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Essay: Ben Kingsley As “The Mandarin” Shows How Little Hollywood Has Changed

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Somehow, in an era so politically correct Kermit The Frog once joked about being an “Amphibian – American,” the Hollywood concept of “whitewashing” still flourishes. Oscar winner Ben Kingsley will play The Mandarin in “Iron Man 3.” Kingsley’s a brilliant actor and early reports are he’s a good villain on screen. I don’t doubt he’ll give a great performance. That’s what he does. It doesn’t mean he’s right for the role.

 

The practice of shoehorning white actors into roles that call for another ethnic background is older than the movies themselves. The Charlie Chan detective movies are a prime example. Perhaps the most famous case is casting John Wayne as Ghenghis Khan in 1956’s “The Conqueror.” The battle is that way, pilgrim. Da-ha.

Bruce Lee lost the starring role in the TV show Kung Fu to David Carradine. Just let that wash over you for a second. The most influential martial arts film star in history wasn’t good enough to appear in a TV show because his presence might offend someone.

Whitewashing is alive well in present day Hollywood. Current film “Cloud Atlas” is under fire for using “yellowface” on its actors. “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” another Disney effort, cast Jake Gyllenhaal as the Prince. The character has undergone a few redesigns in the video game series. Sometimes he looks like Aladdin, other times like a 90s comic anti-hero, but the only place he looks like Gyllenhaal is in this movie. And hey, there’s Ben Kingsley again!

The excuse for casting Kingsley in “Sands” is that he is half Indian. That shouldn’t make him a catch all for every movie that needs an exotic villain, but it clearly has.  As often happens in these situations, press materials proclaiming the character’s race to be irrelevant are making the rounds. That excuse really doesn’t fly with a character whose defining characteristic is being Chinese. His name is “The Mandarin,” after all! The comic character is (or was intended to be) a living, breathing embodiment of Chinese national pride. He’s a descendant of Ghenghis Khan, and not the John Wayne version either. I’d argue there is no comic book character whose ethnic background is more important. For the record, casting a Chinese actor as a Japanese character or an Indian actor as “insert character who looks vaguely ethnic” is just as bad.

Look, I understand the character as portrayed in the original comics couldn’t appear in the movie. I am not calling for a return to this dude at all:

But surely there was a middle ground that could manage to not be embarrassing and capture the character’s essence. One rumor I’ve heard is that the movie has numerous Chinese financial backers Disney didn’t want to offend. This company just scratched a $4 billion check to buy “Star Wars” rights. I don’t believe for a second it couldn’t finance an “Iron Man” sequel without outside help, or sell said film in China. Also, how is a half British, half-Indian actor playing a Chinese character less offensive?

Regardless of how good Kingsley’s performance is, I’ll be stifling back laughter every time they refer to him by name. If Disney wasn’t going to cast a Chinese actor, it should have gone to one of the numerous Russian or American villains in Iron Man’s rogues gallery.

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