We live in an interesting time in history. With the technology at our fingertips, the world has grown smaller much faster than it ever has before. All of a sudden, a world that once felt like it revolved around us opened up into something greater, and with that, we've had an unparalleled increase in cultural awareness. Twenty years ago, hardly anyone would bat an eye over a white man leading a film primarily set in a foreign land. Nor would it matter if we adapted a Japanese film to fit American sensibilities.
With this increased awareness, however, many are seeing these instances as inexcusable cases of whitewashing. There have been many culprits in the past few years. Ridley Scott's EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS faced ridicule, and the director argued that without familiar faces populating the screen, his film would have never been made. GODS OF EGYPT was also ridiculed -- but let's be real, that film had all kinds of other problems. Marvel's upcoming film DOCTOR STRANGE faced a bit of a backlash when they cast white actress Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One -- a role perfect for an Asian male. The director went so far as to apologize for that bit of casting. Add in the controversy surrounding Scarlett Johansson taking on the role of Major Kusanagi in the adaptation of the manga GHOST IN THE SHELL, and you really start to see a trend.
In the context of this trend, imagine the frustration audiences had when they watched a trailer for the film THE GREAT WALL (apart from the fact that there were dragons in it). The flick's titular Great Wall is none other than the world-famous Great Wall of China, so one could expect a Chinese-heavy cast. The film seemed to deliver on this expectation, but partway through the trailer, we had glimpses of none other than Matt Damon at the forefront of the film. What was someone like Matt Damon doing at the forefront of a China-based film set in a fantastical past? Audiences were confused. Some, even angry.
Constance Wu, actress in the TV series FRESH OFF THE BOAT, went so far as to say the film was “perpetuating the racist myth that only a white man can save the world. Our heroes don’t look like Matt Damon.”
And then there was the capper of the whole thing that made it all the more confusing: the film was actually directed by acclaimed Chinese HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS filmmaker Zhang Yimou. Why would a director with such clout do this?
In a statement to EW, Zhang addressed the controversy directly.
"In many ways THE GREAT WALL is the opposite of what is being suggested. For the first time, a film deeply rooted in Chinese culture, with one of the largest Chinese casts ever assembled, is being made at tent pole scale for a world audience. I believe that is a trend that should be embraced by our industry. Our film is not about the construction of the Great Wall. Matt Damon is not playing a role that was originally conceived for a Chinese actor. The arrival of his character in our story is an important plot point. There are five major heroes in our story and he is one of them — the other four are all Chinese. The collective struggle and sacrifice of these heroes are the emotional heart of our film. As the director of over 20 Chinese language films and the Beijing Olympics, I have not and will not cast a film in a way that was untrue to my artistic vision. I hope when everyone sees the film and is armed with the facts they will agree."
I guess the lesson to take away from this is that we should probably reserve judgment on a film until we've seen it -- or at least until we know more about the premise. Sometimes we should give credit to the filmmaker to make the right decision, and from the sound of it, Zhang knows what he's doing.
At the same time, perhaps the folks marketing THE GREAT WALL should take note. They should do a better job of portraying just how someone like Matt Damon would fit into the story, because the way it was cut in the trailer was all kinds of jarring and awful. In all honesty, it wasn't even about giving Chinese actors a chance to play roles in Hollywood films, but an instance where seeing Matt Damon in the middle of these Chinese battles simply took me out of the story.
What do you think about all this? Are folks being too sensitive? Let us know your thoughts in the comments down below!
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