After thousands of worried fans signed petitions and took to Twitter with the hashtag #MakeMulanRight to protest Disney’s whitewashing of Mulan’s live-action remake, the entertainment conglomerate seems to finally have gotten back on the right track. This week, in response to talk of the remake featuring a white male love interest, a source confirmed to Vanity Fair that the remake will indeed feature all-Chinese leads. However, while this is certainly noteworthy, not only was the spark of the discussion yet another symptom of Hollywood’s rampant racism, but multiple ethical issues with the spec script still remain that must be addressed in order for the remake to be worthy of its predecessor.
Based on the legendary Chinese warrior Hua Mulan, the original 1998 film is the textbook example for Asian representation done right in the American entertainment industry. A classic American coming-of-age tale imbued with Chinese values and culture, the animation follows a misfit girl from a remote Chinese village who masquerades as a man in the Imperial army to spare her injured veteran father from conscription. At first, she doesn’t seem like much of a heroine as she struggles to bring honor to her family and ancestors, but as her story progresses she develops seemingly endless reserves of strength, ingenuity and bravery that propel her on to eventually become savior of China. In a vast sea of films that either misrepresent Asians or reduce the female lead to a damsel in distress, the original Mulan movie is a beacon of hope. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the spec script serving as the springboard for the remake.
Considering the original’s triumphs, the spec script can only be described as an utter perversion of the story. As one film industry worker who read the script wrote on the blog Angry Asian Man, “The man is a 30-something European trader who initially cares only for the pleasure of women and money. The only reason why he and his entourage decide to help the Chinese Imperial Army is because he sets eyes on [a teenage] Mulan. That’s right. Our white savior has come to the aid of Ancient China due to a classic case of Yellow Fever… To top it all off, this man gets the honor of defeating the primary enemy of China, not Mulan.” This was confirmed on twitter by Asian actor Joel de la Fuente, who tweeted, “@angryasianman I can back you up on what you’re saying. I confirm everything you said about that draft.”
Not only is the spec script’s plot racist, pedophilic and demeaning, but it destroys everything Mulan has come to represent, especially to young Asian-American viewers. Where is our female heroine? Where is our honor, where is our sacrifice for family? Most importantly– where is the Mulan we have come to know, love, and look to? In the spec, she is but the object of affection of a powerful older man, who comes to the rescue of her nation in a move reminiscent of colonialism. Of course the white merchant has to play savior for the Asian country—however else would China be defended? Certainly not by a graceful and courageous female warrior from China with the guts and intellect to lead an army; obviously she and her poor helpless nation are just waiting for a foreigner, with all his industrialized superiority, to swoop in and save the day. The white merchant very conveniently does just this—and all for a girl, to boot. Ridiculous.
Luckily, Disney has hired new writers, screenwriting power couple Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, known to have worked together on a Jurassic World script that originally featured Asian main characters. Perhaps with their influence, Mulan’s live remake could reach its fullest potential – but it’s too early in the production process to tell for sure.
Given Hollywood’s long history of racism, evident in the numerous whitewashed or racially-stereotyped characters and films it continues to relentlessly churn out to this day, Mulan’s brush with whitewashing is no trivial matter. In a world where the prominence of entertainment in our culture has given films the ability to shape our attitudes and behavior, the industry’s racial representation issues need to be talked about and dealt with. After the recent failures of films like 2015’s Pan, which saw white actress Rooney Mara playing a traditionally Native American role, as well as 2010’s The Last Airbender— filled with white actors taking on Asian characters—it would be a tragedy to see the live-action Mulan join the ranks of whitewashed box-office flops. While many in the industry still believe casting well-known white actors in non-white roles may boost sales, this has not proved to be the case in recent years. Forbes writer Scott Mendelson points out, ”there really is no good reason not to actually cast ethnically “correct” actors and actresses, especially when you’re not dealing with outright “open a movie” box office draws… nor does it make much of a case that doing such a thing for financial considerations is in any way a plausible argument. What’s at stake is the notion that a white actor, any white actor no matter how limited their box office muscle may be, is preferable to casting an ethnically correct actor in a given movie.”
With two years still to go until its scheduled release, there’s still hope for the Mulan remake—while Disney has yet to cast any roles and the final plot is still up in the air, the studio seems appreciative of its fans’ feedback. The studio is conducting an international search for the perfect Chinese girl to portray the title character, and recently entertainment news has been covering the hunt for an Asian director worthy of the project. With all the right decisions this new Mulan will certainly be a force to be reckoned with as a project backed by Disney’s legendary storytelling. Now it’s up to them to make those good decisions, continue to find the best people to fill each role both behind and in front of the camera, and make the film stand for much more than the sum of its parts. Dear Disney: don’t make Mulan white, make Mulan right. If not—as Mushu would put it, dishonor on you, dishonor on your cow!
Mulan’s live-action remake is set to hit theaters November 2, 2018.
This article was written by Jade Carraway, a writer for dusk magazine.