Director Zhang Yimou's fantasy film The Great Wall caused a bit of controversy when the first promos featuring Matt Damon were released. Speaking with press at New York Comic Con this past weekend, the actor addressed the concerns over his casting.
The American-Chinese co-production from Legendary East stars Damon (in a role Justice League's Henry Cavill was once in talks for), Pedro Pascal, Andy Lau, Jing Tian, and Willem Dafoe. The teaser trailer for the film really drove home that Damon was the center of the story based in China which led many, including Fresh Off the Boat's Constance Wu, to speak out about the “white savior” trend. “We have to stop perpetuating the racist myth that only a white man can save the world,” she said in part.
CBR.com was at a NYCC press conference for the film where Damon said the reaction was a “bummer,” going on to say:
“I had a few reactions,” he continued. “I was surprised, I guess because it was based on a teaser. It wasn”t even a full trailer, let alone a movie. So, to get those charges levied against you … What bummed me out really is I read The Atlantic religiously and there was an article in The Atlantic. I was like, ‘Really, guys?” To me whitewashing, I think of Chuck Connors when he played Geronimo. Look 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 monsters when they attacked.””
The assembled press laughed, and Pascal was quick to jump in with a joking, “I never said that! Don”t quote me!”
“Look,” Damon continued with a chuckle, “it was nice to react a little sarcastically because we were wounded by it. We do take that seriously. That”s a serious thing.”
To be clear, The Great Wall isn't a case of whitewashing (though that's an equally terrible and pervasive issue in Hollywood) since Damon isn't playing a traditionally Asian role in the story they created. But the actor's face being emblazoned on a poster and seemingly playing the guy who will help the Chinese cast in the monster problem they've yet been able to solve does fall under the “white savior” trope.
Damon went on to defend the reasoning behind the initial marketing:
“I thought of it from [the marketing team's] perspective. Like, OK, they”re trying to establish a number of things within 30 seconds or a minute, or however much they had. It”s not a full-length trailer; it”s a teaser. They”re trying to tease a) the monster, right? They”re trying to say, ‘Look, it”s a visionary filmmaker that you probably don”t know.” They”re trying to speak to a bigger audience, not like us,” he said, gesturing to the press corps well aware of Yimou”s films “Hero,” “The House of Flying Daggers” and “Flowers of War.” “But a bigger audience. ‘They probably don”t know who this director is in Middle America, right? He”s the Steven Spielberg of China, right? Don”t worry! They speak English in this movie.” So 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. Then that”s 30 seconds and you”re done, you know what I mean?”
Here, Damon presents the larger issue at hand. That Hollywood audiences haven't been presented with enough stories featuring Asian actors to accept a film like this without his face as an introduction. Will The Great Wall help break the barrier holding Hollywood back or just continue the thinking that a famous white face is needed to sell a film? As Wu said in her plea, “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 s–t out of it?! The whole community would be celebrating!!”
For his part, director Yimou has said Damon is just one of give major heroes in the film and that the other four are Chinese. “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,” he said. “I believe that is a trend that should be embraced by our industry.”
Here's the full trailer they debuted at NYCC. While it still puts Damon at its center, it certainly fills us in on more of the story and other characters.