“I didn’t have any racist intentions”: Director Scott Derrickson addresses Doctor Strange ‘whitewashing’ controversy

Benedict Cumberbatch stars as the cult Marvel comic book character in Doctor Strange. Source: Marvel

Hollywood isn’t a place where many people admit fault, but Scott Derrickson isn’t your run-of-the-mill Hollywood filmmaker.

Sure, he may be the writer and director behind one of the most anticipated blockbusters of the year – Marvel’s latest superhero offering Doctor Strange – but when controversy comes knocking, the 39-year-old doesn’t shy away from it.


He addresses it, head on.


“Whitewashing is such a purgative term and I think it implies racist intentions.


“I didn’t have any racist intentions in the decisions that I made, but I don’t fault anyone for their criticism and anger.


“That’s the big takeaway: I understand where the anger comes from, the anger is legitimate.”


Derrickson is of course talking about the claims of ‘whitewashing’ that trailed Doctor Strange like a bad scent after it was announced that Oscar-winner Tilda Swinton would be playing the Ancient One in the film, a character that was originally depicted as an Asian man in the cult comic strip.



“I was already sensitive to cultural stereotypes in American cinema, I knew that Asian American representation was either absent or woefully stereotypically throughout the history of Hollywood,” says Derrickson, speaking from Hong Kong where Doctor Strange’s mammoth global press tour got underway.


“That was something that I was very self-conscious about and I knew that dealing with two comic book stereotypes in the Ancient One and Wong, I had my work cut out for me.


“What I didn’t fully grasp was the personal pain a lot of young Asian Americans feel – and what Asian Americans have felt throughout the history of cinema – which is the pain of not seeing their own face up on a big screen.


“At least during the past 30 years African Americans have had lead characters that have represented them – Eddie Murphy, Will Smith, Denzel Washington – because progress has really been made.

tilda swinton in doctor strange trailer

“There is no Asian American version of that. Here’s a significant slice of the American population, and I imagine these young Asian American kids going to the movies and just not seeing themselves, not seeing their faces on the big screen.


“When I think about what movies meant to me growing up… it just deepened my feelings of empathy and deepened my understanding for the anger.”


That anger stemmed largely from the internet as fans and non-fans alike reacted to the prospect of yet another Asian character being replaced by a Caucasian one. But this ain’t no Ghost In The Shell.


While other filmmakers have and do happily go into a bunker any time white heteronormativity is challenged as the standard, Derrickson took to his Twitter account to say that he was listening and he was learning. Yet what did that actually mean?


“Hollywood representation of Asians has been either erasure or whitewashing or stereotyping,” he says, with an exasperated sigh.


“At best, Asian characters limited to very small sidekick roles and it’s something that has to change.

“The only way it’s going to change is by these critical activist voices saying the things that they’re saying. That’s way the only way it’s going to change.”

Derrickson, as the kids say, seems pretty woke. He also seems to encapsulate the message a recently resurfaced Marvel letter from the sixties was trying to convey: “we’d at least like it to be said of us that we tried”.

“Regardless of studio involvement, most casting comes down to directors and producers and who they want in the movie,” he says.

“And I just think diversity matters, it just really matters.

“I think audiences are absorbing more and more what’s being represented on screen: how women are represented, what age of women are being represented, certainly race and ethnicity and how it’s being represented.

“The reasons for that, as Americans, we just can’t get over this shit. We cannot seem to get over it.

“When it comes to things like Asian American representation, we’ve just never done it well.

“And who else does that responsibility fall upon besides the producers and directors who are the first ones to say 'this is who I want in this movie, this is who should play his role'?

“I think that’s the burden every director has to take and I personally don’t buy the excuse of creative freedom.”

Compare and contrast Derrickson’s comments regarding diversity with that of another prominent, white male filmmaker who dropped a big movie in 2016: Tim Burton.

Scott Derrickson
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In case the rage that began boiling your blood erased his remarks from memory, let’s recap.

When asked about why his films largely seem to exclude people of colour, Burton responded that "things either call for things, or they don’t. I remember back when I was a child watching The Brady Bunch and they started to get all politically correct. Like, OK, let’s have an Asian child and a black. I used to get more offended by that than just … I grew up watching blaxploitation movies, right? And I said, that’s great. I didn’t go like, OK, there should be more white people in these movies."

Cut to Derrickson: “Saying ‘oh I’m free to have my own vision and put in the movie who the story calls for’ is to a degree, true - you have a right to.

“But everyone has the responsibility to solve this problem in the ways that they can.

“If you can bring diversity – and there’s an appropriate way to bring real diversity into your movie – it’s your responsibility to do it.

“I’m very proud of Doctor Strange even amidst the criticism because I think we have an incredibly diverse cast and the diversity I was aiming for is the diversity that we got.”

Better known for horror fare such as Deliver Us From Evil, The Exorcism Of Emily Rose and the drastically underrated Sinister, Derrickson’s comments are bold – but so is he.

"... as Americans, we just can’t get over this shit. We cannot seem to get over it."

He’s not the conventional choice to hand over your mind-bending, $100M superhero blockbuster to but then again, neither were the Russo brothers who before the one-two-punch of Captain America: Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War were best known for directing Community’s paintball episodes.

It’s that out-of-the-box mindset that Derrickson thinks will work in Doctor Strange’s favour, a movie he calls Marvel’s “weirdest left turn yet” – which is saying something considering Guardians Of The Galaxy had a talking tree and sociopathic raccoon.

"In the 1960s when he came along, he broke things up quite a bit," says Derrickson of surgeon-turned-sorcerer Stephen Strange.

"All the major Marvel comic book heroes had been around for a while and were familiar to comic book readers, then Doctor Strange came along as this weird aberration.

"This sixties psychedelic, magical, mysterious, mystical, other-dimensional universe and it was a hard left turn for the comics and I think that’s why Marvel decided to make this movie.

"After Captain America and Iron Man and Thor and the Avengers and all these movies, it needed to start making some weird left turns.

"This movie is an attempt to really press that boundaries of what an audience can experience in not just a superhero movie but any kind of film."

Dr Strange

Many auteurs have found it difficult working inside the all-encompassing Marvel Studio machine - Edgar Wright stepped away from Ant Man mid-production while Peyton Reed stepped in, as did Patty Jenkins from Thor: The Dark World who was replaced with Alan Taylor.

Yet that wasn't the case for Derrickson, In fact, he was encouraged to push some boundaries.

"I kept thinking as the writer/director that I was going to come up with resistance, that someone is going to say 'this is too hard' or 'this is going to be impossible to do'.

"No one said that, not once. It was pretty refreshing.

"At one point, it’s a Marvel origin story but at the same time that origin story is really fresh and new.

"It’s about a  character moving from skepticism to mysticism, moving from selfishness to selflessness.

"The way I’ve always described the movie, the way I described it to myself … in fact, I wrote this on the top of my screenplay: this is a mind trip action movie about one man overcoming himself.

"That’s what Doctor Strange is. I wrote that on the front of my script and I read it every day as I opened up the screenplay to see what I going to shoot every day, I wanted to remind myself that’s what I’m making."

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