secret that Hollywood films have a strong inclination to replace roles that are clearly Asian or Asian-American. I could rant about it, but this video does an even better job of what I’m talking about for all people of color:

One thing I’ve learned: this issue bothers Asian-Americans and ethnic minority communities in particular. The problem speaks to a general experience of marginalization in cultural representation — if you don’t know what it’s like to never see yourself in the public sphere, you don’t feel like you’re part of it.

The unfortunate truth is that not enough people seem to care about the issue to preemptively stop choices like this from happening, furthering the disenfranchisement of the community. It’s like when rural, hardworking people claim they’re not being heard and support Trump — to them, I say “welcome to the minority experience.”

Still, I did what I could with my limited agency: I boycotted the film, the first time I’ve ever done that for a chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). It wasn’t until it was available a a complimentary feature on a flight that I decided to put my headphones in and give it a shot.

During the film

The film is a fine addition to the MCU, but that’s self-evident with Doctor Strange. The film also does feature people of color in other prominent roles, including one of my favorite actors today, Benedict Wong. (You’ll likely know him as the opulent, pensive Kublai Khan in Marco Polo.)

The core issue remains: why was Tilda Swinton cast as The Ancient One?

First, I want to emphasize that this casting is not Tilda Swinton’s fault, and she should not be vilified for accepting a major role in a blockbuster Hollywood film. I think she’s quite an exceptional actor and loved her performances in films such as Michael Clayton, Moonrise Kingdom, and Snowpiercer.

Whether you’re an Academy Award winner like Swinton or one of the hundreds of extras in the background, landing a role is much like winning a rat race, where every rat is coked out and wielding a sharp blade.

My grievance is with those who called the shots on this film. For a role that called for an old Asian man with supreme power to go to a middle-aged Irish woman makes no sense to … anyone, really. To even go far enough to re-write the role to try to force the square peg into the round hole means this decision wasn’t done without a concerted effort.

Here’s a statement published in Vanity Fair from the director of the film about the trials of casting The Ancient One:

“The Ancient One in the comics is a very old American stereotype of what Eastern characters and people are like, and I felt very strongly that we need to avoid those stereotypes at all costs.”

To which I reply: bullshit. The automatic response to this issue should have been re-writing the character to be less stereotypical and more humanized. This practice has already been done: more Mr. Miyagi or General Iroh, less Pei Mei or Charlie Chan. Even Rogue One managed to transform Donnie Yen into a spiritually driven character with some of the funniest lines in the film.

After the film

Apparently there’s a larger player in the game: China. Check out this statement from screenwriter C. Robert Cargill:

“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 one billion people who think that that’s bullshit and risk the Chinese government going, ‘Hey, you know one of the biggest film-watching countries in the world? We’re not going to show your movie because you decided to get political.’”

That raises the point I made earlier: these issues play out very differently in other cultural spheres, and it goes without saying that China’s sense of “Asianness” differs greatly from that of Asian-Americans. In order for this film to break into that enormous market, it could not represent an Tibetan character in a way that might be sympathetic to the Tibetan people.

Here’s a video from Vox that explains how Hollywood is increasingly tailoring its films for the Chinese audience:

My Verdict

There’s a part of me that wants to maintain the integrity of the source material, to create stories as they were intended or even make deliberate moves for artistic or political intentions. After realizing that’s not quite the intention here, a little part of me died by the end of writing this post.

Does any of this matter? Only if you want it to. The “surprise” victory of Moonlight over La La Land at the last Academy Awards showed that people want to see “the right films” get recognized. (I am in the conspiracy camp that believes the whole moment was staged to add a little inspiration in an era that needs it the most.)

My hope is that people recognize the machinations that exist in putting films together and don’t remain complicit in the perpetuation of bad or manipulated ones. Express yourself when something doesn’t meet your standard. Boycott it. Support those who do want to raise the bar, even if it costs a little more time and money on your end. It’s worth it.

As for Doctor Strange? I would have probably enjoyed George Takei up there as The Ancient One, and everyone would agree with that. Everyone.

— Lee