Doctor Strange Director Feels ‘Tremendous Empathy’ for Asian-American Audiences

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Scott Derrickson. Photo: 2016 Getty Images

Though the crowd at Marvel’s much-anticipated Comic-Con Hall H panel was understandably amped up by the unveiling of Doctor Strange teaser footage and a mind-bending new trailer, a spectre still haunts the studio’s fall-superhero outing: the whitewashing controversy. Tilda Swinton will play the Ancient One, a character who, in the comic-book source material, is traditionally Asian in ethnicity. The move has incensed some critics, and in response, director Scott Derrickson tweeted in May, “I am listening and learning.” So what has he heard and learned? I asked him after the panel.

His response, in full:

I think that what I’ve come to really empathize with is the idea that there’s a group of people, Asian-Americans in this country, who didn’t grow up watching movies [and] seeing themselves on the screen, and if they did, it was usually a stereotype. I feel tremendous empathy for that because of what movies meant to me, growing up. I grew up as a white kid in north Denver, watching movies every weekend. It was the highlight of my life. For a lot of us here at Comic-Con, movies are our life, and I can’t imagine what it’s like to grow up and not see yourself, not see your face up there in the lead characters. It’s a serious subject. It’s gotta change, the way that Asian-Americans are represented in cinema has to change.

I also talked about the topic with a few of the cast members. Benedict Wong is the most prominent ethnically Asian actor in the film, playing a guy named (appropriately enough) Wong. The character has traditionally been a cringe-inducing stereotype: Strange’s loyal manservant. But as the panel revealed, the film went in a wildly different direction, making him a fully independent, masterful mage. I asked Wong if the whitewashing accusations had bothered him at all. His response:

No, no. I’m an ambassador for an organization called Act for Change, and it’s representing people within diversity. I mean, it’s a big question that needs to be asked, and obviously, we’re encompassing more than other films, obviously. That’s ramping up. It’s good to ask these questions. But I actually do honestly feel that they have taken the Ancient One and they’ve cast Tilda Swinton, and there’s no one more perfect for this part. Tilda has this amazing, ethereal quality. I’m sure you’ll agree. And obviously, the changes they’ve made with Wong: we’re losing this manservant, tea-making-style character. So I think it’s a good thing.

I also chatted briefly with Mads Mikkelsen, who plays the villainous Kaecilius. He said he hadn’t much noticed the controversy:

No, I haven’t paid attention to that. I know it’s a big thing over here. It’s not as big a thing in Europe, for different reasons. It’s something we should take seriously. But I do believe firmly that everybody’s just trying to make the film they wanna make and they’re not thinking in political terms. So I didn’t pay too much attention. But I have to respect that that is a theme over here.