Matt Damon, a Hollywood film star and mogul known for his sensitivity in matters of diverse representation, told the Associated Press on Tuesday that his role in the upcoming film “The Great Wall” became the subject of critical stories because “people click on it.”
Damon responded to backlash against the film’s alleged white-savior narrative and casting, in which he plays a heroic figure in a predominantly Chinese tale, by emphasizing that his character is not an instance of whitewashing.
“That whole idea of whitewashing, I take that very seriously,” he said. He commented that his character in “The Great Wall” had been written as white from the beginning of the process, and so he believed the controversy was misdirected. “I didn’t take a role away from a Chinese actor,” he told the AP. “It wasn’t altered because of me in any way.”
According to the AP, he attributed the outrage to news outlets using the whitewashing accusation as clickbait:
Damon questioned whether the critical stories on online news sites based on “a 30-second teaser trailer” would have existed before the era of fake news and headlines designed to make people click on them.
“It suddenly becomes a story because people click on it, versus the traditional ways that a story would get vetted before it would get to that point,” said the star of the “Bourne” franchise.
Directed by acclaimed director Zhang Yimou and co-produced by Hollywood and Chinese companies, the English-language film features Damon as a mercenary fighter in a tale about ancient monsters doing battle with the Chinese army. He stars alongside Andy Lau, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal and Willem Dafoe. The concept was conceived and written by Hollywood talent; the story credits go to Marshall Herskovitz, Edward Zwick and World War Z author Max Brooks, though Zhang told the AP that nonetheless he “felt there was room for me to play and put many elements of Chinese culture into it.”
The film is slated for stateside release in February 2017, but audiences have gotten glimpses of what’s to come through trailers, the first of which was released in July. Actress Constance Wu, best known for her breakout role in “Fresh Off the Boat,” and other critics have since assailed “The Great Wall” based on the narrative presented in the trailers, which features Damon as a swashbuckling archer whose skills are so staggering the Chinese military accepts his help in their age-old battle against the monsters, even though they’d initially thought he was a thief.
“Our heroes don’t look like Matt Damon,” tweeted Wu after the first trailer came out. “We have to stop perpetuating the racist myth that [only a] white man can save the world.”
While Damon and, to some extent, Zhang have pushed back on the grounds that Damon’s character was always intended to be white, Wu and others argue that this misses the point. Many headlines on the dust-up relied on the term “whitewashing,” despite the fact that many critics intentionally specified their concern with “The Great Wall” being a white-savior narrative, not whitewashed.
Writer Shaun Lau, who hosts the podcast “No, Totally!”, went into more detail:
In August, shortly after the initial firestorm began, Zhang defended the film in a statement to EW that also noted, “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.” Though Damon’s heroics certainly take center stage in trailers geared to the American public, it’s possible that the film itself will be an ensemble show with no single hero.
Still, inserting a white heroic figure into a story set in 11th-century China, surrounding a battle against ancient Chinese monsters, is a tortured contrivance to add an element of white salvation to a film that could have been a thrilling (if slightly bonkers) supernatural adventure movie starring an entirely Chinese cast.
Damon’s deflection to the issue of fake news might raise an eyebrow, but the way the whole controversy has played out thus far should also be instructive for the media: specificity matters. Activists of color have elevated the issue of whitewashing and made it easy to reference, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only problem when it comes to representation of their groups onscreen. Shoehorning in a white savior, as when a leak this fall led many to fear that the live-action “Mulan” would feature a white love interest and hero, brings with it its own set of troublesome implications and consequences.
To recap: Did Matt Damon take a job from a Chinese actor? No, and he wants us to be very clear on that. Does that make “The Great Wall” unimpeachable in every way related to Asian representation? Not necessarily.
Should Damon take a long break from commenting on race in Hollywood? Almost definitely.