How a good in­ten­tion back­fired

Doc­tor Stranger di­rec­tor crit­i­cized over casting a white woman in­stead of Asian man


LOS AN­GE­LES— Di­rec­tor Scott Der­rick­son knew he had a prob­lem on his hands be­fore the In­ter­net did. Two, ac­tu­ally.

Doc­tor Strange, now in the­atres, con­tained in its rich ta­pes­try of mind-bend­ing vi­su­als, ideas and di­men­sions, two very stereo­typ­i­cal East Asian char­ac­ters: a wise Ti­betan mys­tic, the An­cient One and a ser­vant, Wong.

Though de­plorable, it wasn’t un­com­mon for the time. The comic was first pub­lished in 1963, just two years after Mickey Rooney donned buck teeth and a hor­ri­fy­ing ac­cent to play the land­lord Mr. I.Y. Yu­nioshi in Break­fast at Tif­fany’s.

Der­rick­son knew Doc­tor Strange wasn’t go­ing to work as writ­ten.

“I went through my own men­tal gym­nas­tics to try to grap­ple with what I was sup­posed to do, what the right thing was to do,” Der­rick­son said.

He set­tled on a twofold de­ci­sion. For the An­cient One, he cast a woman, Tilda Swin­ton. And for Wong he cast Bri­tish ac­tor Bene­dict Wong and rewrote the part to be more sub­stan­tial.

How­ever, casting a non-Asian ac­tor as the An­cient One would end up spark­ing a so­cial-me­dia firestorm.

“I didn’t think there was any pos­si­ble way to avoid the stereo­types of the old mag­i­cal Asian men­tor or a Dragon Lady,” Der­rick­son said.

When news of Swin­ton’s casting broke in May 2015, blog posts and ar­ti­cles cel­e­brated the de­ci­sion. Some called it “per­fect casting.” The Hol­ly­wood Re­porter praised the ac­tress’s re­fusal “to be pi­geon­holed in any way.”

A year later, though, the tide had turned. Swin­ton’s casting was no longer in­spired but widely re­garded as “white­wash­ing.” The Hol­ly­wood Re­porter scolded it for be­ing “well-in­ten­tioned, but thought­less.”

A few things had changed in the entertainment land­scape that awak­ened pub­lic aware­ness about the all­too com­mon prac­tice in the in­dus­try: a ker­fuf­fle at the Os­cars with Asian stereo­types; Emma Stone’s half-Asian char­ac­ter in Aloha; and a first-look im­age of Scar­lett Jo­hans­son play­ing a Ja­panese char­ac­ter in Ghost in the Shell that dropped around the same time as the first Doc­tor Strange teaser. Mat­ters were fur­ther en­flamed when screen­writer C. Robert Cargill said that casting a Ti­betan ac­tor would have just alien­ated China.

The out­rage prompted Marvel to is­sue a rare state­ment. They noted their track record of di­ver­sity, praised Swin­ton’s casting and ex­plained that “the An­cient One” was a moniker, not a char­ac­ter and this one was Celtic. But the white­wash­ing stigma per­sisted and even grew as fur­ther con­tro­ver­sies emerged.

Der­rick­son cringes at the term white­wash­ing.

“It’s such a pe­jo­ra­tive word that im­plies racist in­tent. I didn’t have that. I had noth­ing but the best in­tent,” he said.

For the ac­tors in­volved, it’s com­pli­cated. They ac­knowl­edge and sup­port the cries for more di­ver­sity on­screen, but also sup­port their film and the roles they play.

“I’m not re­motely sur­prised that there’s an out­cry about the lack of ac­cu­rate rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the di­ver­sity of our world in Hol­ly­wood cin­ema,” Swin­ton said.

“It’s an un­for­tu­nate mis­un­der­stand­ing about this film, the irony be­ing that (the adap­ta­tion) was try­ing to not per­pet­u­ate of­fen­sive racial stereo­types and, by the by, cast a sorcerer supreme as a woman. But it can be both and it’s all true and I hope that when peo­ple see the film they un­der­stand.”

Bene­dict Wong is also in the un­com­fort­able po­si­tion of bal­anc­ing cel­e­bra­tion of the pos­i­tive change seen in his and Swin­ton’s casting with the knowl­edge that East Asian ac­tors are un­der­val­ued in Hol­ly­wood, espe­cially in big-bud­get su­per­hero films.

“I didn’t re­ally know there were any Asian su­per­heroes, which was al­ways a lit­tle bit ques­tion­able when I was watch­ing all of these Marvel movies,” Wong said. “I started to delve into the comics and saw that this char­ac­ter needed to be por­trayed prop­erly, you know, for the an­ces­tors.”

He also likes that the cast of Doc­tor Strange is ac­tu­ally quite di­verse. Chi­we­tel Ejio­for, for in­stance, plays a role pre­vi­ously drawn as a white man. But Wong un­der­stands the com­plaints too.

“It’s a snow­ball of frus­tra­tion of what’s hap­pened pre­vi­ously,” he said. “I think they’re do­ing a great job with this. But more needs to be done.”

In the end, the con­tro­versy has al­lowed the Doc­tor Strange team to re­flect on the im­pli­ca­tions of even well-in­ten­tioned de­ci­sions.

“I care about di­ver­sity. I think di­ver­sity is the re­spon­si­bil­ity of di­rec­tors and I knew I wanted a re­ally di­verse cast,” said Der­rick­son. “I just did the best I could. I made the best de­ci­sions I could. I still think they were the best de­ci­sions.”



Doc­tor Strange di­rec­tor Scott Der­rick­son, above left, rewrote the char­ac­ter of Wong, played by Bene­dict Wong. The casting of Tilda Swin­ton as the An­cient One has led to some crit­i­cism.

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