Director Scott Derrickson knew he had a problem on his hands before the internet did. Two, actually. Doctor Strange, now in theaters, 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.
Doctor Strange's Asian-American superhero Benedict Wong says there's plenty of Asian talent, Hollywood just needs to use it
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, making The Ancient One a woman, also, consequently, led to the decision to cast a non-Asian actor in the role — a move that 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 all-too 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.
Doctor Strange 'whitewashing' row resurfaces with new criticism of Tilda Swinton casting as the Ancient One
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 on screen, 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.”
Wong is an ambassador for the advocacy group Act for Change, which is urging the industry’s gatekeepers to find new, diverse talent.
“If these producers fall short of names, tap me up, call me. Let me show you a wealth of East Asian talent that’s around,” Wong said.
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.”
But Derrickson also notes Hollywood “has an abysmal track record when it comes to Asian representation and the only way that is going to change is by activists being angry and loud. I don’t fault them.”
As for Doctor Strange, he hopes the movie will speak for itself.