The Racial Politics Of A ‘White Guy’ Playing An Asian Bad Guy In Iron Man 3

The Racial Politics Of A ‘White Guy’ Playing An Asian Bad Guy In Iron Man 3

Ah not a white guy, sighed a Kotaku reader after seeing Sir Ben Kingsley as the Mandarin in the Iron Man 3 trailer. Kingsley, however, isn’t simply “a white guy”, and this isn’t simply another example of Hollywood whitewashing an Asian character.

Quick background: Kingsley was born as Krishna Pandit Bhanji in England to mixed parents — a British mother and an Indian father. This is well known, and it’s hardly a revelation to anyone who knows anything about the actor.

Having mixed parentage can make questions of identity more complex than those who do not. Some decide to pick one or the other to help define their identity. Otherwise do not.

Honestly, I don’t know if Kingsley considers himself “white” or “Indian” (and, in turn, Asian). It’s something that’s very personal, based on his own life experiences, and something that cannot be answered in a Yahoo! question. Personally, I think it’s a rude question to ask. He is, however, British. That’s not a race, of course, but it is very much part of his identity.

As a parent of mixed kids, the issue isn’t just a matter of appearances or race. It’s also important how two different backgrounds can make one culturally mixed, something that I’d argue is also incredibly defining. Even if parents are the same race, but come from entirely different backgrounds (or different countries), it can create an entirely different experience for the children.

Yet, Kingsley’s character in Iron Man 3 is Chinese. Doesn’t that mean he cannot play a Chinese character? If he plays Asian characters, should he only play Indian characters? Can we box ourselves in some more?

Nobody should go into Iron Man 3 thinking that they’re going to get an accurate portrayal of Chinese culture. If this movie somehow pulls that off with an insightful look at China, well, all the better.

Moreover, Kingsley is, well, an actor. John Wayne never served in the military, but he made a career out of playing soldiers. Anthony Hopkins did a fantastic job bringing Richard Nixon to life, but he’s not American. Sometimes, there’s a fine line, however, between whitewashing and playing a character of a different background, between “playing war” and inspiring troops on the ground, and between doing an impersonation and touching the very soul of what makes an individual tick.

White actors have an easier time playing white characters of different cultures, instead of characters of different races. The reason for this is a long legacy of painfully stereotypical and racist performances, such blackface or whitewashing of Asian characters.

But, for the sake of argument, if Kingsley not “whitewashing” the Mandarin, why isn’t a Chinese actor playing the character?

Iron Man 3 is a Chinese co-production. You’d think that finding a Chinese actor would be easy; there are loads of extremely talented actors in China. Sister site io9 has a great piece (you should read it) that explores the possible tensions of the movie featuring the Mandarin. He’s a comic book character full of yellow peril baggage that director Shane Black calls a “racist caricature”.

Perhaps by having Kingsley, who isn’t Chinese, play the character, the production can, in a roundabout way, avoid depicting actual Chinese in a negative light when the picture is released in the Mainland. Hiring Kingsley could be a work around, a way to not only navigate and then sidestep the unfortunate trappings of character, but also bring him to life. It makes the character abstract. The character isn’t really Chinese, just as the actor isn’t just a “white guy”.

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  • They haven’t said his character will be asian. I know in the comics he is but Iron Man 1 was updated for current event replacing Vietnam for Afghanistan. They will probably never call him by his comic book name like a majority of comic movies nowadays so he can be playing a middle eastern or someone from asia

      • The statement above reflects your idiocy. Telling people who are obviously offended by this racist pattern of hollywood casting to get a new life is only a luxury for white folks who are the core customers this whitewashing practice caters to.

  • I’m fairly sure this was a political decision. US and Chinese relations are bad enough without having a blockbuster movie depicting the Chinese as the next terrorist antagonists.

    • Agreed, this might have actually been a clever way of side-stepping the issue of a villain that was created in a time of some really awful racial stereotyping. I suspect they’ll have modernised Mandarin’s character and backstory to fit (hopefully with more science and less unexplainable magic rings while they’re at it).

      • Actually if you followed the comic canon their not really “mystical rings”. They were power/control sources for a crashed alien ship.

        So its still science. The character just merged it w/ his whole mysticism spin on it =P

  • Ben Kingsley wants to have his cake and eat it too, since he’s as white or brown as he needs to be to do paycheque roles. He’s been moonlighting as Caucasian, Indian, Middle-Eastern and Asian for years now.

    I totally understand if he’s not Asian in this, or if they don’t outright name him “The Mandarin” since those comics were pretty racist. Even all the way up to the 90s cartoon, the character was an obvious Fu Manchu-style evil oriental stereotype. Then again…. the Vietcong were converted to generic Arabs and Iron Man 2’s villain was a Soviet stereotype. HHhmmmm.

  • Marvel has a history of thins kind of thing anyway. Look at their casting of Heimdall in the Thor film. Black guy to play “the whitest of the gods”. I think they just pick the person to best suit the role.

      • No, you’re right Villainsoft. Every hollywood casting agent’s utmost priority is serving white supremacy first, even to the detriment of the film.

        Silly Fud, thinking people wanted to make good movies and whatnot.

  • In comic book land, changing a characters history is commonplace.
    If they decide ‘The Mandarin’ isn’t Chinese, it would matter about as much as them deciding Nick Fury isn’t white.

    • I think that’s why the comic book community appears to be so racist, homophobic, sexist, etc at times. We’re so used to changes to the characters/their history that we have a go to reaction to it (positive, negative or indifferent). We treat black Kingpin (Kevin Smith’s Daredevil) the same as a Superman costume change or a new Robin.
      People who really love the source material often come out looking extremely racist saying ‘you have to have a proper Mandarin’ (proper meaning offensive WWII propaganda) even though to them it’s got nothing to do with race or the real world.
      Couple that with the legitimately racist, homophobic, sexist group of people in almost any community and it suddenly looks like the comic book community hates gay people (Alan Scott, Green Lantern) when really we just hate the idea that they’d take an established character and retcon away a large part of who they were. Particularly when the motivation to make the retcon is purely political and not part of any artists natural vision for the character.

      It reminds me of that South Park episode with the racist flag.

  • I stopped reading after the 5th paragraph. I agree with everything you mentioned from 3rd to 5th paragraph (inclusive). Well said and well written. Good job Brian!

  • I look at it this way: the Mandarin is more or less the Marvel Universe’s stand-in for Fu-Manchu. Fu-Manchu has an odd tradition of never being playing by an asian man as far as I’m aware. This film is simply continuing this meta-tradition.

  • Big deal. They’ve got British and American actors playing Germans and Russians before and none of us made a big deal out of it.

    We’ve also had Lex Luther portrayed as either White or Black before.

  • dude, white + asean + indian doesnt equal to a chinese >< for god sake the name “the mandarin” does it even sound indian @@

    • As close as the indians casted to play Chinese characters in M. Night Shamaliar’s Last Airbender movie…

      People PLEASE: INDIANS ARE ASIANS – NOT ORIENTALS! Stick to Bollywood please..

  • I thought The Mandarin’s mother was an English woman anyway? Wouldn’t that make him more fitting for the role, if anything?

  • uhhh…I’m pretty sure Nick Fury in the Ultimates Universe or something was actually MODELLED after Samual L. as the artist was a fan of his or something. And hence the reason why he was cast in the movies.
    Someone with more knowledge of the Marvel universe lore can confirm or deny this.

  • Anybody ever see Bubba Ho-Tep? That had a black man (Ossie Davis) playing John F. Kennedy and nobody seemed to mind. Although they explained that away in the movie by saying that the C.I.A. dyed him. Also, Bruce Campbell was awesome in that movie as an elderly Elvis.

  • ” Kingsley is not, of course, Chinese, but Feige says they wanted to blur the background of this version of The Mandarin. “It’s less about his specific ethnicity than the symbolism of various cultures and iconography that he perverts for his own end,” Feige says. From his samurai hair, to his royal robe, to his bin Laden-esque beard, and the AK-47 he keeps at his side, Kingsley’s interpretation is a hodgepodge of various warrior motifs.
    In his attempt to rid the world of its oppressors by replacing them, The Mandarin considers himself a twisted version of absolute good.
    “Don’t all good villains?” says Feige.”


  • The Mandarin, Mongolian father, English mother.
    Ben Kingsley, Indian father, English mother.
    If they choose a Chinese actor the fans would be complaining about that, it’s just the number of Eurasian male actors is small, especially well known,academy award winning and in the same age range as RDJ.

    • You ever consider the reason why there aren’t so many award winning Asian (ORIENTAL) American actors well known is because of this exact whitewashing of obviously oriental roles??

  • If you’re going to write an article about “racial politics”, at least get the races right first. /facepalm.

    Ben Kingsley is NOT “white”. His father is a Muslim Indian, and he has Jewish and Caucasian blood on his mother’s side. He’s mixed-race like Obama, Halle Berry etc.

    I reckon he’d probably be a decent villain in the film, regardless.

  • I would say they are changing Mandarin for Iron Man 3 to help with its release in China. China is very particular about how they (as a people) are portrayed in media, look at Chow Yun Fat in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. China’s state controlled media watchdog basically cut all his scenes for the release in China because they believed his role would cast the Chinese in a negative light in the eyes of the West and the fact that Iron Man 3 is co-financed by Disney China just adds to the fact.

  • well it’s just a movie and they placed the actor they thought could represent the role best, the mandarin was not scary because he was Asian so they did not need to fill the role with some one Asian.

    • Just look up Racial Movie Casting disparity on Google.

      Maybe you’ll see how illogical it is for you to compare the White and Black majority of hollywood actors losing jobs as compared to Asian American actors who rarely get great character opportunities to play, but then one pops up like The Mandarin, and boom ~ a white actor is chosen to play it instead, along with all the stretched out “reasoning” excuses from white people why it was done instead of just facing reality of it being whitewashed.

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