Dr. Strange and White Lady Ancient Ones

I just saw Dr. Strange.

The movie was super fun. Incredibly well paced, beautiful and imaginative visuals, just enough humor without feeling forced, and strong actors that lent gravitas and weight to a fairly straightforward and fluffy plot. 

I also think casting Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One was a strong and successful choice. 

Before the movie came out, there was a strong outcry at seeing Tilda Swinton cast in what was described as an Asian role. It was scorned and derided as another example of Hollywood whitewashing - removing people of color from stories or casting white actors in Asian character roles. While the concern of Hollywood whitewashing is more than justified and calling out instances is a necessary part of creating change, I don't think this movie qualifies as an instance of whitewashing. I think the casting choice is actually helpful, not harmful to Asian American representation in film.

I was not familiar with the Dr. Strange comic and universe, but even a cursory search reveals The Ancient One as a character that is rife with problems. It is a stereotypical Eastern mystical character who teaches a White foreigner how to harness magical powers. It is also a character who is, in the comics, hailing from Tibet.

Oh hello, 1963. Give me a healthy dose of your exoticism Orientalist magic!

Oh hello, 1963. Give me a healthy dose of your exoticism Orientalist magic!

I personally am a big supporter of a director and creative team taking source material and retelling a story in their vision. When translating a story across mediums, how its told by the very nature of the shift has to change. In the case of Dr. Strange, one of the characters involved in the source material was also highly problematic for a variety of reasons.

I was actually disappointed to read the reason writer C. Robert Cargill gave about why they chose to cast the way they did. According to Cargill, the casting as stemming from the challenge of having a Tibetan character, and the loaded financial and political problem this presented. Cast the role as Tibetan, and risk upsetting Chinese censors and the movie not being allowed in China due to political conflict over Tibetan independence. That's a lot of money lost. 

If that was truly the main thrust of the casting choice, then it is cowardly and greedy. However, the result, even if unintentional, is a stronger and more interesting character that worked for me.

The shift of the character away from stereotypical tropes is, for me, a better alternative than just blindly adhering to the source material. The switch in gender also helps to break the expectations and tired tropes we've seen again and again. I'd rather see Tilda Swinton portray a badass, fairly androgynous mystical sorcerer than see an Asian actor play the typecast magical Asian guy who helps the white dude just long enough to get started on his path to heroics before dying to Advance Plot. (Oops, spoilers.)

The result is a character that is acknowledged as Celtic in film, comes from a long line of Ancient One defenders, and circumvents and subverts exoticism and negative racial expectations of the role. Swinton's chops and charm as this character gives the movie an added dimension, and we get an Asian character that is actually strong and interesting (and confirmed for Avengers: Infinity War) in the form of Wong. 

I will acknowledge that with the change, you're still left with the problematic assumption of a very Tibetan inspired, monastery order of sorcerers, drawing from Asian themes, but set in Napal not Tibet. However, narrative-wise, the order's international nature (with headquarters in Hong Kong, London, and New York) combined with its relatively diverse membership help to elevate the story from stereotypical Oriental exotic mysticism to a more fantasy realm of magic and sorcery.

TLDR: Dr. Strange is fun. Let's hold our outrage until we can evaluate the supposed offenses in context of the full artistic endeavor. Let's focus our energies on creating dialogue around actual cases of whitewashing and harmful racial erasure in Hollywood (and other) stories.