When Marvel Studios began working on their upcoming "Doctor Strange" movie, the creators found themselves in a bit of a pickle.
See, the character of Dr. Strange as he was originally created involves a once-arrogant surgeon who shatters his hands in an accident then travels to Tibet and learns magic from someone called The Ancient One and becomes the planet's "Sorcerer Supreme."
That's all good and well and comic book-y, but it also reeks of the whole "white savior" trope, which is, erm, kinda really colonialist in a way that may have been overlooked 50 years ago when the character debuted.
But not so much in 2016.
Which makes their casting decision for the role of a Tibetan magic man even more puzzling.
According to the movie's screenwriter C. Robert Cargill, the filmmakers were concerned that acknowledging the Tibetan aspects of the story would anger China, the second largest movie market in the world, to the point of banning the film. And casting the part with a non-Tibetan Asian actor could, itself, be seen as cultural erasure.
Hence, the pickle.
In the end, the filmmakers made the choice that was best for their bottom line.
While the blow was somewhat softened by casting a woman — specifically the amazing Tilda Swinton — the decision also highlighted another glaring, grievous Hollywood problem.
Quite frankly, there aren't a lot of parts for Asians. In fact, there were no Asian actors in 40 of the 100 top-grossing films from 2007 to 2014. At all.
The roles that are available are already extremely limited, often to stereotypes or minor roles. The number of leading roles for Asian actors has actually shrunk over the years because the roles are whitewashed instead and given to marquee actors.
And don't even get me started on this:
The reaction to the casting was swift and forceful. Prominent Asian entertainers like George Takei and Margaret Cho took to Twitter, where the hashtag #whitewashedOUT gained fast prominence.
"So let me get this straight. You cast a white actress so you wouldn’t hurt sales … in Asia?" Takei wrote on Facebook. "This backpedaling is nearly as cringeworthy as the casting. Marvel must think we’re all idiots."
"We have been invisible for so long we don't even know what we can do," Cho told IndieWire.
Marvel Studio and the "Doctor Strange" creative team tried several times to double-down, but the hole just keep getting deeper — until director Scott Derrickson issued his own response:
Certainly Marvel has and continues to make tremendous strides in the diversity department — heck, they cast Chiwetel Ejiofor as the Transylvanian Baron Mordo in "Doctor Strange." Would they have consciously participated in the whitewashing of Asian culture if not for those perceived political-economic pressures? Who knows.
The simple truth is that there's no magic that can change the multilayered oppressions of the past. There's not necessarily one "right choice" in these situations, but that's because it's not a zero-sum game.
It's not a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't scenario because the damning has already been done throughout history.
All there's left to do is help in righting the course of the culture.
Derrickson's simple statement is a humbling acknowledgement that sometimes when you screw up, all you can do is learn, move forward, and do better next time.
After all, that's basically how the arrogant Dr. Stephen Strange becomes the Sorcerer Supreme.