A few days after the release of the trailer for Zhang Yimou’s newest blockbuster, widespread outrage has erupted on social media over a white actor being cast in the lead role of film, defending one of China’s most well-known wonders from mysterious monsters.
The Great Wall tells the story of a mercenary soldier (Matt Damon) imprisoned in China, who discovers that beasts are attacking the Great Wall and joins an army of elite warriors to fight them. The cast unites stars from both the East and West, including Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal (Game of Thrones), Hong Kong star Andy Lau, EXO band member Luhan, TFBOYS bandleader Wang Junkai, and Chen Xuedong (Tiny Times).
One of the most prominent protesters is Constance Wu, the Taiwanese-American star of ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat. In a long Twitter post, she attacked Hollywood’s practice of casting Caucasian heroes:
“We have to stop perpetuating the racist myth that a [sic] only white man can save the world. It’s not based on actual fact. Our heroes don’t look like Matt Damon. They look like Malala. Ghandi [sic]. Mandela,” she wrote. “[…] pointing out the repeated implied notion that white people are superior to POC [People of Color] and that POC need salvation from our own color via white strength.”
Wu suggests to Hollywood: “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 shit out of it?!”
Many others have echoed her sentiment:
Things You Can Count On: Hollywood can set a movie anywhere in the world, in any era of history, and always find a way to star a white guy.
— Angry Asian Man (@angryasianman) July 28, 2016
— Mathew Rodriguez (@mathewrodriguez) July 28, 2016
Chinese netizens don’t seem to make much of these complaints. A popular Weibo comment read, “If one can’t even accept a movie, isn’t it a sort of inferiority complex?” Others cite Asian heroes, such as those portrayed by Jackie Chan, who are popular around the world.
Some point out that the film might not be trying to perpetuate “White supremacy” ideals, considering that the film is co-produced by American and Chinese companies with a Chinese director, Zhang Yimou. Instead, the producers might be attempting to woo both Eastern and Western markets by casting a Caucasian star who is popular in China, argues Terence Hsieh on Forbes. He believes that the success of this film can “[ensure] future cooperation,” which “means that Chinese production companies will have more of a say in the creation of Hollywood film,” increasing the chances for Asian actors to star in Hollywood films.
Another view stands in stark contrast with the two above. Award-winning Chinese translator Canaan Morse writes that The Great Wall does champion a cultural stereotype, just a different one from what Constance Wu describes. He explains:
This not a whitewashed Chinese hero, nor a White Saviour stereotype. It’s another stereotype: Ignorant Western Strongman Is Conquered by the Great Power of Chinese Culture. It’s ethnocentric propaganda; it’s Christian Bale in Flowers of War; it’s a government-incentivized version of every single foreigner stereotype to ever appear in Chinese media. The white, male, Western Hollywood A-list character will sacrifice it all for China while the audience is beaten over the head with national symbols – like, oh, I don’t know, the Great Wall. He will be enlightened, and China’s majesty will be resoundingly proven.
This fits with the view of Stanley Rosen, a professor of political science from the University of Southern California. “China, I think, is desperate to promote its soft power,” he told SCMP. With the popularity of Western films in China, China “[wants] some reciprocity for Chinese culture overseas.”
Is The Great Wall another example of Hollywood whitewashing, an attempt to please Chinese audiences, or something else?
If you haven’t seen the trailer yet, watch below:
By Amy Yang