Asian Group Gives Grim Diagnosis Of ‘Doctor Strange’ Casting

By November 4, 2016
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Doctor Strange, the latest Marvel outing that stars Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role, might be a darling with movie critics – but there’s one group critical of the film in a much different way.

ancientone-inset110416The Media Action Network for Asian Americans is blasting Doctor Strange not for its story or its cinematography, but instead for its casting choices. In particular, for its casting of British actress Tilda Swinton to play The Ancient One.

The character, according to Variety, was portrayed as a Tibetan male in the original comic book. Rob Chan, the action network’s president, released a statement criticizing the film’s writer and director Scott Derrickson, even calling back to the 1984 version of The Karate Kid, saying “Asians can’t even be the Mr. Miyagi to Daniel-san anymore.”

“Given the dearth of Asian roles, there was no reason a monk in Nepal could not be Asian. Had 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.”

Yet, Derrickson claims casting Swinton was an act of diversity. At least how he explained it a couple weeks ago to Variety reporter Lawrence Yee.

“In this case, the stereotype of (The Ancient One) had to be undone. I wanted it to be a woman, a middle-aged woman. Every iteration of that script played by an Asian woman felt like a Dragon Lady. I’m very sensitive to the history of Dragon Lady representation and Anna May Wong films. I moved away from that. 

“Who’s the magical, mystical woman with secrets that could work in this role? I thought Tilda Swinton.”

Yet, Guy Aoki, the founding president of the action network, scoffed at that.

“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 You could modify any problematic, outdated character and maintain its ethnicity, especially when it’s a minority to begin with.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.”

stonealoha-inset110416Hollywood, not just Marvel, has had a difficult struggle with white-washing, especially in more recent years. One of the more recent examples of this was the Cameron Crowe romance Aloha in 2015 when the white Emma Stone was cast as Allison Ng, whose father was half-Chinese, half native Hawaiian. The film was even more criticized for having an all-white cast despite filming in a U.S. state where caucasians represent just 30 percent of the population.

Ben Affleck’s award-winning Argo in 2012 faced a similar issue, this time dealing with real-life personalities. In the film, white actress Clea DuVall plays Cora Lijek, who in reality, is Japanese.

Two films in 2014 are still considered two of the worst offenders of white-washing in the last few years. Tom Cruise stars in Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow as William Cage, a character who was actually Keiji Kiriya of Japan. Two other characters, played by white actors Bill Paxton and Noah Taylor, were originally Brazilian-Japanese and Native America, respectively.

exodus-inset110416The other could be one of the biggest of them all: Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings. Based on Biblical stories set in the Middle East, Scott chose an all-white main cast that included Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, John Turturro, Aaron Paul and Sigourney Weaver.

The four-time Oscar-nominated director explained his reasoning behind the Exodus casting to Variety’s Scott Foundas.

“I can’t mount a film on this budget where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such. I’m just not going to get it financed. So the question doesn’t even come up.”

Scott, by the way, had a $140 million budget for Exodus, which made $268.3 million globally, but just $65 million in North America.

khan110416And lest we forget one other source of white-washing that might not get mentioned too much. Swinton’s co-star, Cumberbatch, starred in 2013’s Star Trek: Into Darkness as Khan Noonien Singh, a character of Indian descent who previously was played by Mexican actor Ricardo Montalban. Cumberbatch is London-born, and quite caucasian.

Marvel, however, has really tried to make its films more racially diverse, something even Aoki admits. And that’s been a challenge, considering most of its original comic book characters were white.

Yet, when characters are changed from white, they usually become African-American. Like Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, or Zoe Saldana’s Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy, or Idris Elba’s Heimdall in Thor, or even in Doctor Strange, Chiwetel Ejiofer playing Baron Mordo.

In fact, when there have been Asian characters in comic books, Aoki says they’ve actually been changed to white for the movies. Like Swinton, like Guy Pearce playing the Mandarin in Iron Man 3, and Marion Cotillard as Talia al Ghul in The Dark Knight Rises.

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

Doctor Strange, which opens this weekend in North America, has impressed 90 percent of the critics surveyed by Rotten Tomatoes. The film already has grossed $80 million overseas, according to The Numbers, led by more than $21 million in South Korea while the United Kingdom has tacked on $11.3 million.

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Michael Hinman

Michael Hinman

Managing Editor at GeekNation
Michael has spent more than 18 years of his way-long journalism career in entertainment reporting as the founder of SyFy Portal, which would become Airlock Alpha after he sold the SyFy brand to NBC Universal. He's based in New York City.