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It was announced about a year ago that Tilda Swinton would be playing the Ancient One, a Tibetan sorcerer and spiritual guru, in the forthcoming Marvel Studios movie about Doctor Strange (which stars Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role). At the time, Polygon wrote:

Needless to say, the news has ignited a lot of discussion online. Many folks are happy to see Marvel altering a character to bring more women into its dude-heavy universe. Others are raising concerns over the unstated change here, that of an Asian character to a white one, in Marvel’s predominantly white universe. The casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as the eponymous Doctor himself was greeted with a similar, not-insignificant swell of disappointment from fans hoping that Marvel would finally take an opportunity to cast a lead white character whose race is not a central factor in their fictional background with a non-white actor.

Polygon also mentioned that the character of the Ancient One himself, as well as the role he played in the story—teaching the white main character his mystically inscrutable Asian magic so that the white main character could then use it better—is racially uncomfortable in itself.

But no matter how much extant racial discomfort is there for the taking, trust a movie studio to always make it worse. C. Robert Cargill, the movie’s screenwriter, gave an interview on the show “Double Toasted” last Friday in which he explained casting Swinton in the role, and the New York Times reports:

It turns out that the filmmakers wanted to avoid the Tibetan origins of the character altogether, in large part over fears of offending the Chinese government and people — and of losing access to one of the world’s most lucrative film markets, according to one insider account.

Cargill put it extremely inelegantly:

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In response to an angry viewer’s question about the casting of Ms. Swinton, Mr. Cargill said: “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.”

He added that there was the risk of “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.’ ”

No question, Chinese financing is having an absolutely terrible effect on movies right now. But come on: here’s a country of one billion people who you see as so powerful that you’ll change a character’s ethnicity to fit your perceptions of their taste, but who you also see as so incredibly stupid that merely “acknowledging that Tibet is a place” will render them so apoplectic with politicized rage that they will not watch your shitty movie?

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Here, Cargill actually suggests that he cast a white person in an Asian role because of woke reasons, which is a real workaround:

Mr. Cargill also said that because the original character of the Ancient One was a racist stereotype, the role would be hard to pull off with modern sensibilities. He added that if a Tibetan had been cast, it would result in the stereotypical narrative of a white hero, Dr. Stephen Strange, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, being indoctrinated into Eastern mysticism.

And here, he explains why—since he’s not just casting a white person for woke reasons but for Chinese financing reasons—he couldn’t have cast a Chinese person as the Ancient One instead.

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Mr. Cargill said some critics had suggested the filmmakers could have cast Michelle Yeoh as the Ancient One. Ms. Yeoh is an ethnic Chinese actress from Malaysia who is a martial arts icon and starred in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

“If you are telling me you think it’s a good idea to cast a Chinese actress as a Tibetan character, you are out of your damn fool mind,” Mr. Cargill said.

And here, he wonders why he couldn’t have gotten points for casting a freakin’ woman:

“And sure enough, there’s not a lot of talk about, ‘Oh man, they took away the job from a guy and gave it to a woman.’ Everybody kind of decides to pat us on the back for that and then decides to scold us for her not being Tibetan.”

And here, Marvel Studios wonders why everyone is fussing about the optics of whitewashing in the movie when Cargill wrote the whitewashing into the apparently legally binding script:

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Marvel said in a statement that there was no problem with the casting of Ms. Swinton as the Ancient One since the character was written as a Celt in the film and is not Asian at all.

Over the weekend, Keith Chow wrote an op-ed, also for the New York Times, about the banner year it’s been not just for general studio racism but specifically for movie studios who want to turn Asian characters white. There’s Tilda Swinton, the Tibetan mystic; Scarlett Johansson, the Japanese cyborg; Elizabeth Banks as Rita Repulsa; my good friend Emma Stone as Allison Ng. He writes about the circularity of the implicitly bigoted “it comes down to simple economics” argument—studios don’t want to cast Asian actors, because they don’t have the proven bankability; they can’t get bankability unless they occasionally get cast. And plus, if studios cared that much about statistical bankability, Ryan Reynolds would have been out of work a long time ago. Chow writes:

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Economics has nothing to do with racist casting policies. Films in which the leads have been whitewashed have all failed mightily at the box office. Inserting white leads had no demonstrable effect on the numbers. So why is that still conventional thinking in Hollywood?

Because studios like Marvel and writers like Cargill are boring, and so afraid.


Image via screenshot