Doctor Strange: Ancient One whitewashing controversy reignites

The already controversial casting of Tilda Swinton in Marvel’s ‘Doctor Strange’ has again become a talking point in Hollywood, as an Asian-American group has condemned Marvel and the film’s director Scott Derrickson for their decision.


The Media Action Network for Asian Americans issued a statement on Thursday blasting the white British actress Swinton’s casting as The Ancient One, mentor to Benedict Cumberbatch’s title character, who was originally a Tibetan male in the comic books.

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MANAA president Rob Chan argues, “Given the dearth of Asian roles [in ‘Doctor Strange’], there was no reason a monk in Nepal could not be Asian.

"Had [writer/director Scott] Derrickson cast an Asian as the revered leader who guides the main character to become a better human being and to develop his sorcery powers, it would’ve given a big boost to that actor’s career.

"While actresses deserve the kinds of bold roles usually reserved for men, white actresses are seen onscreen more than Asians of any gender. And Tilda Swinton can afford to turn down roles.

“Asians can’t even be the Mr. Miyagi to Daniel-San anymore!”


Derricksen and ‘Doctor Strange’ co-writer Jon Spaihts had previously defended their decision to cast Swinton as The Ancient One as a way of sidestepping what they considered an outdated racial stereotype; much the same reason why Wong (Benedict Wong), Strange’s humble servant in the comics, is upgraded to a librarian and a physical/intellectual match to the good Doctor.

However, Founding MANAA President Guy Aoki dismisses this: “You’re a writer. You could modify ANY problematic, outdated character and maintain its ethnicity, especially when it’s a minority to begin with.

"So the Ancient One was racist and stereotyped. but letting a white woman play the part erases all that? No, it just erases an Asian character from the screen when there weren’t many prominent Asian characters in Marvel films to begin with.”

Aoki continues, "90% of Marvel and DC characters were originally white. So in order to be more inclusive in their movies, both companies have tried to change these characters to minorities. But they’re almost always black: Baron Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor in ‘Doctor Strange’), Heimdall (Idris Elba in ‘Thor’), Gamora (Zoe Saldana in ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’), and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson in ‘The Avengers’).


"Of the few Asian characters that originated in the comic books, they were changed from Asian to white: the Mandarin (Guy Pearce in ‘Iron Man 3’), Talia Al Ghul (Marion Cotillard in ‘Batman Rises’ [note: Aoki of course means Warners/DC’s 'The Dark Knight Rises’]), and now, The Ancient One.

“Name one memorable Asian character in any of the movies they’ve produced. Just one!”

It’s not an unreasonable complaint; the only notable Asian characters in the MCU to date have been Tadanobu Asano as Hogun of 'Thor’s Warriors Three, and Claudia Kim as Dr. Helen Cho in 'Avengers: Age of Ultron.’

Director Derricksen, for his part, has admitted to anxiety over the decision, recently telling The Daily Beast, “Diversity is the responsibility of directors, and I took that as seriously as I could.

“Whitewashing, if you use the term the way it’s used now—it’s what I did with the role. But it also implies racial insensitivity and it implies racist motives and I don’t think I had either.

"I was really acting out of what I still feel is the best possible choice. But it’s like I chose the lesser evil—and just because you choose the lesser evil it doesn’t mean you’re not choosing an evil.”

‘Doctor Strange’ is in cinemas now.

Picture Credit: Marvel