A group of Tibetans and supporters of Tibet is planning a silent protest outside a Manhattan movie theater Thursday night to criticize a film studio’s decision to have actress Tilda Swinton play a character in the movie “Doctor Strange,” which opens in the U.S. this week.
Urgyen Badheytsang, campaign director of Students for a Free Tibet, told NBC News that between 10 and 12 protesters were expected to gather outside the AMC Village 7 theatre in Manhattan’s East Village Thursday evening, beginning at 6:30 p.m.
The group is upset over Marvel Studios’ choice of Swinton as the Ancient One, a character with magical powers that had been written as Tibetan in Marvel comic books.
Swinton’s role drew attention earlier this year when the film’s screenwriter, C. Robert Cargill, discussed the nuances of casting the character during a “Double Toasted” podcast in April.
"He originates from Tibet,” Cargill said during the podcast. “So if you acknowledge that Tibet is a place and that he’s Tibetan, you risk alienating one billion people who think that that’s bulls—t and risk the Chinese government going, ‘Hey, you know one of the biggest film-watching countries in the world? We’re not going to show your movie because you decided to get political.’”
China has the second-largest movie box office in the world, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
Cargill later told The New York Times he was not speaking for Marvel when he made his remarks.
Relations have long been strained between China and Tibet, which China invaded in 1950. While Tibet became an autonomous region, Tibetans have claimed persistent political and religious persecution at the hands of the Chinese government, a charge Beijing has denied.
Badheytsang said that although he's a fan of Marvel, he’s still boycotting the film. He also said he believes that gaining the Chinese government’s approval was the biggest factor behind the decision not to cast the Ancient One as a Tibetan.
“I think that’s very sad, and that might be even worse than whitewashing,” Badheytsang said.
Hollywood has increasingly come under fire for using whites in Asian roles, prompting actors like John Cho and Constance Wu to take their fight for better representation to social media.
Marvel Studios did not immediately respond to an NBC News request for comment. In a statement to Mashable in April, Marvel said it has a strong record of diversity in its casting.
“The Ancient One is a title that is not exclusively held by any one character, but rather a moniker passed down through time, and in this particular film the embodiment is Celtic,” the statement reads.
“If people are already watching this, I think that’s fine. But you have to educate yourself about why this is happening. And if you can, you have to make a stand and communicate that.”
The “Doctor Strange” storyline centers on a neurosurgeon of the same name (Benedict Cumberbatch), who loses use of his hands in a car accident. Looking to heal his injuries, Strange seeks out the Ancient One (Swinton) after being referred by a paraplegic who was able to walk again. Strange later studies under the Ancient One and becomes a powerful sorcerer.
In October, director Scott Derrickson dismissed allegations of whitewashing, saying the Ancient One role was written specifically for Swinton, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
"Looking at Marvel movies, I think that we're missing a major character that is Tilda's age and has this kind of strength and power," Derrickson said at the film’s international press tour kickoff in Hong Kong, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
He continued, “The Ancient One in the comics is a very old American stereotype of what Eastern characters and people are like, and I felt very strongly that we need to avoid those stereotypes at all costs."
Asked about Derrickson’s comment on the Ancient One’s character being written for Swinton, Badheytsang called it “ridiculous.”
“They’re doing worse than just whitewashing,” he said. “Right now they are just completely mish mashing cultures. They’re making people dumber by placing this white woman in the middle of a monastery in Nepal.”
Badheytsang also criticized the actors and actresses in the film for not speaking out, but said the moviegoers weren’t the target of their protests.
“If people are already watching this, I think that’s fine,” he said. “But you have to educate yourself about why this is happening. And if you can, you have to make a stand and communicate that.”