tilda swinton meets whitewashing accusations with classic tilda wisdom

‘All strength to people, loud voices, for a more representative cinema.’

by Alice Newell-Hanson
02 November 2016, 7:39pm

​Photography Alessio Costantino

In the forthcoming Benedict Cumberbatch-starring Marvel movie Doctor Strange, Tilda Swinton will play a character called "The Ancient One." As a sage, mysterious, and otherworldly being, Tilda was in many ways born to play this role. But, as fans of the superhero franchise have pointed out, in the original comic books The Ancient One is portrayed as a man of Tibetan descent. Tilda's casting, as a white woman, has predictably unleashed a barrage of criticism.

Ironically, as Tilda explained in a recent interview with Indiewire, the film's crew, led by director Scott Derrickson, decided to radically rewrite the character precisely to avoid perpetuating racist stereotypes. "Scott will tell you that he made this very clear decision with Kevin Feige and the whole team to change The Ancient One from the rather, what they considered, offensive racial stereotype in the comic books," Swinton told Indiewire. "This kind of Fu Manchu, ancient man sitting on top of a mountain called The Ancient One."

When news broke about Swinton's casting, in May 2015, the announcement was met with a blend of excitement (this is her first Marvel movie) and mild confusion (white woman; Tibetan man). But by the time the movie's first trailer dropped this spring, a global conversation about Hollywood whitewashing was already well under way and mild confusion turned into full-blown rage.

Earlier this year, Twitter users including actress Constance Wu and comedian Margaret Cho expressed anger at the casting of Scarlett Johansson as The Major in the live-action adaptation of Japanese manga Ghost in the Shell, and at Matt Damon's role in the forthcoming America-Chinese epic The Great Wall. The hashtag #whitewashedOUT took off on social media, calling out Hollywood's gnarly track record of erasing Asian, black, and minority characters. (See: Emma Stone as an Asian-Hawaiian teen. See: Gerard Butler as an Egyptian god. See: yes, Joseph Fiennes as Michael Jackson.)

Tilda's response in this instance: wait until you see the movie. The director's choice, she maintains, will be explained when audiences actually watch Doctor Strange. She also points out that Marvel is actively pushing to improve the gender and racial diversity of its characters. She told Indiewire, "I'm really looking forward to Captain Marvel, and we're all looking forward to more diverse superheroes. Marvel is doing an extraordinary job of actually doing that. Here comes Black Panther."

Her parting words of wisdom also implied a deep concern about the need for real, widespread change in Hollywood casting practices. She said: "It's very important for people to speak up for a more accurate representation and diversity, particularly in American mainstream cinema, because it's kind of lagging badly certainly behind television and rest of the world. It's important that people speak out about this stuff. All strength to people, loud voices, for a more representative cinema."

Related: Otherworldly portraits of Tilda Swinton by her partner, Sandro Kopp


Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Alessio Costantino

tilda swinton
Doctor Strange