The Walt Disney Co. announced earlier this year that a live-action version of the animated movie “Mulan” is currently in the process of production. However, the announcement of the actress who was to play the main character received public backlash and has broadened a larger conversation of the inequality in Hollywood film casting.
Disney released the original animated movie “Mulan” in 1998, and it eventually became the second-highest grossing film in that year. Disney cast Ming-Na, a Macau-American, to voice Mulan in the 1998 film. The main character, Mulan, defies her father’s wishes and dons a soldier’s uniform to take the place of her father within the Chinese army.
On the announcement of the live-action film, a preemptive petition was created to avoid Disney casting a non-Asian actress as the lead character. This petition entitled “Tell Disney You Don’t Want a Whitewashed Mulan” grows out of previous casting decisions that have cast white actors for characters who are not white. The remake of the popular Japanese film “Ghost in the Shell” received heavy backlash when Scarlett Johannson was cast as the main character. Further issues with casting came when white actress Rooney Mara played Tiger Lily, the Native American princess, in 2014 live-action “Peter Pan.”
“White-washing is a process whereby black characters, but also non-white characters, will be played by white actors,” said Emma Dabiri, cultural commentator and race expert, for CNN.
“Mulan” and “Ghost in the Shell” are not the first movies to be criticized of white-washing and misrepresenting people of color on screen. In 1963, Elizabeth Taylor famously portrayed the Egyptian princess Cleopatra, and Mickey Rooney portrayed a caricature of a Japanese man in the 1961 “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” with Paramount since calling the casting “a toxic caricature.”
Black actors also face the repercussions of white-washing in Hollywood. Dabiri explains that lighter-skinned, mixed race or biracial actors are often sought after to portray black characters. She mentions the upcoming Nina Simone biopic as an example of white-washing black characters. The actress Zoe Saldana was recently cast to play the singer who faced opposition for not meeting the typical Eurpoean standards associated with black musicians at the time. Dabiri says that Simone would not have lived the life she had if she had resembled the lighter-skinned Saldana.
The screenwriter of “Ghost in the Shell,” Max Landis, took to YouTube to explain the casting decision of the main character.
“There are no A-List female Asian celebrities right now on an international level,” Landis said.
In a piece for the New York Times, Keith Chow admonished that way of thinking, citing that movies that are ethnically more diverse create more box office revenue than those that have an all-white cast. Further more, Chow asks readers that if there are not any prominent minority actors in Hollywood, how are they to build their reputation if they are not even cast in large productions?
“For those in power, it’s on you to create stars who aren’t just straight white guys. They’re gonna be fine — there are so many roles for handsome white guys and God bless them, they’re great at what they do. That’s why it’s especially infuriating when there are specific Asian roles — those are so few and far between — and you choose not to [cast an Asian actor]. This person [could have been] the only Asian female lead in a movie all year,” said Alan Yang, a co-creator of the Emmy-award-winning “Master of None.”