IndieWire’s Eric Kohn, Hanh Nguyen, David Ehrlich, and Kate Erbland traded notes on “Doctor Strange,” whitewashing, and the current political climate for filmmaking.
Eric: In a year where the possibility of electing the first woman president requires the kind of tooth-and-nail brawls usually reserved for wartime, there may be no better movie to epitomize the desire for change in a sexist society than “Ms. 45.” Settling into Abel Ferrara’s 1981 B-movie during the soft launch of Brooklyn’s new Alamo Drafthouse theater last week, I found myself entranced by an angry and decidedly modern revenge movie.
This scrappy tale of a mute woman (Zoe Lund, in a remarkable debut role from a career tragically cut short by drugs) has the ultimate payoff. Persecuted in the workplace, she survives a rape encounter by killing her rapist, taking his gun, and going on a rampage murdering sexist pigs across the grimy alleys of New York City. Hell, yeah! No doubt Donald Trump would’ve been in her sightline today. The whole thing makes that ubiquitous “Pussy Grabs Back” meme look pretty quaint.
“Ms. 45” was always a loose and rowdy feminist statement, but its ferocity only intensifies when viewed today. (It could easily be retitled “Nasty Woman.”) But the contemporary aspects of “Ms. 45” may come secondary to my own inclination to see it that way. Moviegoing in 2016 has been increasingly defined not only by what we see on the screen, but how it squares with the world around us.
As it happened, “Ms. 45” was the second half of an inadvertent double bill; a few hours earlier, I’d caught a press screening of “Doctor Strange,” a new release that’s a whole lot less progressive than “Ms. 45.” Whenever the latest Marvel odyssey drifts away from its half-baked plot, it becomes a trippy ride of psychedelic special effects; beyond that, it remains grounded in some major representational issues. Yes, “Doctor Strange” is a victim of Hollywood whitewashing, its story hobbled by the decision to cast Tilda Swinton in the role of the Ancient One, an Asian character from the comic who trains the titular brain surgeon in the mystic arts.
The irony of this decision is twofold: Since her days with Derek Jarman and “Orlando,” Swinton has been one of the more fluid cinematic figures in modern filmmaking, a truly progressive narrative force. Yet she’s saddled with a woefully underdeveloped role that, according to director Scott Derrickson, was actually designed to avoid the creation of yet another stereotypical Asian character. As opposed to, you know, writing a more sophisticated one.
Courtesy of Disney
The Ancient One may be the biggest problem with representation in “Doctor Strange,” but it’s not the only one. Benedict Wong, as mystic librarian Wong, has little to do beyond look sternly upon the doc as he wises up to mystic secrets and figures out how to save the world. At one point, he looks baffled when Doctor Strange makes a Beyoncé reference. Yes, Wong is a punchline; meanwhile, as supervillian Baron Mordo, Chiwetel Ejiofor lurks in the background with a smarmy grin that says hey, this stuff works wonders when you have a mortgage to pay.
If you removed the cultural naivete, “Doctor Strange” would be a visually astonishing and otherwise pretty unremarkable blockbuster. Instead, it epitomizes just how slow Hollywood is to adapt to changing times.
Over the course of a year that began with #OscarsSoWhite, I find myself increasingly incapable of consuming any mainstream narrative without simultaneously considering its politics. I don’t mean red state-blue state polarities, but rather the way in which a movie’s relationship to the modern world speaks to its ethical standards. I’m all about subversive approaches — I’m a Harmony Korine fanboy, after all — but there’s a difference between a smart assault on political correctness and being totally blind to its purpose. Whitewashing isn’t a matter of oversight; it’s a manifestation of ignorance, deeply rooted in a commercial industry, and one that will have to evolve sooner rather than later.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to bask in headlines about the ongoing success of “Moonlight.” But while I’m at it, maybe you can help clarify some of the problems here: Is every movie hopelessly doomed by scrutiny of its politics, or could this degree of sensitivity yield a better climate for mainstream stories?
Hanh: I’ll get to Eric’s questions shortly, but as an Asian American, I found this whole whitewashing controversy fascinating primarily because my first reaction was disbelief mixed with a bit of weariness and disappointment. “Really, guys? Really?” But that feeling soon changed to delight because it was controversial, loudly so, and it wasn’t going away.
I also come from the world of TV criticism, and these conversations about casting politics started to increase about five years ago; as a result, TV casting has made great strides. Diversity is now discussed as a matter of course, but it is by no means the only lens trained on TV. And so too will it be for film. What began in earnest with #OscarsSoWhite, then transmuted to #StarringJohnCho and #StarringConstanceWu, is only the beginning of this newfound consciousness of inclusivity that has always existed in a quieter, less trending form.
No, not every movie is or should be viewed politically, and not every movie hopelessly doomed by scrutiny of its politics. The demonization of casting Tilda Swinton in “Doctor Strange” is the result of many factors: the film’s high-profile nature, the confluence of whitewashing with Scarlett Johanssson in “Ghost in the Shell” and Matt Damon in “The Great Wall,” and that the role of the Ancient One is a main character. There is a dearth of primary roles for Asian Americans, and for one to be snatched away by well-meaning wrongheadedness couldn’t be ignored, no matter how much we love Swinton.
Paramount Pictures/DreamWorks Pictures
I have no doubt that this heightened sensitivity can create a better climate for mainstream stories because we’ve already witnessed some progress, albeit incremental. A character in yellowface to the degree of Mickey Rooney, Marlon Brando, Louise Rainer, or Myrna Loy simply isn’t acceptable anymore. Asians are increasingly being cast as ordinary people, not just math/computer nerds, martial artists, or dragon ladies. The whitewashing conversation for the movie “21” wasn’t as widespread as this current controversy. Hell, even the way we discuss such issues has evolved: “inclusivity” is the new “diversity” because that places the focus on the action of involvement, not differences. As the nuances of the language are refined, so hopefully will our mindsets.
Mandating social consciousness shouldn’t be a requisite of art. The filmmaker doesn’t have the responsibility to present any sort of point of view, despite demand, other than what is required to best serve the work itself. Taking perspectives into consideration, however, can foster understanding and broaden the audience. Derrickson was aware of the pitfalls of stereotyping and made a deliberate and laudatory decision to counter it; unfortunately, it sprouted a different hydra head of cultural insensitivity. Points for trying, and for me, that’s enough for me to go see the film and see what else it’s offering.
David: I think the trick here is to appreciate how those two possibilities don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Yes, every movie is hopelessly doomed to the scrutiny of its politics — and, that degree of sensitivity could yield a better climate for mainstream stories.
This is, needless to say, the stickiest of wickets. I think it’s important to keep in mind that a film should not be judged solely on the basis of how close it cleaves to an ideal world order, or if it does enough to course-correct for centuries of systemic prejudice. “Doctor Strange” isn’t bad because it whitewashes a key role, any more than “Moonlight” is good because it shines upon queer black men. The latter doesn’t hurt, and the former sure as shit doesn’t help, but movies are more than their identity politics.
And “Doctor Strange” is the perfect example of how complicated this discussion can be, as Tilda Swinton — a controversial casting choice, to say the least — is far and away the best part of the film. In fact, she (predictably) gives one of the most soulful, grounded, and maybe even moving performances that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has ever seen (a point on which I seem to disagree with Eric). As a white man responsible for writing about “Doctor Strange,” that may not have been my first choice; it would have been so much easier if the most problematic thing about the film was also the biggest problem of the film.
I ultimately wrote around the problem, not because I wanted to downplay it, but rather because I chose to focus my consternation on how “Doctor Strange” reflected a more pronounced problem in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Women. The decision to make The Ancient One female was meant to fight against the franchise’s notorious tyranny of testosterone, but the character’s androgyny had a way of making it more pronounced.
Of course, a critic could address both issues in the span of a single review, and many critics did. Although a film critic isn’t responsible for enumerating all the ways in which a film is problematic, I do regret not touching upon the whitewashing, even if in passing. But it wasn’t how I chose to engage with this movie. That’s my privilege talking, of course, but it also has something to do with the fact that I’ve never read a Marvel comic book in my life, and The Ancient One didn’t exist for me until the lights went down. I was aware of the controversy surrounding Swinton’s casting, and I lamented the grim tradition of prejudice that the decision seemed to perpetuate. That said, I’ve always lived under the assumption that Tilda Swinton is an immortal being from another dimension.
Regrettably, however, that perspective only advances the insidious nature by which Hollywood disguises whitewashing, how they minimize it by omission and false compromise. Scarlett Johansson is set to star in a live-action remake of the anime classic “Ghost in the Shell,” playing the role of Major Motoko Kusanagi (though her character is curiously listed as “The Major” on IMDb). “But the character is a cyborg,” you can almost hear some studio suit telling his boss, “so maybe the skin color of the actress who plays her doesn’t matter?” In the otherwise magnificent “Kubo and the Two Strings,” a predominately white cast voices a story that takes place in ancient Japan, but the film is animated. With its disembodied performances, the casting becomes a latent problem and an matter of omission, which by its nature is easier to hide.
I think a lot of our most astute critics, particularly those who have been marginalized by representations of race and gender, have learned how to isolate bad politics from otherwise good movies. It’s a survival mechanism — if women and people of color threw out the babies with the bathwater, they’d deny themselves all but a sad fraction of studio movies. White people, on the contrary, often regard such accusations as a zero-sum game. It’s the same reason that the word “racist” inspires frantic liberal meltdowns rather than teachable moments — it’s a brand upon the flesh, it’s all-consuming, it swallows everything good about you. For us, racism is a scarlet letter; for others it’s woven into the fabric of their daily reality.
“There are many realities,” we’re told in “Doctor Strange,” and ours is but one of them. The movies can help us to remember that so long as we watch them with our eyes open.
Kate: In answer to Eric’s primary question — is every movie hopelessly doomed by scrutiny of its politics? No. Could this degree of sensitivity yield a better climate for mainstream stories? Yes. One of my daily tasks (self-assigned, because who could possibly ask someone to do this?) is trawling through our comments to weed out spam messages that slip through our (mostly good) filters. Along the way, I will often encounter non-spam comments that are, to put it mildly, totally horrifying.
They tend to pop up on articles about diversity, feminism, whitewashing, #OscarsSoWhite… anything that would fall under the umbrella of “progressive” or “liberal” thinking. The general sentiment: They don’t like it. They don’t like it in real life, and they don’t like it in their entertainment. I’ve always thought that art in general — and movies in particular — should reflect and refract the current climate, in hopes that audiences will be clued into behaviors with a fresh perspective. Seeing yourself and your world in a new light can only help. Right?
Which is all a long-winded way of saying that no, not every movie is doomed by any possible or potential scrutiny of its politics. “Doomed” makes it sound like these considerations are all bad, and I think they have real value — though I don’t believe such considerations should be the only barometer of a film’s merit (a common criticism I see in these comments). And, yes, I think being sensitive to these issues is only a good thing. I can’t wait to see the comments calling me a liberal whack-job or worse, but so be it. The world is changing, and the art that it spawns should change, too.
Speaking more directly to “Doctor Strange,” however, is when these beliefs get a little more thorny. Yes, the official line of thinking behind changing The Ancient One’s gender and country of origin is it’s meant to be less offensive to the source material and its viewers. But that corollary leaves me a bit flummoxed. If making the character a white woman is meant to discourage racist or backward thinking that might have been applied to the original character, does that mean there’s no way to tell this story with an Asian man in the role? I don’t think so.
The intent is a fine one, but the actual logic is poor. (And, yes, Swinton is wonderful in the role, but that’s not enough.)