It isn’t Tilda Swinton’s fault. It may not be Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige’s fault nor director Scott Derrickson’s either. At the time, both Feige and Derrickson were looking to avoid cliché when it came to casting The Ancient One in the 2016 Marvel hit Doctor Strange, but in doing so, ended up with one of the most blatant examples of Hollywood whitewashing. Now, Feige is trying to walk back that decision by offering apologies to any who’d accept them.
“We thought we were being so smart, and so cutting-edge,” Marvel Studios’ Kevin Feige admitted to Men’s Health. “We’re not going to do the cliché of the wizened, old, wise Asian man. But it was a wake-up call to say, ‘Well, wait a minute, is there any other way to figure it out? Is there any other way to both not fall into the cliché and cast an Asian actor?’ And the answer to that, of course, is yes.”
For those who may not know, in the comics, The Ancient One first appeared in Marvel comics in 1963 and was the creation of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Being born in Kamar-Taj, a fictional hidden land high in the Himalayas, The Ancient One has always been portrayed as a wise, elderly Asian man. The casting of Swinton is about as far away as one can get.
Upon casting the Marvel Studios movie, Derrickson explained his choice of not only Swinton but also Benedict Wong (who played Wong) to the Daily Beast. “It was a challenge from the beginning that I knew I was facing with both Wong and the Ancient One being pretty bad racial stereotypes—1960s versions of what Western white people thought Asians were like,” he said. “We weren’t going to have the Ancient One as the Fu Manchu magical Asian on the hill being the mentor to the white hero. I knew that we had a long way to go to get away from that stereotype and cliché.”
His decision to completely change the character was one Derrickson had made from the beginning. “The first decision that I made was to make it a woman, before we ever went to draft, before we ever had a script,” said Derrickson. It was a choice that ultimately backfired.
The change in making The Ancient One female, according to Derrickson, begat more issues. “As we started to work on it, my assumption was that it would be an Asian character, that it would be an Asian woman,” he said. “We talked about Asian actors who could do it, as we were working on the script, every iteration of it—including the one that Tilda played—but when I envisioned that character being played by an Asian actress, it was a straight-up Dragon Lady.”
A Dragon Lady, says Derrickson, is a powerful, secretive, and quite domineering Asian woman whose motives are less than desirable. So, in their attempt to do away with one bad stereotype by erasing the Asianness that is The Ancient One, they turned an entire culture against them.
Even Swinton understood what Derrickson and Marvel Studios’ Kevin Feige were trying to accomplish. “Scott [Derrickson] will tell you that he made this very clear decision with Kevin Feige and the whole team to change The Ancient One from the rather, what they considered, offensive racial stereotype in the comic books,” Swinton explained to IndieWire about her casting. “This kind of Fu Manchu, ancient man sitting on top of a mountain called The Ancient One. They made this decision to not perpetuate those racial stereotypes.” But the die was already cast.
The whitewashing of characters is nothing new to Hollywood. As far back as one can remember, characters have constantly changed to suit a specific need. One of the most blatant examples of this took place in the ‘30s when Swedish-American actor Warner Oland was hired to play Honolulu police detective Charlie Chan. Not only did Oland play Chan in 16 films throughout the ‘30s, but he also took on another Asian role as Dr. Fu Manchu during that same time period.
Hollywood wasn’t done with Chan. When Oland passed away in 1938, not wanting to ruin their success with the Charlie Chan character, Fox hired another white actor, Sidney Toler, to play Chan.
Of course, there are plenty of other examples throughout Hollywood. Now, though, times are changing, and rightfully so. Marvel and Feige’s decision to bring Shang-Chi to the big screen is one example of Feige trying to right a wrong. In Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which sees a September 3, 2021 release date, Feige brought on Asian actor Simu Liu to star. While Shang-Chi may not be as well known as some of the other Marvel characters, his appearance represents Marvel Studios’ promise for diversity as well as the introduction into Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which kicks off with Black Widow on July 9, 2021.
As for Swinton and her portrayal of The Ancient One, she did make a cameo in Avengers: Endgame and while the sequel to Doctor Strange (Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness) is right around the corner, there is no word if Swinton will once again sport the bald look as The Ancient One.