Press Perspective: Diversity in film starts with Hollywood

Sabrina Suen, Opinion Editor

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The acting world is notorious for its misrepresentation of cultures. The most iconic example is perhaps Disney’s Mulan, which features a traditional Chinese folk tale that is riddled with historical inaccuracy, including the use of Japanese style clothing and flags.
So when we heard that Renton’s McKnight Middle School was doing a performance of Mulan with two white actors cast as the leads, as an Asian American, I immediately felt a sense of alarm.
But to this concern, the administration of McKnight emphasized that they had done the appropriate research to accurately represent the story.
“We invited out school’s Equity Committee as part of the auditions to ensure we used an equity lens when making decisions including considering race and gender,” McKnight principal Brian Teppner said.
They were also keenly aware that this was simply a school play, and felt that the most important aspect was to encourage young actors.
“If we were performing this play in the most authentic way possible, using race as our only filter, we would have had to cast only students of Chinese decent. Just like sports or music, school plays are an opportunity for all students to learn and grow and try new avenues of expression,” Teppner said.

The Bigger Picture

But what this McKnight situation really opens up is a greater conversation about race and acting in general. Racial diversity and representation are issues that have haunted the acting industry for as long as it’s existed.
From the early Shakespearian plays that cast men in women’s roles because females were forbidden for acting, to the use of black-face to dehumanize African Americans as dumb and mute, to last year’s Oscars that prompted the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite for its lack of diverse nominations, Hollywood has had a long and arduous struggle with inclusion.
For an industry that is often celebrated for its liberal ideas and creative campaigns for advocacy, acting is a paradoxically exclusive profession. For every TV show that tries to break down barriers by casting strong, colored women as their lead, like ABC’s Scandal, there are thousands more that perpetuate the traditional white, male, attractive prototype.

Our Perspective

We agree with McKnight that when casting roles, merit should be the number one factor in the decision. Casting for diversity before merit may lead to discrimination of another kind, leading qualified actors to be set aside for less capable ones.
We also believe that Middle school plays are not where this battle should be raged. This discussion of racial diversity in film must start from the top up. Hollywood must become a leader by casting a more diverse pool of talented minority actors.
School plays, however, with their limited casting pool, are simply learning opportunities. Since McKnight took the appropriate steps to ensure that the play was done in an authentic way, we respect their decision. It would be unrealistic to ask a middle school to cast a truly authentic play. All students should be given an equal playing ground, especially in a learning environment.

However…

We also acknowledge that perhaps this small microscopic example of favoring white actors over Asian ones in a traditional Chinese play is a symptom of a greater problem. The issue lies in the fact that although merit must be the first priority, in the face of being unable to reach complete authenticity, we wonder if Mulan should be played at all.
There are some roles that are reserved for minority actors. For example, the Broadway musical Ragtime has an entirely African American cast because it is a story of their experiences of discrimination and hardship in American society. To cast any other race would be disrespectful and disingenuous.
Mulan, similarly, is a traditional story that emphasizes the Chinese values of Confucianism and filial piety. Just as Ragtime documents a uniquely African American experience, Mulan expresses a distinctively Chinese one. If a story cannot be done totally authentically, perhaps it is better to not do it at all. For a story that has been so misrepresented in western society, we wonder if McKnight should have gone for a less controversial play.
But at the end of the day, we know that this situation is not really a conversation about McKnight. It’s a much broader one that calls for Hollywood and society to start accepting a broader range of actors that truly represent the beautiful diversity of the American people.