Casting Matt Damon in The Great Wall isn’t White Washing

We need to get it right.

When I first heard that Matt Damon had been cast in The Great Wall, a film set in – you guessed it, China, I was pissed off. I was ready to partake in the outcry against whitewashing and lump Matt Damon in with the other problematic actors that have also been perpetrators. Actors like Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), THE ENTIRE CAST OF EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS (2014), Laurence Oliver in Othello (1965) and Rooney Mara in Pan (2015) have all been guilty of whitewashing non-white characters.

I was convinced Hollywood had whitewashed yet again.

That was, until more details emerged about the plot, and most recently, the trailer, for The Great Wall and I realised something different may be going on. Something a little different, but something just as harmful.

First, let’s look at what we know about The Great Wall so far:

  • It’s being directed by a Chinese director, Zhang Yimou (House of Flying Daggers, Curse of the Golden Flower).
  • It’s due for release in 2017.
  • It’s about Matt Damon joining the fight to protect the Great Wall of China from a bunch of monsters.
  • A few of the most prominently featured characters in the trailer are played by non-asians.
  • The visual effects look really cool.

So, you may be asking, what’s going on? What’s my point?

My point is that The Great Wall isn’t guilty of whitewashing; it’s guilty of what is known as the White Saviour Complex.

Fresh Off the Boat star Constance Wu, offers an explanation of the problem, ‘the racist myth that [only a] white man can save the world”

In my opinion, the White Saviour Complex is intrinsically connected with whitewashing, and is therefore just as harmful in perpetuating harmful attitudes regarding race.

In the trailer for the Great Wall, Matt Damon is locked up by Tian Jing’s character, but as soon as the monsters start attacking the Great Wall, he manages to convince everyone that they need his help to stop these things. He does this by firing a couple of arrows into a pillar and catching a bowl with them.

Are you serious? Matt Damon can fire some arrows accurately and so is therefore necessary to saving the Great Wall of China? Is that what you’re selling me?

It’s incredibly interesting that a Chinese director is directing the film, considering the backlash surrounding it, and apparently in China, the reaction has been far less heated.

In an IndieWire article, titled ‘The Great Wall’: Why The Matt Damon Whitewashing Is No Big Deal In China, Chinese-American producer says, “In China, Chinese are the majority… They don’t have this feeling of representation which people of minority backgrounds would feel in the United States.”

In the same article, Wang Xiaoyi, a film editor in China, says, “So out of five heroes, there’s one who’s not Chinese.”

It’s obvious that Matt Damon’s casting was motivated by financial reasons, to make the film more marketable to Western audiences. It all reinforces the racist structures holding the white male saviour on a pedestal in Hollywood.

Director, Zhang Yimou, tells audiences to wait before they judge, explaining that “there are five major heroes in our story and he is one of them — the other four are all Chinese.”

Which is fair enough, but the fact that the trailer focussed on the three white characters doesn’t seem promising.

Finally, Matt Damon’s reaction to the controversy was…. Well, disappointing – “It was a f***ing bummer”. Sorry, Matt? It was a bummer that a bunch of people aren’t accepting your white hero, complete with an American accent, in a story set in China??

Constance Wu says it better than me: “Our heroes don’t look like Matt Damon. They look like Malala. Ghandi. Mandela. Your big sister when she stood up for you to those bullies that one time. We don’t need salvation. We like our color and our culture and our strengths and our own stories.”

We aren’t all white, especially our heroes.





(Featured Image courtesy of The Great Wall)


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