Unlike movies such as Ghost in the Shell, where white actress Scarlett Johansson was cast as an Asian monk, Disney somewhat got its act together with the casting of the live-action remake of Mulan. The inclusive cast and production team features Liu Yifei, Jet Li, Donnie Yen, Utkarsh Ambudkar, and Yoson An, showing Disney’s conscious effort to cast more people of color (POC). Contrary to other popular movies, Mulan will not be participating in the long history of Hollywood yellowface, the practice of casting white people to play exaggerated East and South East Asian characters in a demeaning and stereotypical fashion. However, Mulan still has yet to fulfill hopes of a representative behind-the-scenes cast– a common pitfall of many Hollywood productions. For example, a 2014 study reported that less than 13% of directing jobs went to POC, and less than 4% of broadcast show creators were of color. The representation problem extends beyond just the camera lens.
Niki Caro, the director of Mulan, is a white woman from New Zealand who has been criticized for making movies outside of her cultural experience. In an interview about her film, Whale Rider, featuring a Maori girl, she said, “I’m not Maori and have no business, as a white girl, telling people how to be in this movie.” She later describes her experience of going to visit a Maori community as “in service of the truth,” which Caro denies as sounding like cultural anthropology. When asked again about her cultural involvement in Mulan, Caro said she would work with cultural experts and expressed “that cultural authenticity and specificity is the only way to approach my work.”
Caro displays awareness about her lack of cultural background, but she refuses to see herself as part of the problem of white people telling POC’s stories. As only the second woman to be directing a movie with a budget over $100 million, Caro is placed in the precocious position of breaking gender barriers, but at the same time, her position of power is also holding back potential Asian directors. If Caro was as “woke” as she seems, perhaps staying back and withdrawing her name from consideration would have opened up a spot for an Asian woman to break directing barriers (no Asian women were reportedly considered).
The script of Mulan was also written by two white women, Elizabeth Martin and Lauren Hynek. The writing pair has produced other appropriated works for theater, like We Will Rise: Selections from The Afghan Women’s Writing Project. When writing the script for Mulan, they endeavored to write “a story about a strong woman of color who gets to be the hero.” Martin and Hynek then sold the script to Disney. For some reason, they felt competent enough to write a script about women of color’s experiences, without having to undergo the challenges women of color face on a day-to-day basis. In these instances, Caro, Martin, and Hynek all had no hesitancy about being in charge of an Asian story despite not having any connections to Asian culture or history. As women, they felt they could relate to the title character of Mulan, and without foundation for this belief whatsoever, they had the confidence that they could learn enough about the culture to produce an “authentic” movie.
Representation and an inclusive set stretch well beyond who is in front of the camera. To have a truly successful TV show or movie that addresses a different culture in any aspect, all parts of the show must include people of color. That is what makes TV shows and movies like Black Panther, Fresh Off the Boat, Insecure, and The Joy Luck Club so revered. All parts of their production are touched by people who have experience and expertise with the culture. Otherwise, like with Mulan, Hollywood continues to produce lopsided shows with POC portraying white fantasies of what a person of color’s world really is.