So last week I wrote a pretty angrily charged Facebook post about the casting of Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One in Marvel’s next blockbuster, Doctor Strange. Then I realised I was being “that guy.” Instead, I’m moving my rant about Hollywood whitewashing to my blog, where my opinion is law and people are free to ignore it if they choose.
Right, now that that’s settled, lets get to the ranting. This whole train of thought was inspired by one of John Oliver’s “How is this still a thing?” segments. There are some choice quotes from this, that actually make really good subtitles (funny old world innit?)
All of this is nothing new. White actors have taken roles designed for every ethnicity throughout Hollywood history – John Oliver, Last Week Tonight
Hollywood whitewashing was a lot easier to get away with in the 1960s, with great actors like John Wayne, Marlon Brando and Sir Laurence Olivier playing roles like Genghis Khan, Sakini and Othello. That’s two Americans and a Englishman playing a Mongolian emperor, a Japanese interpreter and a Moroccan general. Think about that for a second. Here in 2016, covering a man in shoe polish is never going to fly (probably why it hasn’t been done since). However, whilst things don’t get that extreme anymore, Hollywood still maintains a major problem with casting white actors in roles that can/should be portrayed by performers of other ethnicities. From Gerard Butler and most of the cast of Gods of Egypt, to Jake Gyllenhal in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time to Emma Stone in Aloha, white people are still being cast in roles meant for other ethnicities and it’s pretty baffling to say the least.
Apparently Aloha means “Hello”, “Goodbye” and “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me” – John Oliver, Last Week Tonight
One of the most recent Hollywood whitewashing stories to gain international traction, was on the casting of Scarlett Johansson in the live-action adaptation of the famed anime film, Ghost in the Shell. The lead character, Major Motoko Kusanagi, is one of the most iconic anime heroes of the modern era. Hollywood’s solution? Cast a famous white actress in the role in order to draw audiences. What they don’t seem to understand is that Ghost in the Shell (a film that inspired The Matrix Trilogy) IS the draw, and that casting Johansson is taking away that chance at an integral role from a highly skilled Asian actor. It’s not like there’s a shortage. Recently we’ve had Rila Fukushima (Yukio in The Wolverine, Tatsu in Arrow and is now a Red Priestess in Game of Thrones), Rinko Kikuchi (Mako Mori in Pacific Rim), Ming Na-Wen (Melinda May in Marvel: Agents of SHIELD and the voice of Mulan in Mulan) and Karen Fukuhura (Katana in Suicide Squad) rise to prominence. And none of them was good enough to be put in front Scarlett Johansson? I call shenanigans.
Even Ridley Scott, the guy behind Blade Runner and Gladiator, was quoted as saying (when asked about Exodus: Gods and Kings):
I can’t mount a $140,000,000 film, and say that my lead actor is ‘Mohammed so-and-so, from such-and-such.’ I’m just not going to get financed. – Ridley Scott, Variety Magazine
Sure…you needed Joel Edgerton’s white hot star power. The guy did one great film, Warrior where he was upstaged by Tom Hardy, and has done nothing of note since.
Probably one of the more prominent quotes from John Oliver’s excerpt is this, that the most recent Academy Awards nominees were:
Speaking of Tilda Swinton, it’s her and Marvel that have recently come under fire, for the whitewashing of The Ancient One in upcoming Marvel film, Doctor Strange. The Ancient One in the comics, is a Tibetan mystic, with mastery over sorcery and martial arts. Probably one of the most powerful characters in the Marvel universe. When asked about the subject on the Double Toasted Podcast, writer C. Robert Cargill justified Swinton’s casting by stating:
“The Ancient One is 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.” – C. Robert Cargill, Double Toasted Podcast (17/4/2016)
So, let me get this straight? So that things didn’t get “political” you cast a famous white actress and avoided the issue entirely? I mean, Doctor Strange already has Bennedict Cumberbatch (arguably the biggest actor in the world right now) starring in the titular role. I doubt it needs much more star power to draw audiences. I can understand him referring to the issue as a “political minefield,”but the argument is structured in such a facile way. Cargill cannot seriously think that all one billion of the Chinese population will be alienated by the idea of a Tibetan super powered human. The idea just doesn’t fly, especially when they’ve moved The Ancient One’s home in the film, from Tibet to Kathmandu in Nepal. Was the Tibet question ever really a problem? Star Trek Legend, George Takei has spoken out against the issue, going as far as to say on Facebook:
You cast a white actress so you wouldn’t hurt sales … in Asia? This back-pedalling is nearly as cringeworthy as the casting. Marvel must think we’re all idiots.
It wouldn’t have mattered to the Chinese government by that point whether the character was white or Asian, as it was already in another country,” he said. “So this is a red herring, and it’s insulting that they expect us to buy their explanation. They cast Tilda because they believe white audiences want to see white faces. Audiences, too, should be aware of how dumb and out of touch the studios think we are.” – George Takei
Also, everyone seems to be ignoring the casting of Benedict Wong as the character of Wong, a martial artist, Doctor Strange’s medic and (for all intents and purposes) butler. It’s all well and good for writers like Cargill to call The Ancient One a racist stereotype, but Wong in the comics is more of a racist caricature than The Ancient One ever could have been. Case in point:
So, from Cargill’s argument, casting a white actor as a powerful sorcerer (instead of an Asian actor) to avoid political strain and basically grovel to the Chinese government is fine, but casting an Asian man as the lead character’s butler is okay? Weak Sauce. Writers have stated that Wong’s character has been changed from a butler to an enforcer and trainer, so if they could alter the stereotype for Benedict Wong then why couldn’t they have done it for another Asian actor as The Ancient One? Tilda Swinton has even stated that she wasn’t cast as an Asian character. Sure you weren’t Tilda
Maybe all of this would be less egregious, if any time an actor of colour took on a traditionally white role, half the country didn’t go apeshit – John Oliver, Last Week Tonight
Overall, the whole concept of Hollywood whitewashing is irritating more than anything. Obviously, it’s not the fault of the performers, that I understand. But it’s lead to the mentality of whenever audiences see an Asian or an African-American actor in a lead role, they’re pleasantly surprised, and that’s NOT the way things should be. It should not be surprising, it should be just the same as seeing a white actor in a similar role. The backlash received for John Boyega following the teaser for Star Wars: The Force Awakens was unbelievable…and that’s before he’d even said anything. Hollywood whitewashing is a serious issue, and it’s great that more people are catching onto and speaking out against it ,especially those in the industry. However, there are still some people that try and defend it, and they’re who we should be worried about.
It’s all enough to make you wonder, “How is this still a thing?”
Take it away George Takei:
All the arguments in the world don’t change the fact that Hollywood offers very few roles to Asian actors, and when one comes along, they hire a white actor to do it, for whatever the reasons. Until that mindset can change, and the studios do something to stop this practice (Remember The Last Airbender? Aloha?) I will continue to speak out.” – George Takei
NB: Since publishing this, I’ve had a few people comment saying that Tild Swinton’s casting doesn’t matter because The Ancient One “isn’t real” and that Doctor Strange is fantasy, making the race-swap okay. Luckily, George Takei has an answer for that too. However for fear of putting in too many quotes, check out the article here: http://www.vulture.com/2016/05/george-takei-dr-strange-casting-is-insulting.html?mid=fb-share-vulture