“…What’s the matter, David Carradine turn you down?”
Said Bruce Lee, in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story to TV producer William Dozier. In the movie, Bruce and Bill were discussing a show about a Shaolin monk in the Wild West. The pitch allegedly came true, but Warner Bros. cast David Carradine instead. It was still a less progressive era in TV and movies where most foreign and exotic roles were given to white actors. The practice known as whitewashing. At least they didn’t pull any punches during the blaxploitation era. Fortunately, Bruce Lee had an open mind.
“…They think that business wise it is a risk. I don’t blame them. If the situation were reversed, and an American star were to come to Hong Kong, and I was the man with the money, I would have my own concerns as to whether the acceptance would be there,”
— Bruce Lee, The Pierre Barton Show interview, 1971
Fast forward forty years. While Captain America: Civil War will be in theaters very soon, Marvel is building anticipation for its next film Doctor Strange by showing off an amazing trailer. While Dr. Strange isn’t as well-known as Cap or Iron Man, the general public might not sense anything amiss, but fans of Dr. Strange will surely see glaring issues with the film, particularly with the Doctor Strange supporting characters. The major thing that has fans somewhat upset was the casting of Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One.
The Ancient One is Doctor Strange’s mentor and holds the title of Earth’s Sorcerer Supreme. The Ancient One is depicted in the comics as a 500-year old Tibetan male. Tilda Swinton, as shown in the trailer is obviously far off. Not only was the Ancient One racially switched, but was also gender-bent. No offense to Ms. Swinton by the way, but at least she pulls of the look of an oriental mystic complete with a shaved head. Next is the casting of Chiwetel Ejofor as Mordo or Baron Mordo, one of Doctor Strange’s enemies but will be portrayed as a mentor/companion for the film much like Sinestro in the Green Lantern movie. In the comics, Mordo has a white complexion and his title of Baron suggests a European ethnicity. Casting Chiwetel Ejiofor in the role is another racial switch in the part of Marvel Studios. I loved him in 2012 by the way and have no doubt he can pull this off. With Marvel Studios, it’s often not a deal breaker when you do racial switches to supporting characters. It worked with Nick Fury but then again, in Marvel’s Ultimate universe, Nick Fury was black in the first place, so Marvel didn’t stray from the source material. In fact, Samuel L. Jackson was used as source material, and the actor got what was coming to him.
But with some films, switching races simply does not work out. Fans were outraged with Fox when they decided to cast Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch in the 2015 Fantastic Four reboot. No doubt this affected the film in a big way whether the story was good or not, which it wasn’t. Whether it was done on a whim or a political-correctness-diversity thing, it wasn’t a good idea to change more than forty years of tradition. The Human Torch was white, period.
It’s strange that despite past mistakes, Hollywood doesn’t seem to be learning the merits of racial diversity in films and TV shows. Cast the roles as they are, as it’s said on the source material. That’s what made the source story from which the film was adapted great in the first place. Asian for Asian, African-American for African-American, Caucasian for Caucasian, Arab for Arab. Another upcoming film has many of its fans very terribly upset, Ghost in the Shell. It’s a Japanese animated film based on a manga by Masamune Shirow. So clearly, the whole thing is supposed to be Japanese. However, they cast Scarlett Johansson in the title role of Major Motoko Kusanagi. It will be terribly difficult to justify why a Caucasian such as herself will come to have a Japanese name. Perhaps she’ll be adopted by a Japanese family just as Susan Storm was by the African-American family of Franklin Storm. But it’s the story that matters, right? The movie needs to stick with whatever elements made the manga so great in order for fans, and everyone else to get past the obvious whitewashing. Even Ming-Na, Agents of SHIELD’s Melinda May, took to Twitter to voice her disappointment regarding Asian underrepresentation. Again, no offense to Scarlett ‘Black Widow’ Johansson.
Other films victimized by whitewashing and needless racial switching include:
- Gods of Egypt. Though it’s justifiable to say that no one knows for certain what the Egyptian Gods actually looked like, ancient Egyptians had dark complexions and Arabic features which the white cast didn’t have. The film was panned for its wholesale whitewashing. While it worked for Charlton Heston’s timeless Ten Commandments and Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra, the film was deemed politically incorrect in a positive way, by today’s more supposedly progressive society.
- Final Fantasy was a movie adapted from the popular Japanese series of turn-based role-playing games. The film was anything but Japanese except for the half-Japanese lead character Aki Ross. I was expecting a movie about Cloud Strife or Squall Leonheart but what we had was something more similar to Alien.
- Dragonball Evolution is a criminal example of Hollywood’s whitewashing. The movie is based on Akira Toriyama’s widely popular manga and anime series. The lead role was given to white actor Justin Chatwin while the character, Son Goku was obviously Asian as suggested by the name. Buuuuut, it can be justified since Goku was after all an alien so who knows what he is in real life, right? Could that have been the reasoning for the awkward casting? Emmy Rossum was also cast as Bulma Briefs, and we’re really not certain what her ethnicity is.
- Mortal Kombat was spot on in casting Robin Shou as the Asian fighter Liu Kang and Hiroyuki Tagawa as Shang Tsung. If they did this with Dragonball Evolution, the film might have worked. What they missed here was in casting Christopher Lambert as the God of Thunder Raiden. Raiden was Asian in the video game with a Japanese inspired costume. Christopher Lambert made it work though and like in Gods of Egypt; we’re never really sure what gods really look like.
- The Last Airbender was another movie that stirred racebending controversy by casting ethnicities that were uncanny if not unsuited for their roles. The Last Airbender was based on the hit Nickelodeon animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender. Casting was just one of the many problems the movie had. They included bad 3D implementation, acting, plot and screenplay. The film earned the distinction as one of the worst films ever made based on one of the best-animated series ever made.
- Iron Fist – this upcoming TV series by Netflix almost became a victim of over-political-correctness by Hollywood. Iron Fist a comic book character was inspired by the popularity of the martial arts trend during the 1970s. But like David Carradine’s Kung Fu, Marvel made him a white character. Iron Fist’s creators justified the decision as being a concept long before the advent of the martial arts trend. So we have an American boy adopted by a mystical lost Asian city when his parents were killed during their expedition. There was a debate in the internet whether to correct the initial ‘whitewashing’ of the comic book character by casting an Asian-American actor. Fortunately, tradition won. His origin does state that they were an American family looking for the lost city of Kun’Lun and that the whole premise was that of a white man taking the mantle of the legendary warrior Iron Fist. There is, after all, another Marvel character named Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu, who is actually Asian and may make an appearance in the TV series. Again, racial shifts mostly work for supporting roles and major backlash ensues when you change the main character.
- Should the 1998 Godzilla earn a spot here? Whatever race of weakling CGI lizard he is, he’s definitely not man-in-suit Japanese.
Hopefully, Hollywood takes that lesson to heart if, just in case, Ghost in the Shell fails at the box office despite Scarlett Johansson’s performance. Lessons learned Hollywood.