Dear HOLLYWOOD REPORTER: May We Have a Word About ‘Cultural Appropriation’?

Still from "Doctor Strange"
Credit: Marvel Studios
Doctor Strange
Doctor Strange
Credit: Marvel Studios

Last week a Twitter fervor (is there any other kind?) arose on the issues of cultural appropriation in entertainment when the first images of casting choices publicly known for months hit the interwebs – Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One in Marvel’s Doctor Strange and Scarlett Johansson in the lead role of Paramount’s manga adaptation Ghost in the Shell.

We’ve previously reported on aspects of the Johansson-Ghost kerfuffle, which could look like cultural appropriation of a fictional character or the cultural appropriation of a nation’s sovereign choice to be indignant, depending on your point of view.

Venerable entertainment trade The Hollywood Reporter headlined a think piece by Senior writer Rebecca Sun and sometimes Newsarama contributor Graeme McMillan that appropriated both issues into one pretty seething criticism of Hollywood and Marvel Studios in particular.

It isn’t often that I step out from behind my editor’s desk to directly respond to the opinions of fellow journalists (I would have a blog if I were more often inclined), but in this case for a number of reasons I’m breaking standard operating procedures.

First of all, to lay my cards on the table before getting into the nitty-gritty, let me confess I am steadfastly against ‘diversity for diversity’s sakes' in the live-action film and TV casting of fictional characters.

But before you fire up your torches and sharpen your pitchforks, what I mean by that is I only want to see engaging, homogenously good actors in comic book roles. I’m vehemently against any quality diversification that gives roles to average to poor actors.

So playing that out, if the actor is a skilled one, I’m fine with them being and/or their characters written as any sex, race or orientation you got.

Credit: Empire / Warner Bros.

Asian Iron Man. Woman Thor. Gay Batman. White, male, heterosexual Superman. Black Captain America – it’s all good with me (I actually argued for the latter eight-long years ago). Now I know rebutting the opponents of that position could make for a whole other essay, but suffice it to say, despite being a comic book reader-fan since my earliest memories, I have little to no investment in seeing favorite characters translated literally to the screen. My favorite comic books are still my favorite comic books and always will be, and any movie or TV adaptation I only expect to be creatively-licensed approximations of the source material that I only wish to be entertaining.

My childhood memories also happened to be created at a time where there were cultural norms and limitations that don’t exist in 2016, and I’m happy for any character or concept to be adapted to the times … faithfully, liberally, or any other “...lly”.

But to borrow a trademark phrase from a well-known comic book writer, I digress.

My point today, which I hope is regarded not as a renunciation but the opening or continuation of a dialogue, is that to me THR’s Sun and McMillan have boxed the issue in to a point where studios like Marvel are somewhat damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

I of course encourage you to read the article in question if so inclined, and then come back here for my responses to some of the issues raised.

I can wait…

You back? Okay, let’s break this down:

Credit: Marvel Comics

Issue #1 - That Marvel Studios have been inducted into the “Hollywood’s Whitewashing Hall of Shame” for casting the white, female Tilda Swinton as the male, Tibetan the Ancient One.

Now Marvel Studios, and by extension Walt Disney, neither asked for nor is in need of my defense, but it strikes me as something of an overreaction to beeline straight to an historic offense on Marvel’s part. Of course as a white male myself that’s very easy for me to feel and write, but Marvel doesn’t seem have any obvious track record of other such offenses.

The intentional changing or at least ignoring of it in casting the role of MCU lynchpin Nick Fury and producing a Black Panther film for 2018 and a Luke Cage television series for later this year doesn’t bestow upon them immunity by any stretch of the imagination, but the Marvel Cinematic Universe seems relatively inclusive if at the same time mostly faithful to the mostly mid-20th Century created comic book origins-depictions of their headline characters.

Could Marvel be doing a better job? No doubt (and we’ll discuss that more later). But they seem to be making in effort in playing the historical hand dealt to them aware there is no way to change the origins of their most valuable properties and adapt them to live-action to suit everyone.

Credit: Warner Bros.

Issue #2 - Sun argues, “In flipping both race and gender to cast Swinton as a character who in the original comics is a Tibetan-born man, Marvel admirably went out of the box to correct one aspect of underrepresentation in its cinematic universe, but did so at the expense of another.”

Giving Marvel credit for an “admirable correction” by recasting a male character female but at the same time condemning them for also changing the character from Asian to a character who physically appears to be white is something of a juxtaposition requiring very specific context, and it’s somewhat presumptuous to even assume the Ancient One will be depicted as female. Swinton is somewhat known for gender bending-blurring roles (see Orlando, Constantine and Snowpiercer) and even once said herself she didn’t yet know if she will play the part as a man or a woman.

But again even giving credit to Marvel for casting a female actor in the role either which way, there is some exception to be taken to the notion the Ancient One’s gender “underrepresentation correction” came at the “expense” of the character’s apparent racial switcharoo.

The two are as far as we know unrelated. There is no obvious compelling reason to cast the Ancient One apparently white because the character will be played by a female. Marvel, of course, could have cast a female also of Asian descent as the Ancient One. Connecting the two as somehow cause and effect seems randomly misplaced.

Credit: Horizon Pictures

Issue #3 - Sun also comments “Too many stories, from Lawrence of Arabia to Avatar, relegate natives of a culture to background players and, at best, mentor, antagonist, love interest or sidekick.”

Now I’ll grant her Avatar (assuming Sun means the James Cameron film), a contemporary and entirely fictional film based on the “Noble Savage” trope, but including 1960’s Lawrence of Arabia seems like an odd miscalculation, given it’s a biopic of a historically significant actual person, whatever creative liberties it may have taken with the history. I’m not sure Sun intends to argue historically significant figures should not be the subject of biopics if they so happened to be white figures that had influence in the affairs of other races.

Issue #4 - And now to the real substance of the dialogue. My respected colleague McMillan (whom I’ve disagreed with in the past) uses the Swinton-Ancient One circumstance as an on-ramp to express “frustration” with Marvel because they “managed to sidestep the possibility of offering up a nonwhite, non-male lead in one of its movies for the first time” by casting the white, male Benedict Cumberbatch as the titular Doctor Strange.

He then goes on to also seemingly criticize them for casting black actor Chiwetel Ejiofor as Baron Mordo, a character depicted as white in the comic books. Despite being “happy to see a ‘white role’ played by a black man in the movie” McMillan argues-assumes this was done “with little thought about the implications of the changes.”

Credit: Marvel Studios

“…Ejiofor's casting reinforces the implications of Thor, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the Iron Man movies that every white hero gets a black sidekick in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (see also Zoe Saldana in Guardians of the Galaxy, but there, she's painted green, because space),” he explains.

Anthony Mackie as The Falcon
Anthony Mackie as The Falcon
Credit: Marvel Studios

Here McMillan ‘paints’ Marvel into a corner with only one means of exit (but not really) – they should have cast one if not more of Strange, Thor, presumably the Hulk, Captain America or Iron Man as non-white and/or non-male, despite also arguing Steve Rogers and Tony Stark both made historical sense as white men. Now I’ll remind you here I’d be fine if they did change the race or even gender of these characters, but the flipside of that is I’m also fine that they didn’t. But because they didn’t, McMillan seems to find more criticism in the faithful-to-the-comic books casting of Sam Wilson and James Rhodes as black, arguing they help establish a ‘black sidekick implication.’

But given Wilson’s Falcon and Rhodes’ War Machine are both legitimately significant characters in the mythos being adapted and black, what options does that leave Marvel Studios to not reinforce this co-called sidekick implication? Avoid those characters altogether and non-faithfully fill supporting roles with white Marvel Comics characters in their place? Adapt Wilson and Rhodes characters as white? Who thinks either one of these options are the better alternative?

And even if ones accepts these particular black sidekicks given their comic book roots, what does not casting Idris Elba as Heimdall (one of arguably six Thor ‘sidekick’ characters), Ejiofor as Mordo or Saldana as again the entirely GREEN Gamora (and also arguably a member of an ensemble rather than a sidekick) accomplish? Should Marvel deny actors of non-white races these non-headlining roles specifically because Marvel Comics created Wilson and Rhodes in the 60s and 70s, respectively? Are these respected actors perpetuating this ‘implication’ themselves by accepting these roles?

And what of Tessa Thompson, a black actor reportedly just cast as Thor’s love interest (possibly as Valkyrie, as white/blond/blue-eyed as Thor himself in the comics) in his next solo adventure Ragnarok?

Doctor Strange
Doctor Strange
Credit: Marvel Studios

Are these steps forward, steps back, or somewhere in-between? And what’s the end game actually being advocated by THR? That faithfully casting the renowned international star Cumberbatch as Strange is a non-recoverable misstep? Would not casting Ejiofor to support Cumberbatch have been preferable?

Which brings us back full circle to Swinton. Together, Sun and McMillan seem to be arguing that 1.) Doctor Strange’s ‘white man seeks enlightenment in Asia’ premise and the Ancient One character are themselves anachronistic tropes; 2.) Swinton’s casting was admirable for its gender bestowal and her youth mitigates the latter trope; but 3.) not enough to save it from literally historic levels of offensiveness for its cultural appropriation (assumed on the basis of appearance); and 4.) this is all made worse by not casting a non-white, non-male as Strange; and 5.) which is in turn made worse by casting a black man in a white supporting role.

In other words, assuming I understand their arguments correctly, apparently the non or lesser offensive version of Doctor Strange would have cast a non-white female as Strange, a young, female Asian as the Ancient One, and a white male for the sidekick Mordo. Where that would leave the Rachel McAdams and Madds Mikkelsen's roles is above my pay grade.

And understand my today point isn’t to dismiss that version … I’d be happy to see it. But when only that version is appropriate and avoids “shame” and repudiation is when we seem to be imposing stringent limits on our choices, which in a way of admittedly different context is what got us here in the first place.

Understand this is in no way a screed against so-called “political correctness.” I well understand and support proactively adapting old fictional properties with changes to better reflect the times we live; to a degree I know by experience many fellow fans do not. This is more of a ‘choosing our battles’ sort of thing.

I’m just not certain Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One or Marvel Studios are the best examples to call attention to a worthwhile issue.

Are there good reasons to want to see Miles Morales and Kamala Khan and Sam Alexander and Amadeus Cho and Billy Kaplan and Monica Rambeau and Shang Chi and Misty Knight in prominent movie and TV roles sooner than later and good reason for Marvel to get their game on? Absolutely. Let’s hope Black Panther isn’t one-and-done in terms of Marvel films headlined by non-white leads (come back, Blade), or that Captain Marvel isn’t one-and-done in terms of female leads.

And are there any reasons for Carol Danvers and Jennifer Walters and Simon Williams and Black Bolt & Medusa and Johnny Blaze to all be exclusively white if and when they make their MCU debuts? Some arguments could be made but none that’s a dealbreaker, in my opinion. Marvel Studios seems to now possess the equity to take on what some could be perceived as risks and I’d be cool with whatever changes they make but understand whatever changes they don’t.

As I say, so long as the actor is good…

So while I endorse any future opportunities, I think we should also take care not to advocate artificial limits, condemn diverse casting in supporting roles or to cry cultural appropriation in any case regardless of context and circumstance. There’s something about not letting perfect be the enemy… or should we say, the arch-villain of good.

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