Things You Hear on NPR: Yeah, We’re Going to Accuse You of Racism No Matter What You Do
April 2, 2017
It’s the same old “racism” Catch-22—damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Disney was criticized for years for supposedly not having enough black characters in their major movies, then for having black actors do some of the voices in the cartoon movie The Lion King. (Critics said, What, Disney can only have black characters if they’re animals? as well as accusing Disney of casting black actors only as the voices of the villains, which isn’t even close—James Earl Jones played the central character of the king and father, Mufasa, and black actors also voiced Rafiki, Simba’s mother, one of the Nalas, and one of the Simbas’ singing voice.) Then Disney made The Princess and the Frog, with predominantly black (and non-animal) characters, and was criticized for supposedly playing into racial stereotypes.
So always. In the original Dr. Strange comics, apparently his mentor was a wise old Asian man—a stereotype, if you will. If Marvel/Disney had faithfully reproduced that character in the 2016 movie, they would have been derided for maintaining the hoary old stereotype. So they cast a youngish-middle-aged white woman instead, and got slammed for that. You can’t win.
That’s a white actress, Tilda Swinton, playing mystical mentor The Ancient One in Marvel’s “Doctor Strange” movie. The character’s from a city in the Himalayas in the comic books. And rather than cast a person of color in such a stereotypical role, they cast Swinton. But by trying to avoid stereotypes, the film also disappears an Asian role from a film filled with Asian mysticism which takes place largely near Nepal. One more white savior is born.
For whatever it’s worth, more impartial observers, such as Steven Greydanus, note that the makers of 2016’s Dr. Strange did a pretty great job:
After exhausting his medical options and his bank account, Strange winds up in Nepal, in Kathmandu, where he uncomfortably eyes hucksterish signs like “Holy Tours: Himalayan Healing.” But he has reason to believe that medical miracles happen here, and, eventually, he comes face-to-face with Tilda Swinton in the Morpheus role of bald-headed mentor into the world of mind-bending realities and transcendental superpowers.
Cumberbatch is so ideally cast that he could phone it in and he’d be fine, but Swinton, who is playing an iconoclastic reinterpretation of an archetypal figure literally called the “Ancient One,” comes up with an utterly fresh, offbeat take on the mentor role. She wears her authority lightly, playing the part with a literal wink that doesn’t in the least dissipate the otherworldly aura that Swinton seems to possess anyway.
Just don’t try to tell the humorless enforcers at NPR that…