Poor Matt Damon. All the actor wanted to do was help a Chinese film become a Hollywood blockbuster. And, to be clear, he is not exactly the only non-Asian in the film. But I'll get to that later. After the first poster and trailer arrived for The Great Wall, there was little to no clarification of who Damon's character actually was. Yes, he's a white guy fighting alongside Chinese warriors to prevent the invasion of some sort of computer-generated lizard creature. One could have assumed he was the army's general, and the notion really pissed people off. Whatever the background of the character was, it was clear that this white guy was a hero amongst Asians. In a Hollywood that is currently working to match on-screen representation with the diversity seen in the real world, this didn't sit well for some.
With Tilda Swinton already taking flack for her whitewashing of The Ancient One in Doctor Strange, it is fair to say that Matt Damon at least had an idea of what was about to come his way. Though I'd normally let the actor slide considering that he was just hired to play a role, Damon's past political activism at least earns him a faded stamp of "hypocrite". I'm still a big fan of the guy, it's just when you dabble in politics the hypocrisies know no bound. We should also expect this latest piece of drama to be new fodder for Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who just love to make fun of the actor. But back to the whole whitewashing thing.
While there was a general negative opinion towards The Great Wall and Matt Damon shortly after the film's marketing began, nothing hit harder than Constance Wu. Star of Fresh off the Boat, the actress went on a rant that, though I understand her frustrations, allowed her emotions to block common sense.
Constance Wu Criticizes Whitewashing
Can we all at least agree that hero-bias & "but it's really hard to finance" are no longer excuses for racism? TRY pic.twitter.com/mvNet5PrtH
— Constance Wu (@ConstanceWu) July 29, 2016
Showing a detachment from the entire concept of business, she posted the tweet above. The post also featured her Facebook rant, which contains the snippets below. To kick things off, she overlooks the entire purpose of a business entity.
Money is the lamest excuse in the history of being human. So is blaming the Chinese investors. (POC's choices can be based on unconscious bias too) Remember it's not about blaming individuals, which will only lead to soothing their lame "b-but I had good intentions! but...money!" microaggressive excuses.
Forgetting that casting decisions are mostly based on ability to generate revenue, she fails to acknowledge that, after the talent is paid, the studio/company is now working to make their investment back. What helps make that investment back? Recognizable faces. It's annoying, debatable, but true. To be upset that decisions are made to appease investors is incredibly naive. Investors invest in something for one reason only: to see a return on investment. An investment does not exist to appease everybody. To think people risk money so they can, in the words of The Prestige, see the looks on peoples faces, is wrong. She goes on...
Think only a huge movie star can sell a movie? That that has NEVER been a total guarantee. Why not TRY to be better? If white actors are forgiven for having a box office failure once in a while, why can't a POC sometimes have one? And how COOL would it be if you were the movie that took the "risk" to make a POC as your hero, and you sold the shit out of it?!
New Trailer and NYCC Allow Damon Response to Whitewashing
She forgets that the risk is not that of the talent, but that of those funding to produce the movie. She is demanding that others take the risks to satisfy her demands. If she really appreciates risk, she should fund a movie with her own money and can therefore make all the casting decisions. But I digress...
Movie stars are titled so because they sell movies. Save for a few bad investments, the whole purpose of being a movie star is box office draw. She is correct in that they are never a total guarantee. But they are pretty dang close. In a fair world, the person with the best acting chops should be paid more. Sure, an artsy fairytale way to look at it. But, in the real world, the people cast and paid more are typically the ones who draw in viewers and bring larger returns on investment. Which brings us to Matt Damon.
The new trailer for The Great Wall gives a better explanation of Damon's character. He's an outsider who has traveled to China in search of a weapon. So he's a white guy playing a white guy at least. No stretch of the imagination there.
Will he eventually become the hero? Partially and, though likely cliche, he has to be. Here's what Damon had to say about it while at NYCC. Transcript courtesy of ComingSoon.
Matt Damon Butthurt By Great Wall Whitewashing Criticism
“Yeah, it was a fuckin’ bummer. I had a few reactions. I was surprised, I guess because it was based on a teaser, it wasn’t even a full trailer let alone a movie. To get those charges levied against you... What bummed me out is I read The Atlantic religiously and there was an article in The Atlantic. I was like, ‘Really, guys?’ To me whitewashing was when Chuck Connors played Geronimo. (laughs) There are far more nuanced versions of it and I do try to be sensitive to that, but Pedro Pascal called me and goes, ‘Yeah, we are guilty of whitewashing. We all know only the Chinese defended the wall against the monster attack.'”
The Atlantic is a liberal publication focusing on politics and culture. If there is a list of guaranteed publications to go after whitewashing, this would be one of them. The article Damon refers to sides with Wu, and like her favors emotion and "fairness" over any realistic business practice. And, while Damon somewhat jokes about the accusations the magazine makes, he does take the complaints seriously.
“Look, it was nice to react a little sarcastically because we were wounded by it,” Damon continued. “We do take that seriously.”
Damon goes on to explain that the teaser trailer did not have time to explain his character, causing his role to be overstated. That's fair, except the new trailer confirms that, while he is definitely playing an "outsider", he's still the likely hero in the film. The Great Wall does feature other non-Chinese castmembers such as Pedro Pascal and Willem Dafoe. Pedro Pascal has built a following out of Game of Thrones, and just about everybody knows Willem Dafoe. Will having a few more "white" faces sell more tickets? Probably, yes.
The Great Wall Catch-22
And this brings the catch-22. While there are those such as Constance Wu who are upset that the most expensive Chinese film will feature a non-Chinese hero, this whitewashing enables the film to get wide domestic distribution. If Matt Damon wasn't the star, The Atlantic would have never heard of the film, let alone have a chance to go all PC principal (South Park reference) on it. If the film's cast was entirely Chinese or international, you wouldn't see the film's trailers featured on film sites as often. And forget having a wide release. So a film that cost around $125 million to make played it safe to ensure two things: That audiences will go see it and those who invested will get their money back.
If there is a positive way to spin this, it is that increasing viewership will give domestic audiences a better introduction to the likes of Andy Lau, Eddie Peng and many other Chinese actors. It also looks like Damon will be only one in a group of heroes, all the rest of which are Chinese. It's not a win, but it's a start.
Considering that the Asian culture is less represented statistically than the black culture in Hollywood, and we all remember how much beef the media about that last year, I sympathize with The Atlantic and Constance Wu. But, if they really want to see financial risks taken, they should stop pointing fingers.