What Tilda Swinton’s Role as the Ancient One in 'Doctor Strange' Means to a Tibetan

As a Tibetan, it sucks that Hollywood is downplaying Tibet's existence to make more money.

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Apr 28 2016, 5:55pm

If you're not white, chances are when you're watching a movie or a TV series, you'll catch yourself on the lookout for anyone who's not white. It's a very minor event, this trying to find someone who looks like you onscreen, and most of us probably do it unconsciously.

The fact that Hollywood has blind spots when it comes to race and race-based issues is not a groundbreaking revelation. Its audience, increasingly non-white and vocal, is challenging filmmakers about this gap when it comes to who is shown on-screen and who isn't.

It's in this context that we find Doctor Strange. Screenwriter C. Robert Cargill, in a fit of exasperation and indignation, responded to criticisms recently that his movie committed the age-old Hollywood tradition of whitewashing by casting Tilda Swinton in the role of the Ancient One. In the Marvel comic book lore, the Ancient One was based on a Tibetan mystical master. He guides the titular hero, portrayed onscreen by Benedict Cumberbatch, in his journey from a brilliant but ordinary surgeon, to a brilliant and powerful superhero—cloaked and ready to join the pantheon of Marvel characters and the next installment of the money-printing enterprise that is the Avengers series.

As Cargill explains it, the decision to cast Swinton was not done lightly. The Ancient One was a racist stereotype who comes from a region of the world that is in a very weird political place," he says in a video interview posted on YouTube. "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."

The 1 billion people who Cargill is referring to are the Chinese people. He continues:

"[You] 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.'"

He ends this matter by saying that anyone who proposes casting a Chinese actor in this role as a workaround is "out of [his or her] damn fool mind and have no idea what the fuck [he or she is] talking about."

Cargill is referring to some comments online that suggested the movie could have cast Michelle Yeoh, who is Chinese Malaysian, instead of Tilda Swinton.

Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One

Many Tibetans, like myself, remember the time when Kundun, a film by Martin Scorsese about the Dalai Lama's escape from Tibet to India, first came out. Scorsese and many of his colleagues were subsequently banned from entering China. That was almost 20 years ago. Disney at the time stood by its project, even in the face of harsh retribution from the Chinese government. In the intervening years, the Chinese market for Hollywood films has grown exponentially.

The demands of "1 billion people" outstrip those who number far fewer than 10 million. This is basic economics.

But let me tell you how thrilling it was to see Kundun as a Tibetan. When the movie was screened in theaters in Nepal and India—where there is historically, and still remains, the largest influx of Tibetan refugees—grown men wept and old women prostrated to the image of their spiritual leader on aisles between the seats.

I was around 12 years old at the time in Nepal, and even though I was mostly preoccupied by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and WWE (WWF then), I remember vividly how big of a deal it was that this movie was coming out. Scorsese became a kind of hero, even though I knew next to nothing at the time about one of the greatest living filmmakers.

There was that undeniable magic of cinema—when a character looms larger than life onscreen, against the backdrop of the expansive Tibetan landscape (by way of Morocco)—that swells your heart and transposes you from inside that packed auditorium to the mountains of Tibet, alongside the Dalai Lama, kicking ass, being kind, crying over the loss of loved ones, and just being human.

Still from the movie 'Kundun' (1997) that features actual Tibetans as Tibetan monks

There is no amount of dollars and no marketing strategy that will quite capture that sense of seeing yourself, or someone like you, projected and humanized on a giant theater screen. We knew then that in spite of what the mighty Chinese government wanted—the elision of all things Dalai Lama and Tibetan— a short, plucky Italian American director from the Bronx gave them the finger and realized his vision.

Cargill, it seems, has thrown up his hands. Even though he could imagine and write pages upon pages of heroic, magical feats for Doctor Strange, on the matter of casting a Tibetan actor, that well is nigh empty. Sorry, but not sorry, because dollars. At least he was honest about it.

The very fact of my existence is a sore point for the Chinese government. Cargill and his ilk would like you to believe that their hands are tied on this matter, but I don't buy it. Their influence over our—and the Chinese audience's—decision to buy tickets to their shows extends beyond just cold hard economics. There is something to be said for doing it the right way. For imagining a world, or at least an America, where, for once, the white skin is not the default, neutral canvas.

In the age of #OscarsSoWhite, Cargill's decision, and his white male background, is political. Of the panoply of controversies to navigate and confront, he chooses a route that inconveniences him the least.

It's also a bit rich hearing Cargill speak about how he and his team had to carefully, painfully consider not casting Asians so as to not reaffirm past stereotypes. That consideration falls flat when Hollywood keeps pumping out movies that showcase white dudes in savior roles (see: The Legend of Tarzan, coming to a screen near you later this summer).

For what it's worth, between a white actor and a non-Tibetan but Asian American actor playing the role of the Ancient One, my vote (and dollars) will easily go for the latter. In an industry where it's already hard enough to find roles beyond just extras in the background, here is a character made for an Asian American actor to shine in. And it goes to Tilda Swinton.

Oh well. I continue to be on the lookout for faces like me. Somewhere in Toronto or Los Angeles, there is a Tibetan kid dreaming to be the next Denzel Washington or Tilda Swinton. I hope she gets a fair shake.

Follow Gelek Badheytsang on Twitter.

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