The Mandarin is pretty much a direct descendant of the Fu Manchu yellow peril caricature-at best Orientalist, at worst, racist. The diabolic Asiatic is a hoary Hollywood staple – one of many stereotypes that Asian Americana have long had to endure - whether it’s the Fu Manchu, the Kung Fu master, the Dragon Lady, or the bucktooth nerd. What’s amazing is that China through its economic might has succeeded in extracting from Hollywood what civil rights groups and Asian American petitions have been unable to: more respectful representations of its citizens. If only every minority group had a massive economy! No more Jar-Jar Binks, no more Hugo Weaving playing a future Korean but looking more like a bad cosplay Romulan.
As for Ben Kingsley’s portrayal - ultimately, this is a bit of racial pinch-hitting. Can’t upset our Chinese economic allies - well, any brown face will do. After all, the Mandarin was created multiracial –- his father Chinese, his mother an English noblewoman — and Mr. Kingsley, himself biracial, has long played characters of various ethnicities (Prince of Persia anybody?). And if you’re going to do yellowface, its probably “safer” with another minority playing the role. Safer for the studios, but not for any of us who’ve had to live with the stereotypes hanging over our heads.