The original controversy surrounding the new Disney “Mulan” live-action remake has dissipated after the studio made its general casting call for an all-Chinese cast. Furthermore, the purchased script for the remake that portrays Mulan as a co-lead for a white, male trader was simply a jumping-off point for the film and is not indicative of the true storyline the new film will take. Although this seems like a success for the petitioners against any whitewashing of the casting for the adaptation, all the screenwriters and producers that have thus far been attached to the project are white. Though Disney has not yet found a director, Sony also has a live-action “Mulan” in the works, and has hired a white director: Alex Graves, best known for directing six episodes of “Game of Thrones.” Similarly, ‘diverse’ films such as “Loving” or the upcoming “Hidden Figures” are both written and directed by white people and feature predominantly white crews.
Major studios are able to get away with this lopsided hiring pattern because most people are only concerned with the image and final product of the film that is shown to the world. Even though it is easy to be satisfied by the appearance of diversity on screen, if the film is not produced or written by people who are familiar with the story and the culture that the movie is focused on, despite an all-Chinese cast, it will not be representative of the ideas that the protesters are fighting for. In other words, if this trend of white, male producers continues, “Mulan” could end up following an unrealistic or disrespectful storyline because the behind-the-scenes cast does not have the necessary knowledge of the story’s origins. Many controversies dealing with the portrayal of race and culture in film come not from a place of malicious intent, but one of ignorance.
One of the major problems with attempting to create a diverse cast and crew is that the public pays no attention to the men behind the curtain (and indeed, they are still mostly men) so long as they see diversity and semi-accurate, non-exploitative cultural representation on screen. While it is admirable that the masses are willing to fight against Hollywood to get the representation on-screen, in order to truly make a difference, the same level of importance must be placed on those working behind the scenes. Each individual that contributes to a production as large and significant as “Mulan” is able to influence millions of people around the world. If a Chinese cast is only a façade masking an entirely white production team, the result may not live up to its full potential of inspiring children, and even adults, of all ethnicities as the story of Mulan has before.
The underrepresentation of women in the production of the film is another major issue to grapple with as it is contradictory to have predominantly male crews producing a story of a women’s empowerment. Mulan has always been one of Disney’s original feminist characters. By not including as many women on the project, Disney would be missing a great opportunity to seize the public’s attention and cast a light on the disproportionately low hiring of women in Hollywood. In the past, major studios have more often than not simply taken the easier route of hypocritically advocating for diversity where the public has asked for it while quickly hiring white male writers, producers and directors for behind the scenes where the public is less vocal about hiring decisions. While some female writers have been hired for Disney’s “Mulan” reboot, all the producers announced thus far have been male.
Although the lack of diversity behind the project is not ideal, it does not necessarily mean the project cannot be accurate, respectful and inclusive. Many of those who have criticized the inclusion of only white producers and writers, such as Asian actress Judy Lei, also note that if the time and research is put into developing a realistic and respectful storyline, the movie is not inherently doomed. Yet, a lack of diversity behind the camera is ultimately still an issue as the diversity of both the movie and industry should always be represented equally on and off screen.
If public outrage begins to focus on all aspects of inclusive diversity, then maybe a truly diverse cast, crew and film can be created and lead toward a new trend in the hiring patterns within Hollywood. Establishing this new norm must be encouraged by people both inside and outside the industry to make sure that a new system is adopted and maintained in the future, a system where everyone can see themselves reflected in cinema, both in front of the camera and behind it.