That said, I’ll give it credit for the character of Mulan. Her story might be slightly fictionalized, especially compared to the person she’s based on, but she remains a feminist icon 18 years after her movie’s theatrical debut. In a time when Western animation was focusing on princess stories, thanks to the boom of The Disney Renaissance, Mulan featured a character who took the place of her ailing father in the war against the Huns, yet ended up saving all of China. That alone is worthy of a watch, even if not everything about the movie gels.
So when Disney announced they were planning a live-action remake of Mulan for 2018, I was excited. I’m not always the biggest fan of Disney’s live-action work, but their last three remakes have been solid efforts. Cinderella was on-par with the original, while The Jungle Book and Pete’s Dragon were vastly superior. Plus, it’ll have been 20 years between original and remake by the time it releases. The technology in Hollywood has improved since the late-90’s, so as long as the film stays true to what the original did so well, all-the-while offering a fresh approach, it should be fine. After all, what could possibly go wrong with this pre-
-Oh…time to discuss the elephant in the room!
If you’ll recall in my last blog, I mentioned that Tim Burton’s remarks about diverse casting in Hollywood, though offensive, were symptomatic of a bigger issue. It’s permeated Hollywood since its inception, only being challenged within the last 30 or so years. See, Hollywood is racist. You might not notice it, it’s gotten better at hiding it over time, but if you look at most of the big releases you’ll see that they overwhelmingly feature white actors and actresses. Minorities tend to fall to supporting roles unless the film in question deals with race issues. And even then, they sometimes get shafted in favour of white actors and actresses.
The weird exception, to an extent, is animation. While not always the case, there’s a larger push for representation, and it shows as early as Aladdin taking place in the Arabian Peninsula. It’s not perfect, the characters are often Americanized to appeal to Western sensibilities, but at least the push for diversity is present. Far more, I’d say, than in live-action, where the brand of the big-name celebrity is still rampant. In animation, you can get away with having minority nobodies in your lead roles because the audience doesn’t care. With live-action, however, it’s more complicated, and many live-action films are guilty of whitewashing.
This leads to the controversy I not-so-subtly linked above: in the live-action remake, according to an early leak, Mulan falls in love with a European sailor who saves the day. Ignoring that this spits in the face of the original film, the entirety of Mulan’s character is that she breaks from sexist norms and becomes a heroine, it whitewashes the cultural context in favour of a Pocahontas-style love story. It’s also incredibly lame, boring and 20 years outdated, especially by Disney standards. And yet, that it’s being considered by Disney, the same company that’s spent the last 10 years trying to buck its roots in favour of progressivism, is both sad and scary. Sad because it’s a huge step backwards, and scary because you’d think they’d have learned from Frozen’s billion+ dollar box-office record.
What IS whitewashing? It’s a process in which an event or person is made more digestible to certain people. In the case of film, it’s taking a role originally meant for a different race and giving it to a white person. Usually the person’s someone well-known and famous, although sometimes a lesser-known actor or actress is chosen too. The concept of whitewashing has been so frequently employed that it’s even happened in places you’d least expect. In this case, it’s happening to a story where the characters are Chinese.
“But wait!” you say. “Doesn’t animation cast white people all the time? Why doesn’t anyone comment on that?” While it’s true that that does happen, animation also has the advantage of drawn characters. The skin colour of your character’s VA isn’t what you immediately think of because it’s not what you see. Also, Mulan was a rare exception where most of the characters, even their singing voices, were voiced by Chinese-Americans, (and Eddie Murphy, because why not?).
“Okay,” you interject again, “but what about the reverse? Why is it okay for minorities to play white roles, and not the other way around?” I think this brilliant Tumblr post explains why that’s a bad counter-argument. Because while a Tilda Swinton or a Scarlett Johansson can easily find a different role than The Ancient One or Matoko Kusanagi, someone like Zendaya or Lucy Liu will have more difficulty in a mainstream role. Ergo, the latter two playing a character originally meant for a white actress isn’t as big a deal. Ideally, this wouldn’t be the case, but then parity of white roles to minority roles would also be even.
And that’s why this is a big deal: for as much as Hollywood touts itself as “progressive”, it can’t escape its seething racism problem. Directors, actors, screenwriters, even producers, are still largely white, and whenever there’s an exception it becomes incredibly difficult to make a mark. This even, unfortunately, extends to whitewashing. Which is a shame, as minority representation matters. There are so many other ethnicities that letting them have an impact would attract audience members who’d otherwise feel alienated.
Really and truly, it all boils down to Disney falling victim to whitewashing. We expect so much more from them, failing to grasp that they’re a corporation out to make money. But it’s not like there isn’t a way to fix this with enough demand. Because, like I said, Disney wants to succeed. As long as they see the big bucks in not going through with their original idea, there’s potential for a faithful remake of Mulan. I only hope they realize that before it’s too late, or I might end up skipping this one.