Margaret Cho, an Asian-American comedian, has a problem with Tilda Swinton, a British Award-Winning Actress, playing the Ancient One in Marvel’s 2016 release, Doctor Strange. The film, which came out in early November of this year, introduced a new hero to the Marvel Universe, shuffling different ideas of mysticism in its plot. Cho’s problem? The Ancient One in the Marvel Comics was portrayed as an elderly and wise Asian man. Swinton, obviously not an elderly Asian man, portrays the film’s revised version of an androgynous Celtic mystic. Cho, with righteous anger, invoked Hollywood whitewashing” and the controversy took off. There is a lot to mull over in their whole exchange. Cho’s approach and, in my opinion, over-the-top race-baiting has complicated matters. I don’t even agree, in this case, with her bone of contention with Doctor Strange, but her original position is valid, and I’m going to try and focus on that issue; the issue of “white-washing.” It’s a serious problem in Hollywood and has been since the beginning of the moving picture. D.W Griffith’s masterpiece Broken Blossoms (1919, setting aside the more complicated Birth of a Nation) starred Lillian Gish as a white woman who falls in love with a Chinese man (played by New York City WASP Richard Bartelmess). The template was set. Audiences love exoticism and different cultures, but Hollywood has never trusted any one but white people to sell tickets. In recent years, we’ve had Aang, a character based on Tibetan monks, played by a white Texan in Avatar: The Last Airbender, Ridley Scott’s version of Moses in Exodus: Gods and Kings, filled out by white faces, and, this year, Martin Scorsese changed the lead characters, in his adaptation of Silence, from Portuguese priests to Anglican priests with Liam Neeson and Andrew Garfield. I think the time will come when people wear out of this approach. I’m not even talking about morally or referring to some variety of political correctness. It’s getting more and more flagrant when minority culture is being expressed through white eyes or when a foreign character is played by a white actor. It’s getting harder to suspend disbelief and enjoy the movies. And that old formula, the tried and true formula of a white protagonist navigating a different race’s story has become truly hackneyed. We view Idi Amin through James McAvoy’s point of view in Last King of Scotland (2006). We learn about an all-black troop in the Civil War through Matthew Broderick’s eyes in Glory (1989). The Killing Fields (1984) follows Sam Waterston through Cambodia, rather than Dith Pran, the Cambodian journalist who survived the killing fields. Why not trust the character or characters these films are actually about to carry the story?

-Walter Howard

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s