On May 27, The Hollywood Reporter and various other media outlets reported actress Tilda Swinton was in talks with Marvel Studios to play in their film, “Doctor Strange.” The casting of Swinton would be in the role of “The Ancient One,” a Tibetan master of the mystic arts.
A male character since his introduction 52 years ago in Marvel Comics’ “Strange Tales” #110.
As an admirer of Swinton’s work in, among other films, “Michael Clayton,” for which she received an Oscar, and excited by the idea of making the mentor character of Doctor Strange’s own Hero’s Journey a woman, I was immediately supportive of the idea.
However, with one move against the typical status quo casting of Hollywood came another move in perfect accordance with the American film industry: the choice of a Caucasian actor or actress to portray an Asian character.
Within minutes of my posting the news of Swinton’s possible casting on social media, various friends of mine shared the same article and criticized the inaccurate racial casting.
“Inaccurate” being a kind, diplomatic choice of adjectives.
Therein lied the schism for me, because racebending is one of the various minefields of pop culture these days, and the result is usually lively discussion.
“Lively discussion” being a kind, diplomatic way of referring to online war and the dispensing of bile at anyone opposed to the racebending in question.
Last year, I wrote a column called “Hollywood’s New ‘Fantastic Four’ and Effective Brainwashing” and tackled the subject of Black actor Michael B. Jordan being cast as well-known Caucasian character The Human Torch in 20th Century Fox’s upcoming “Fantastic Four” film. The actor has since made his own public statement about the negative backlash of his casting, and he is only one in a handful of recent cases of Black actors and actresses being cast as Caucasian comic book characters.
Black actress Ruth Negga is playing Caucasian character “Tulip” in AMC’s series “Preacher,” based on the graphic novels by DC Entertainment’s mature readers division, Vertigo.
The Caucasian character “Jimmy Olsen” in CBS’s series “Supergirl,” based on the mythology of the globally-known Superman character from Warner Bros. and published by DC Comics, is being portrayed by Black actor Mehcad Brooks.
Actress Susan Heyward, a Black woman, was seen as previously-Caucasian character Detective Deena Pilgrim in the Playstation Network series “Powers,” based on a series of graphic novels by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming.
I can understand why some people would have a problem with the aforementioned casting choices, but I don’t. Frankly, because Black people have been getting the short end of the stick when it comes to the available roles for interesting characters in Hollywood for decades. Also, because I believe that such casting opens up opportunities for different aspects of the characters to be revealed.
But it has to go both ways, doesn’t it?
If I have no problem with Caucasian characters being portrayed by actors of color, then should I have a problem with characters of color being portrayed by Caucasian actors?
I don’t know if I should, but I do, and to be fair, the casting, rumored or real, of Tilda Swinton follows a pattern that is clear in Hollywood when it comes to entertainment for the masses.
The casting of Caucasian actors and actresses in the roles of Asian characters.
The following examples stirred up an understandable discontentment among fans, writers, and consumers, Asian and otherwise.
Scarlett Johannson will be playing Major Motoko Kusanagi in the upcoming Dreamworks film, “Ghost in the Shell,” based on the popular Japanese manga (and spinoff film and television series) by Masamune Shirow.
Motoko Kusanagi is Japanese, which Scarlett Johansson is most certainly not.
The character of Avatar Aang, an Asian monk with elemental powers, is the star of the popular animated series “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” but his character in the film adaptation “The Last Airbender” was played by actor Noah Ringer.
Noah is not Asian.
In the recently released film “Aloha” directed by Cameron Crowe, Caucasian actress Emma Stone of “Amazing Spider-Man” and “Amazing Spider-Man 2” fame is in the role of Allison Ng, a woman who is one-quarter Chinese and one-quarter Hawaiian.
Emma Stone is not Chinese.
She’s not even Hawaiian.
The idea of Marvel Studios following in this legacy is mind-boggling, considering their generally-accurate racial casting, and their use of a Tibetan/German-Australian actress in Dichen Lachman, presently starring in the “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” television series.
On the other hand, it does align with their progressiveness when it comes to their casting of talented female actors over Hollywood’s preferred pre-31 year-old age bracket, like Glenn Close and Rene Russo.
The age factor is not to be dismissed.
Tilda Swinton is 54 years-old, succeeding in an industry that has “Avengers: Age of Ultron” actress Scarlett Johansson candidly discussing the ageism in the Hollywood film industry in various interviews. The same ageism that has the 30 year-old Johansson cognizant of her imminent non-viability as an actress in popular American film.
And with ageism ever-present in Hollywood, that means there are fewer opportunities with visibility for older female actresses, likely more seasoned female actresses, looking for more complex roles.
So if Tilda Swinton is offered a role within the higher-than-high-profile Marvel Cinematic Universe as the mentor of a morally-conflicted ex-surgeon-to-be-mystic portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch (meaning the material is quite likely very damn good), shouldn’t she take that?
Shouldn’t we support it?
Should she turn it down because The Ancient One is neither a woman nor British-Caucasian as she is?
Not for us to say.
My dilemma was that in supporting the progressive move of casting an older woman in the role of an older man, I was also supporting the regressive move of casting a non-Asian person in an Asian character role.
I still support it, because it’s at least half of a better answer, in the direction of a balance.
People like Keith Chow, Editor-in-Chief of The Nerds of Color blog, candidly discussed the casting of Asian actors for popular Caucasian comic book characters like Marvel Comics’ Iron Fist and Spider-Man, and for character reasons as opposed to statistics. Maybe that’s a portion of the balance many of us would like to see.
Until the Mainstream Entertainment Complex becomes an environment of equal opportunity among diverse groups, we will continue to encounter the red button issues, sometimes in the form of bear traps that catch one of our feet, but I’ll take every little inch, every progressive act, every instance of a controversial and good decision that I can get, to break down the wall that seems to be impenetrable but is losing its integrity every day.
In the meantime, I’ll be more cognizant of the unfair lack of Asian casting for Asian characters in popular media.
Wait a minute.
You didn’t consider that, either?
Or did you…
…and you let it pass?
Joseph Phillip Illidge is a public speaker on the subjects of race, comics, and the corporate politics of diversity. In addition to his coverage by the BBC and Publishers Weekly, Joseph has been a speaker at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Digital Book World’s forum, Digitize Your Career: Marketing and Editing 2.0, Skidmore College, Purdue University, on the panel “Diversity in Comics: Race, Ethnicity, Gender and Sexual Orientation in American Comic Books” and at the Soho Gallery for Digital Art in New York City.
Joseph is the Head Writer for Verge Entertainment, a production company co-founded with Shawn Martinbrough, artist for the graphic novel series “Thief of Thieves” by “The Walking Dead” creator Robert Kirkman, and video game developer Milo Stone. Verge has developed an extensive library of intellectual properties for live-action and animated television and film, video games, graphic novels, and web-based entertainment.
His graphic novel project, “The Ren,” about the romance between a young musician from the South and a Harlem-born dancer in 1925, set against the backdrop of a crime war, will be published by First Second Books, a division of Macmillan.
Joseph’s newest comic book project is the upcoming Scout Comics miniseries “Solarman,” a revamp of a teenage superhero originally written by Stan Lee.
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