Matt Damon and The Great Wall: the latest targets of whitewashing on film

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The Jason Bourne star battles monsters in the trailer for China’s most expensive film, causing online commentators to ask why a white man is playing the lead

Matt Damon and The Great Wall: the latest targets of whitewashing on film
Matt Damon: whitewashing the great wall? Photograph: Supplied

Earlier this year, the Hollywood remake of classic Japanese anime Ghost in Shell caused controversy by casting Scarlett Johansson in the lead role, as did Marvel’s Doctor Strange for signing up Tilda Swinton to play a character depicted as Tibetan in the comics. Now, the forthcoming blockbuster The Great Wall finds itself embroiled in the same type of whitewashing controversy, for casting Matt Damon in a film depicting an epic battle on the titular Chinese structure.

The Great Wall is the first English-language film directed by Zhang Yimou, who made House of Flying Daggers and Hero, and the most expensive production completed in China, with a budget of $150m. A Chinese/American co-production, its diverse cast includes Willem Dafoe, Game of Thrones’ Pedro Pascal, Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau and Turkish actor Numan Acar. But it’s Damon’s participation – as what appears to be the film’s lead in the first trailer, which debuted on Thursday – that courted immediate criticism.

The trailer sets up the basic plot of Yimou’s fantasy epic. Set over 1,000 years ago in China, The Great Wall imagines a mythical past where an elite force fight to defend humanity from giant dragons trying to breach the 5,500-mile stone structure erected by several dynasties’ worth of soldiers and slaves. Damon’s mercenary soldier, sporting ancient Chinese war gear, is the only character who speaks in the trailer, growling in voiceover: “I was born into battle. I fought greed and gods. This is the war I’ve seen worth fighting for.”

The Daily Beast’s Jen Yamato wrote that the Jason Bourne star looks to be portraying a typical white savior archetype, recalling Daniel Day-Lewis in Last of the Mohicans, Kevin Costner in Dances With Wolves, and many other examples.

A number of Twitter users were quick to voice their concerns, with one saying: “At what point do you think the people who made The Great Wall going to realize casting Matt Damon as a lead was a mistake?” Another called the trailer “#whitewashing at its finest.”

Before the teaser’s debut, Yimou told Entertainment Weekly that The Great Wall is “first and foremost, an English-language film, and a Hollywood blockbuster”.

“What I really want is to bring Chinese color and cultural background to the worldwide audience through a film language that they are familiar with,” he added. “We are using Hollywood film-making to introduce Chinese culture.”

On casting Damon, Yimou said he feels “very fortunate” to have worked with the actor. “He is very creative and smart and contributed so much to the dialog,” he said about the Oscar winner.

Damon, meanwhile, remains a major draw in China: his last film, The Martian, performed exceedingly well in the world’s second-largest film market.

The Great Wall is also not the first Chinese production fronted by a white star: Christian Bale led the 2011 war drama The Flowers of War; Adrien Brody and John Cusack faced off alongside Jackie Chan in 2015’s Dragon Blade; while Joseph Fiennes recently stopped by the Cannes film festival to tout his performance in China’s unofficial sequel to Chariots of Fire.

This spring’s big-budget flop Gods of Egypt faced a similar backlash for featuring a predominantly white cast, as did Ridley Scott’s 2014 biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings, for the same reason.

The Great Wall opens 17 February 2017.

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