Whitewashing: Hollywood’s “Great Wall”

According to Hollywood, only Matt Damon and a select few other white males can save the day. Sorry, people of color! Looks like you’ll have to wait to be represented in lead roles! (Photo retrieved from wsj.com.)

A new trailer was just released for the movie The Great Wall, and actress Constance Wu, for one, was not thrilled.

Wu, a Taiwanese-American actress and one of the stars of the show Fresh Off the Boat, took to—where else?—social media to voice her displeasure with the casting of Matt Damon in the main role of a movie about the Great Wall of China. Although I don’t know what her beef is, exactly. I mean, when you think about Chinese history and mythology, you think of Matt Damon, right? Seriously, though, here’s what Constance Wu had to say regarding the choices made by the producers of the film:

“We have to stop perpetuating the racist myth that only a white man can save the world. It’s not based in actual fact. Our heroes don’t look like Matt Damon. They look like Malala. Ghandi. Mandela. Your big sister when she stood up for you to those bullies that one time. Money is the lamest excuse in the history of being human. So is blaming the Chinese investors (POC’s choices can be based on unconscious bias, too). Remember: it’s not about blaming individuals, which will only lead to soothing their lame ‘b-but I had good intentions! but…money!’ micro-aggressive excuses. Rather, it’s about pointing out the repeatedly implied racist notion that white people are superior to POC and POC need salvation from our own color via white strength. When you consistently make movies like this, you ARE saying that. YOU ARE. Yes, YOU ARE. YES YOU ARE. Yes dude, you f**king ARE. Whether you intend to or not. We don’t need salvation. We like our color and our culture and our own strengths and our own stories. (If we don’t, we should.) We don’t need you to save us from anything.”

This is just, like, the first half of Wu’s response, but already there’s a lot here to unpack regarding depictions and discussions of race in motion pictures today. Before we even confront the merits of what she has to say, Constance later in her rant of sorts acknowledges not all POC (people of color) care as deeply as she does about this issue, and furthermore, some of them think she’s “crazy” for going on this sort of tirade. So, she’s giving due context to her arguments.

With that said, let’s address what she has to say just in this opening salvo. Constance Wu speaks of a “white man sav[ing] the world,” but little is known about the actual storyline, as least as far as I could glean from a cursory Internet search. The Wikipedia page for the film, for instance, has this to say about the plot of The Great Wall: “Set in the Northern Song Dynasty, the story is about mysteries revolving around the Great Wall of China.” That’s it. Talk about mysterious. Details on the IMDB page for the movie are similarly sparing. Again, the description of the movie talks about a mystery surrounding the construction of the Great Wall, but that’s all, and most of the cast is not credited with a specific role.

Still, Wu is probably right. After all, the official poster for the film—further striving to promote a sense of mystery around it, it uses the tagline, “What were they trying to keep out?”—features Matt Damon front and center, with the Wall itself and amorphous explosions behind him. Besides this, despite having the Chinese-born Zhang Yimou at the helm, director of movies like Hero, House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower as well as other films most Americans don’t know, the screenplay is credited to Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, and Tony Gilroy, with the story credited to Max Brooks, Edward Zwick and Marshall Hershovitz. Hmm, not a lot of Chinese representation in that crew of writers—not to mention a lack of female inclusion among them. It’s not out of bounds to suggest certain perspectives might be missed in the absent appeal to heterogeneity.

As for the idea of who or what is responsible for this trend, Constance Wu insists she is not trying to blame anyone specifically—not even Matt Damon himself or the Chinese investors in the bilateral movie project—but rather wants to illuminate that this form of prejudice exists. For all her thoughtfulness in laying out her viewpoints, though, Wu has had to defend herself against what people reacting to her reaction have characterized as pointing the finger. Putting her Tweets in proper sentence case, Wu’s first follow-up read thusly:

“Y’all sayin’ that I’m blaming people didn’t read. It’s not about blame—it’s about awareness. That way, we don’t get in tired fights about good intentions.”

That, however, apparently didn’t appease the trolls and other dissenters, leading to a second follow-up/explanatory remark:

“For the millionth time, it’s not about blame. Not blaming Damon, the studio, the Chinese financiers. It’s not about blame. It’s about awareness.”

In stressing her point, Constance Wu seems to be acknowledging that there are financial decisions and ramifications to be had within here. Matt Damon, of course, is not appearing in The Great Wall merely for the joy of acting—he gets paid for his role. The studio and the financiers, too, for their part, are making an investment in this artistic vehicle, and so they may be thinking that Damon’s star power is necessary to sell tickets, or at least mitigates their risk of a failure in Western markets, which presumably would be larger with a POC in the lead. These concerns aside, there are those people within American audiences who might scoff at the notion that any such bias exists, let alone anyone involved in the production of the film, hence Constance’s call for awareness. Not to mention that just because Wu understands it, it doesn’t mean she and like-minded individuals have to enjoy it.

The name’s Cho. John Cho. (Image retrieved from starringjohncho.com.)

Though the flap over The Great Wall is a particularly salient example of what is known as “whitewashing” because it is current, it’s not as if Hollywood hasn’t had a race problem with minority representation in lead roles over the years. The major award nominees for the past two Oscars have drawn the ire of many social critics for not featuring any people of color, prompting the widespread adoption of the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. And I’m sure you can probably think of numerous examples throughout cinematic history of white people playing the part of a minority character instead of someone from an actual minority group. Jake Gyllenhaal starring as the eponymous character of the 2010 Prince of Persia movie adaptation (which was bound to suck anyhow, but the casting didn’t help matters). A bunch of white kids in prominent roles in the live-action version of The Last Airbender, based on the Asian-inspired animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender. And there are less recent variations on the theme that get the benefit of the doubt, if you will, of hailing from an era less cognizant of political correctness, but instances that are salt in the proverbial wound nonetheless. Peter Sellers as Hrundi V. Bakshi in The Party. Elizabeth Taylor as the titular character in Cleopatra. Natalie Wood as the Puerto Rican Maria in West Side Story. Marlon Brando, Katharine Hepburn and Mickey Rooney as Asians. Shit, John Wayne played Genghis f**king Khan in The Conqueror. So to say Hollywood has been unkind to people of color over the years is somewhat of an understatement.

As Constance Wu has probably already identified and as others have recognized, as underrepresented as blacks and Latinos continue to be in American cinema among leading men and women, Asians have had it especially rough. According to the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, only 5% of speaking roles in Hollywood films go to Asians, and for leading roles, the figure dips to a paltry 1%. On the latter count, that’s a statistically lower percentage than the catch-all category “Other.” This phenomenon has gained attention, though, in part due to the #StarringJohnCho campaign, which among other things, has replaced the non-Asian leading men in various movie posters with John Cho, star of the Harold and Kumar movie series as well as a prominent cast member in the Star Trek movie series revival. It’s effective, I feel, because it engages the issue but does it in a creative and amusing way (not because Cho’s Asian, mind you, but because of how well he is Photoshopped into each of these posters). This, along with other humor-based approaches to confronting disparities in the representation of different races in popular media, helps to create awareness of a serious issue without bringing an undue sense of guilt to the person watching, and furthermore, outlines a manner by which he or she may communicate its prevalence in a practicable way—even if it’s something as small as sharing a hashtag. I firmly believe that meaningful change, in this regard, cannot occur unless a dialog is maintained and grows.

Going back to Wu’s recognition of the idea certain individuals (*cough,* white people, *cough*) will think her objections are an overreaction or are crazy, in closing, she provides a frame or reference for why casting Matt Damon as the lead in a movie about the Great Wall of China and why representations of Asians and other minorities in Hollywood and other media are kind of a big deal:

Excuse me for caring about the images that little girls see, and what that implies to them about their limitations or possibilities. If you know a kid, you should care too. Because we WERE those kids. Why do you think it was so nice to see a nerdy white kid have a girl fall in love with him? Because you WERE that nerdy white kid who felt unloved. And seeing pictures of it in Hollywood’s stories made it feel possible. That’s why it moved you; that’s why it was a great story. Hollywood is supposed to be about making great stories. So make them.

Constance Wu is absolutely right about the power of different media to help perpetuate stereotypes which are, in turn, internalized by members of those groups, and across every kind of demographic line (class, gender, race, sexual orientation, etc.). As Wu and others might argue, too, having a “bankable” star or a big budget doesn’t necessarily lead to success. Keeping with this logic, for all the major stars of a non-Asian persuasion to experience bombs at the box office (see also Johnny Depp, who has his own experience with whitewashing in the form of a particularly poorly-received turn at Tonto in The Lone Ranger), as well as the studios and financiers who have lost millions on film flops, it might merit green-lighting more movies with Asian, black and Latino leads, as well as other ethnic groups (Inuit, can I get a what-what?!?).

The big caveat for Constance, which she likely understands, is that appealing to movie producers’ sense of respect and artistry may only go so far. I mean, have you seen some of the movies they put out nowadays? Think about it—someone had to OK a sequel to Paul Blart: Mall Cop. Consideration of that fact alone is enough to make one shudder or lose sleep. This trend toward mediocrity is indicative, moreover, of an attitude toward the casual moviegoer from Hollywood that he or she will watch whatever crap it puts out there. They might be right, but then again, they might not. What if more people decide blowing money on tickets and concessions isn’t worth seeing the movie before it comes out on Blu-ray, DVD or through some digital format? What if some of us opt to spend more time watching TV, playing video games, reading books, or—gasp!—actually going outside and doing things? If the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is really as out of touch as the #OscarsSoWhite controversy of the past few years suggests, they might be overplaying their hand with respect to how much they take and how little they give in terms of authentic representation.

So, do we smell a cultural revolution simmering for the silver screen? Or is that just the aroma of overpriced, over-salted popcorn from the Refreshments stand? I can’t tell for sure, but one thing I do know is that I can’t wait for The Great Wall starring John Cho. It’s gonna be lit.

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