Matt Damon Responds to ‘The Great Wall’ Whitewashing Controversy
When the first teaser trailer for The Great Wall debuted this summer, much of the internet responded in a collective thinking face emoji, wondering, why is a white dude the hero of an action movie set in China?
It’s an criticism that’s circulated a lot this year Hollywood, especially around the the casting of Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange, Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, and Finn Jones in Iron Fist. The Great Wall, from Chinese director Zhang Yimou, is the most expensive movie ever made in China and follows Matt Damon defending the 13,000-mile wall against a monster attack. The Atlantic called out the film for whitewashing, while actress Constance Wu tweeted that the films need to “stop perpetuating the racist myth” of the white savior narrative.
During the press conference for The Great Wall following the film’s New York Comic-Con panel on Saturday, Damon was asked about his response the controversy. “It was a f–king bummer,” he said. But Damon wasn’t expecting the backlash, which he says he and the cast felt “wounded” by. “To me, whitewashing, I think of Chuck Connors when he played Geronimo.” The actor went on to defend the teaser, saying it’s too brief of a look to speak for the entire movie and shouldn’t be subjected to the same level of criticism:
They’re trying to establish a number of things in 30 seconds or a minute or whatever they have; it’s not a full length trailer, it’s a teaser. They’re trying to tease A, the monster. […] They’re trying to speak to a bigger audience. ‘You probably don’t know who this director is in Middle America, the Steven Spielberg of China. Don’t worry, they speak English in this movie’ – you hear my voice speaking English. ‘Don’t worry, Matt’s in the movie, you’ve seen this guy before.’ So they’re trying to establish all these things. And by the way, there are monsters. So there’s a lot of pipe they’re trying to lay in that 30 seconds.
Besides the limited footage in the teaser, Damon emphasized that the movie isn’t based on actual history, but on folklore. He said his co-star Pedro Pascal, (Narcos, Game of Thrones) called him after the backlash joking, “Yeah, we are guilty of whitewashing. We all know that only the Chinese defended the wall against the monsters when they attacked.” Pedro chimed in at the press conference to say that The Great Wall is still a film made from the perspective of a Chinese filmmaker:
We don’t want people to be kept from work that they wouldn’t have the opportunity otherwise, to see that it is very, very specifically Chinese. It’s Zhang Yimou’s lens. It is a creature feature. It’s a big, fantastical popcorn entertainment movie. But it has a visual style that is very very much his and his only.
By the look of the first full The Great Wall trailer that debuted at Comic-Con today, the movie certainly looks like Yimou’s work, with a use of color and stylistic visuals similar to the director’s Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Yimou, through a translator, mentioned earlier in the press conference that the film is based on an ancient Chinese fairy tale about a monster even older than dragons. Yimou responded to the controversy earlier this year telling Entertainment Weekly that Damon plays one of five heroes in the movie, four of which are Chinese characters. “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,” Yimou said.
But while The Great Wall may be based on a made up story, does that disqualify it from criticisms of playing into the white savior trope? Damon added that he’s still open to criticism, but that he wants audiences to see the movie first:
Look, if people see this movie and feel like there’s some how whitewashing involved in a creature feature that we made up, I will listen to that with my whole heart. I will think about that and I will try to learn from that. I will be surprised if people see this movie and have that reaction, I will be genuinely shocked. It’s a perspective that, as a progressive person I really do agree with and try to listen to and try to be sensitive to, but ultimately I feel like you are undermining your own credibility when you attack something without seeing it. I think you have to educate yourself about what it is, and then make your attack, or your argument and then it’s easier to listen to just from our sides.
The Great Wall also stars Jing Tian, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau and Chinese boy band member Junkai Wang. The film hits theaters February 17, 2017.