On Friday, the emails between Tilda Swinton and Margaret Cho, regarding the controversy regarding white-washing of Asian characters in films (specifically Swinton’s role of ‘The Ancient One‘ in Doctor Strange), were released to the public.
Swinton’s take on the character in the Marvel adaptation has generated controversy from the beginning, stemming from a larger debate in Hollywood regarding the whitewashing of Asian characters in cinemas (recent other examples include Scarlett Johansson’s casting in the upcoming Ghost in the Shell and Matt Damon’s leading role in The Great Wall). The argument in general stems from an ever larger issue of diversity of Hollywood. Comedian Margaret Cho revealed this past week in the TigerBelly podcast that she reached out to Swinton in regards to her Doctor Strange casting as The Ancient One, a Tibetan character in the Marvel text.
Cho recalled on the podcast, “She said she didn’t understand why people were so mad about Doctor Strange and she wanted to talk about it, and wanted to get my take on why all the Asian people were mad,” and further commented that the conversation turned into a “kind of a fight about why the part should not have gone to her.” Swinton, via Jezebel, revealed a lengthy e-mail exchange she had with Cho. The contents revealed a fairly thoughtful discussion. Here is a summary of the email contents:
Tilda Swinton Email #1
Swinton reaches out to Cho, asking for her help in understanding the conflict (given that Swinton admits she does not partake in social media). Swinton states her support of diversity initiatives. She asks for Cho’s help in understanding how Doctor Strange came to be the center of the controversy, stating that she is ‘much more interested in listening than saying anything much’.
Margaret Cho Email #1
Cho starts by saying she is a ‘big fan’ of Swinton, then explains the Doctor Strange controversy, in that the Asian-American community was upset and angered by the fact a character originally written as a Tibetan man, was given to a white woman. She says that television has gotten better, but that film still has need for improvement, and that ‘protest seems the only solution’.
Tilda Swinton Email #2
Swinton then puts forth the notion (on behalf of Marvel), that the original character put forth too many offensive stereotypes and ‘tired cliches’, that Marvel was most likely not comfortable endorsing, and in an attempt at diversity, they made the character a ‘celtic woman’. She also points out that Chiwetel Ejiofor’s character was mean to be a white Transylvanian, while Ejiofor is a black man.
She then speaks of how she as an actress always strives to support diversity, and how being a part of this conflict is a ‘nightmare’ to her. She asks if Cho would be open to meeting in person to discuss the topic further.
Margaret Cho Email #2
Cho admits she is herself ‘totally unfamiliar with the comic books’, and admits that it is unfortunate that the production’s efforts to be diverse were ‘lost in translation’.
She suggests that social media is what sparked the controversy, as it has allowed the Asian-American community to come together on this issues, and for the first time really begin to discuss and advocate.
Cho makes the point that she believes Swinton is an advocate for diversity, given her diverse ‘body of work’, but it may have just been timing that put her at the center of this conflict. She also points out that it is not exclusively the Doctor Strange controversy but also Scarlett Johanssen’s casting of Ghost in a Shell.
Cho seems to invite Swinton to come forward and share these production diversity goals with the public, as well as using her influence to produce more content with Asian roles
Tilda Swinton Email #3
She brings up that she is producing a Asian-American film called OKJA with her producing partner Bong Joon Ho, and that ‘to [her] knowledge, [is] the first ever half Korean/half English speaking film’. The film will star a 14-year old Korean girl, and Korean-American actor Steven Yeun, and Swinton expresses her hopes for the success of the project.
Margaret Cho Email #3
Cho says simply “Hey that’s great about OKJA!”
On Friday, Cho released a statement following up on the release of the emails, saying
“Asian actors should play Asian roles. I believe my emails stand on their own and should be taken for the spirit in which they were intended. I am grateful that the debate has now entered the national discussion and remain a huge fan of Tilda’s.”
Overall, the conversation doesn’t seem to be heated, but a respectful discussion between two professional actresses. What it seems to reveal is Marvel’s ‘intentions’ to actually create more diversity in their adaptation of the original comic book (which may or may not be accurate). The conversation does seem to clear Tilda Swinton of charges against her that she was not considering Asian-Americans when she took the role, as it seems she truly felt that the diversity the film wishes to portray (with a woman instead of man) would be obvious to audiences, and the conversation seems to convey Swinton’s true regret that it was not.
If you wish to view the entirety of the email contents, click here.