Doctor Strange
Courtesy of Disney/Marvel

The Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) has blasted the casting choice of Tilda Swinton in “Doctor Strange” on the eve of the Marvel Studio movie’s opening weekend.

In a lengthy statement released Thursday, the organization said the film was “tarnished” by the “whitewashing” of “The Ancient One” — the title character’s mentor.

In the film, the British actress plays “The Ancient One,” who in the original comic book is portrayed as a Tibetan male.

“Given the dearth of Asian roles, there was no reason a monk in Nepal could not be Asian,” says MANAA President Rob Chan. “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.” Referring to 1984’s classic film “The Karate Kid,” which landed Pat Morita an Oscar nomination, Chan points out, “Asians can’t even be the Mr. Miyagi to Daniel-San anymore!”

When Variety asked Derrickson about the film’s “whitewashing” controversy at the “Doctor Strange” premiere two weeks ago, he explained how selecting Swinton was a diversity choice in itself.

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“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,'” Derrickson explained, referencing another negative on-screen stereotype of an exotic and domineering Asian woman. “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.”

Writer Jon Spaihts also praised the casting choice. “Tilda is an instance of us taking a male role and putting a woman in it, which I think the film badly needed. The comic world of ‘Doctor Strange’ is very male. So we were looking for opportunities to have not only ethnic diversity, but to have gender diversity in the film.”

Founding MANAA President Guy Aoki doesn’t accept their rationalizations: “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 You could modify ANY problematic, outdated character and maintain its ethnicity, especially when it’s a minority to begin with.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.”

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Aoki noted while that diversity choices have been made in comic book films, Asians do not benefit.

“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’),” Aoki explained. 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’), and now, The Ancient One.”

Chan also said he doesn’t buy the excuse that Marvel Studios didn’t want to offend China — the world’s second biggest movie market — by having “The Ancient One” be Tibetan or reside in Tibet, as written.

“That makes no sense,” says the MANAA president. “Marvel could’ve created a fictitious Asian country then cast any kind of Asian they wanted without any political fallout. In fact, they changed the setting from Tibet to Nepal. So the rest of Cargill’s argument falls apart. It’s just a continuation of the whitewashing legacy illustrated recently by movies like ‘Aloha,’ ‘The Martian,’ and the upcoming ‘Ghost in the Shell.'”

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

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