I’m a Doctor Strange fan. The character has one of the most underrated backstories in Marvel lore, and I’m a sucker for any setting drenched in magic and mysticism. The new live-action movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe looks pretty darned good, and I expect a lot of movie-goers to come away with a new sense of appreciation for the character.
I have no plans to see the movie, though. The 90% Rotten Tomatoes score isn’t enticing me; even if the movie had a 100% score, I wouldn’t be shelling out any cash to watch it.
Superb trailers and glowing reviews mean very little to me—certainly not as much as when a film disregards the ethnic influences that built its source material.
Whitewashing in film isn’t anything new. The replacing of characters who are historically non-white with actors who happen to be white is a troubling tendency that still manages to rear its ugly head in modern cinema. But it’s particularly frustrating to see the Marvel Cinematic Universe do it so boldly, while simultaneously boasting about their meager efforts to add diversity in their films.
Fans unfamiliar with Doctor Strange should know that his mentor was never a white woman. The Ancient One, portrayed by Tilda Swinton in the upcoming blockbuster, originated as (and has traditionally remained) an elderly man of Asian background, specifically, the Himalayan region. Co-writer C. Robert Cargill and director Scott Derrickson defended this choice with the pitiful excuse that having the Ancient One be an elderly Asian man would invoke a racist Fu Manchu stereotype, and that an Asian woman would invoke either a “dragon lady” vibe, or the clichéd Asian fetish of “a fanboy’s dream girl.”
Somebody needs to explain to these guys that it’s not “stereotyping” to use a character of Asian heritage in an Asian setting— it’s acknowledging the culture that your story is steeped in.
I mean, there’s nothing stereotypical about having a white male hero go to an exotic setting and save the day while characters of color merely assist him, right!?
The creators’ claims that they’re just trying to avoid ‘racist stereotypes’ especially falls flat when you consider another, more dicey matter that surely influenced the whitewashing of the Ancient One—that the Ancient One is typically visualized as a Tibetan man.
Cargill has specified that he and the crew were afraid of the film being linked to the Tibetan sovereignty debate. What he didn’t go into as much detail about is that being linked to said debate would jeopardize the film’s returns in China, one of the largest markets in cinema, and the same market that happens to be on the opposite side of that Tibetan sovereignty debate.
I won’t say that Marvel/Disney execs are racist for prioritizing the potential for every last possible dollar to be made on this movie, but I’ll definitely say that they’re cowards for throwing away one of the few meaningful characters of Asian heritage in their universe to maximize their profits from China.
I’ll also say that they’re sickeningly ignorant, seeing as how they’re apparently unaware that Tibet doesn’t encompass the entirety of the Himalayas, and that the Himalayas don’t encompass the entirety of Asia.
Rather than seek out an actor of Asian heritage that isn’t Tibetan (not as though there are a myriad of options, or anything), the producers behind this movie simply decided to toss in yet another white character into the role.
They do all of this while Kevin Feige desperately tries to convince us that “diversity” is important to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, supporting his claims with actors of color who are largely being used to only portray sidekicks.
That’s essentially what we’re left with in Doctor Strange. Despite a good chunk of the story taking place in Asia and the magic system being influenced by Asian lore, the only character of any importance portrayed by an Asian actor is Stephen Strange’s sidekick, Wong.
The message that Marvel and Disney are sending with Doctor Strange is that adding white women and Afro men (Karl Mordo was never of African heritage before this film) is all you need for sufficient diversity.
I sincerely doubt that they would ever be so resolute about having the upcoming Black Panther movie include only a single actor of African heritage.
You can bet that critics and fans wouldn’t let them get away with something like that, which presents the other half of this frustrating situation.
The fight for greater diversity in our entertainment media is wildly inconsistent among those who consume it. The controversy surrounding Doctor Strange is disappointedly-quiet; while, earlier this year, the #OscarsSoWhite controversy went absolutely viral. Never mind that no such outrage existed in years where actors like Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, or Chiwetel Ejiofor were nominated for Best Actor in a Lead Role, despite there being miniscule [or no] representation of Asian, Hispanic, Arab, Polynesian, or Native American actors and cinema.
I won’t condemn the Afro community for being more invested in situations where their own culture isn’t properly represented, but it’s unfortunate when someone—especially a white person—campaigns for greater African representation in the name of diversity, yet remains silent while other heritages are disregarded.
As previously alluded to—imagine a Black Panther movie where Chadwick Boseman is the only actor of African heritage. You think that would go unnoticed in the headlines, the way that the whitewashing in Doctor Strange has? You think that critics would be so quick to laud it the way they have Doctor Strange?
That thing would get torn to shreds the way that a less popular, lower quality movie like Gods of Egypt was for its accused racism in casting.
Diversity doesn’t stop with white women and Afro men. It isn’t very progressive to fight for only select groups of people. In a time where FOX News can shamelessly belittle the Asian community in a sketch as what they recently produced from Chinatown, New York, it’s obvious that the Asian community needs people to stand up for their dignity, too.
Asians, Hispanics, Arabs, Polynesians, Native Americans, Africans, and people of all other heritages—they all matter, and they all deserve appropriate representation in our media.
The teams behind Star Wars have often shown they realize that. The team behind Avatar: The Last Airbender, and The Legend of Korra more than proved they realized that. Star Trek’s creators have always realized that.
Hopefully, everyone involved in the entertainment business will someday realize that.