The poster for The Great Wall, an epic Chinese-American co-production coming out next February, is remarkable simply for managing to say so much about the film industry today with so little detail. The frame is filled by Matt Damon’s sweaty face, backgrounded by the Great Wall of China, engulfed in battle. “1700 Years to Build; 5550 Miles Long; What Were They Trying to Keep Out?” the tagline asks. “MATT DAMON,” the billing beneath it seems to reply.
The Great Wall may well represent the next step in Hollywood economics: A film made by one of the country’s greatest directors (Zhang Yimou), shot on location in China and telling a story about the Northern Song Dynasty, while starring one of Hollywood’s biggest names. The Great Wall, with a budget of $135 million, is the most expensive Chinese film ever made. As China becomes a bigger and bigger part of the overall box-office market, it makes sense that Hollywood would produce more films designed to appeal directly to the country’s audiences.
But the poster alone has sparked an outcry that the film’s creators should have seen coming from 5,500 miles away—especially given all the recent attention paid to the industry’s lack of diversity in front of and behind the camera. The Great Wall is now the most dramatic example of whitewashing: Though it’s rooted in Chinese history and culture, and is made by a Chinese director and studio, the film is already relying solely on the face of a well-known white American actor to sell its story.
Damon is, by all accounts, a well-meaning guy with left-leaning politics, but he’s already once been embroiled in a debate over Hollywood’s institutional racism after a much-discussed episode of his HBO filmmaking show Project Greenlight. Now, less than a year later, the man who lectured the African-American producer Effie Brown over the limits of diversity in Hollywood is the face of a film that embodies all of the industry’s worst tendencies, by yet again putting a white American actor at the center of another culture’s story.
The film’s trailer is by all accounts spectacular; Zhang is known as one of Chinese cinema’s greatest visual stylists for a reason. But Damon speaks the only lines, and is the only actor billed, despite the presence of Chinese-language cinema legends like Andy Lau and Zhang Hanyu. One imagines that in China, the advertising will tell a different story, and the poster won’t be as Damon-dominant. Hollywood has been not-so-subtly featuring Asian actors and locations in many of its recent blockbusters to appeal to a wider market.
Transformers: Age of Extinction, the fourth in the sci-fi action series, was released to poor reviews in 2014 and was the franchise’s lowest grosser in the United States. But in China, it was the most successful film in the country’s history, partly because its final act was shot in China (including some segments by the Great Wall and the extended destruction of Hong Kong). Iron Man 3 contained an extra four minutes of footage that were only shown in China, including an obvious bit of product placement for the popular drink Gu Li Duo. Both films, like The Great Wall, were partly financed with Chinese money; both, of course, featured white American stars (Mark Wahlberg and Robert Downey Jr. respectively).
Still, you could be forgiven for thinking a film about the Great Wall of China, set in the 11th century, would rely somewhat less on typical A-listers—perhaps featuring a diverse ensemble cast. Amid the maelstrom of criticism that greeted the poster and trailer, the Taiwanese American actress Constance Wu (and star of the ABC sitcom Fresh Off the Boat) stood out for her blistering condemnation of her own industry’s approach to telling stories about other cultures. “We have to stop perpetuating the racist myth that only a white man can save the world,” she said. “We don’t need salvation. We like our color and our culture and our own strengths and our own stories.”
Wu correctly poked holes in the pervasive myth that white actors guarantee a better box-office take worldwide, which is constantly thrown out as an excuse for not putting actors of color in leading roles. Films like Gods of Egypt (which saw white actors playing Egyptians), Pan (where Rooney Mara played the Native American Tiger Lily), and Aloha (where Emma Stone played a half-Asian character) were all box-office bombs, while Star Wars: The Force Awakens (which had a black male lead) and Furious 7 (with an ensemble full of actors of color) were two of the biggest hits of 2015. “Money is the lamest excuse,” Wu said. “So is blaming Chinese investors, [whose] choices can be based on unconscious bias too.”
The Great Wall is not the only upcoming Hollywood blockbuster guilty of blatant whitewashing: Projects like Doctor Strange, with Tilda Swinton playing a Tibetan monk, and Ghost in the Shell, with Scarlett Johansson in the lead role of a film based on a famous work of Japanese anime, have also been decried. Each film might have its own complicated reasons for arriving at said casting decisions: With Doctor Strange, Marvel Studios claimed it was trying to avoid political difficulties with the Chinese government, while the reaction within Japan to the Ghost in the Shell casting news was surprisingly muted, partly because of the intentionally vague portrayal of race in anime.
But no matter what the intentions behind its production, The Great Wall feels like a huge step in the wrong direction, a critical disaster waiting to happen no matter what the economic justification for its existence might be. Last month, Marvel and Warner Bros. advertised a slate of highly anticipated films starring women and actors of color at their Comic-Con panels. China is poised to one day outstrip the United States as the biggest movie market on Earth. If Hollywood wants to keep pace with its audience, it will stop blindly casting actors like Damon and give more chances to performers typically overlooked by the industry.
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