“How do we have a real conversation in 2020?”
I spoke to the award-winning director exclusively about the framing of her response to her frustration of the news of the upcoming Lang Lang biopic
When it was announced this week that Oscar-winning filmmaker Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind) would be helming the biopic of famed Chinese pianist Lang Lang, it was met with some pushback on social media. In an era of increased demand for artists being able to tell their own stories, the idea of a white, American director helming this story and from a script by white screenwriters Michele Mulroney and Kieran Mulroney – whose few credits to date include the Power Rangers movie and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows – drew more than a few raised eyebrows.
The film will be adapted from the memoir Journey of a Thousand Miles by Lang (who is executive producing and gave Howard his blessing) and David Ritz. “Lang Lang’s story is one of determination, passion, sacrifice, and finding the inner strength to beat the odds. This film is a bridge between two cultures that share universal truths about the gauntlets we face in the pursuit of greatness,” said producer Brian Grazer and Howard in a joint statement. “Kieran and Michele are the ideal storytellers to help bring this story to audiences around the world.”
But how are the Mulroney’s “the ideal storytellers” about a culture and a climate they’re distinctly not a part of? Is it simply enough to crack open a history book and bullet point elements of Chinese history and culture and do it from a Western perspective?
This was a question raised by Spirit Award-winning writer/director Lulu Wang (The Farewell) when she questioned the choice of Howard to direct.
“As a classically-trained pianist born in China, I believe it’s impossible to tell Lang Lang’s story without an intimate understanding of Chinese culture + the impact of the Cultural Revolution on artists & intellectuals + the effects of Western imperialism. Just saying.”
Visibly and understandably frustrated, she continued, saying, “Have we learned NOTHING from Mulan? I haven’t said anything because yes representation and many people I love are involved, but I just have to. Just HAVE to. Because 2020 man… and I’m fucking exhausted.” While most responses were met with support, some missed the mark entirely with comments like “But what about The Last Emperor?” in an example irony truly being dead in social media. Wang highlighted that her comments were not that she had any interest in directing the film herself, simply that “I just don’t think these are the artists to grapple w/ the cultural specificities of Northeast China where Lang Lang (and my family) are from. Or w/ the cultural aspect of the physical violence in his upbringing.”
What followed however, was how some media outlets chose to frame her comments, turning them into clickbait headlines like ‘Lulu Wang SLAMS Ron Howard.’ I spoke to Wang about those headlines and how they lend themselves to the wrong narratives. “I think the ‘Lulu Wang criticizes Ron Howard’ headline is reductive,” Wang told me. “That the press is contributing to polarizing this country for the sake of clicks.” She told me that numerous outlets reached out to her for a statement but weren’t interested in letting her take her time and instead published quick articles. “It should not be a divisive issue to simply question the thoughtfulness and authenticity of the perspective behind a story. In media today, it’s all about speed and profit, rather than thoughtfulness or nuance. In rushing a story with divisive headlines, the media is participating in perpetuating the dangerous narratives that further the divide rather than promote nuance and true understanding,” she said.
“This isn’t about Ron Howard. I like Ron Howard. But we should all be more frustrated with not having options outside of orange chicken,” she said. That last part referenced her deft metaphor on Twitter at why the cross-culturism of storytelling can be detrimental.
“Everyone knows that for great Chinese food in America, look for 1) Chinese people in the kitchen 2) Chinese in the dining room. Does this mean no one else can make this food? Of course not. I happen to love orange chicken. But isn’t it time we all expect more than orange chicken?” she tweeted. And, in true social media fashion, even that went over the heads of some people. “In case it’s not clear, this is a metaphor. I am not actually talking about food,” Wang followed up.
She concluded saying, “…my phone lines are always open to anyone who cares to have meaningful conversation about how we can work together to expand the scope of perspectives in the narratives that shape our entire culture.”
Just a few weeks ago, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who puts on the Oscars, announced sweeping new rules in their commitment to increasing diversity and visibility with not just the awards but the films that are able to earn them. Beginning in 2024, films that want to be nominated for Best Picture will have to achieve multiple standards of inclusivity in front of and behind the camera with regards to women, LGBTQ+, those with disabilities and people of color.
Wang herself recently participated in Academy Dialogues: It Starts With Us series – “Owning Our Stories” – to talk about just that, who gets to tell the stories of specific cultures and why, which you can watch in full below.
Wang is currently in pre-production on the series The Expatriates for Amazon Studios, starring Nicole Kidman and based on the novel of the same name by Janice Y.K. Lee, and is a look at the personal and professional lives of a tight-knit group of American expatriate women living in Hong Kong.