The Blunt, Yet Difficult Reason Doctor Strange's Ancient One Isn't Asian

The topic of race in Hollywood has become something of a hot issue recently as two movies, Marvel’s Doctor Strange and Paramount's Ghost in the Shell, have been criticized for casting white actresses in roles that were previously Asian. Now, a co-writer on Doctor Strange has spoken about the decision to cast Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One, and he says that they went with the best casting choice that they could, because there was no way to cast the role in a way that would make everybody happy. The part isn’t just culturally divisive, but it’s politically charged as well.

Writer C. Robert Cargill was on the Double Toasted show recently and was asked about the choice to "whitewash" the role of the Ancient One by casting a white actress. The writer calls the part Marvel’s Kobayashi Maru, meaning that it was utterly unwinnable for them. Whatever decision they made would create some sort of a problem. They didn’t feel they could cast The Ancient One as he was traditionally portrayed in the comics, as the role was already a caricature, and even casting the part with somebody who was Tibetan could be a problem, as that region of the world has been a political hotbed for years.

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 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.’ If we decide to go the other way and cater to China in particular and have him be in Tibet… If you think it’s a good idea to cast a Chinese actress as a Tibetan character, you are out of your damn fool mind and have no idea what the fuck you’re talking about.

Looking at all the available options, you can see how they did feel boxed in. China is on the verge of becoming the most important nation in the global box office, so upsetting them simply doesn’t make financial sense. China believes Tibet is part of their nation, while Tibet sees themselves as independent. Making the character Tibetan would be a problem for China, but making the character Chinese would likely have been an issue for much of the rest of the world as that could have been seen as endorsement of Chinese control of the region. Moving the action to another part of Asia still re-enforces the "white guy learns ancient Asian ways and becomes superhero" thing. So, instead they decided that casting a woman in a powerful role was essentially the least bad direction to go.

All this follows on Tilda Swinton’s own comments that the role she is playing in Doctor Strange was not written as an Asian character. The studio appears to have decided to just forgo that entire aspect in order to avoid all the baggage that would be attached to that, admittedly, somewhat racist portrayal. Check out the full comments below beginning at 17:54.

What do you think about C. Robert Cargill’s argument. Did they make the best of a bad situation or should they have made their bad decision somewhere else?

Dirk Libbey
Content Producer/Theme Park Beat

CinemaBlend’s resident theme park junkie and amateur Disney historian. Armchair Imagineer. Epcot Stan. Future Club 33 Member.