The recent film “The Great Wall” starring Matt Damon was released in theaters just a couple of weeks ago, and while I admittedly have not seen the film, the trailer and film poster alone raised a series of red flags and questions in my head. For those who have not heard of the movie, it basically tells the story of a warrior in China who joins a team of elite soldiers to help defend the Great Wall.
I think this film speaks volumes on the state of Hollywood today and also exemplifies exactly what Asian actors are trying so hard to fight against in the entertainment industry – whitewashing and the white savior narrative. The film is directed by one of China’s greatest directors, Zhang Yimou, and features several A-list Chinese celebrities including Andy Lau, Eddie Peng, and Lu Han. Additionally, the film was shot on location in China and supposedly tells the story of China’s might and power. It’s interesting then, to see that Matt Damon is the lead of the film, the “white savior,” and the only person featured on the film’s widely advertised movie poster.
When the film trailer was first released, it immediately sparked outrage, but Matt Damon defended himself by saying that he did not take the role from a Chinese actor, nor was the role altered for him in any way. He also insisted that critics were jumping to conclusions based off of the trailer without having seen the film, and it makes their views less credible. While all of this may be true, it does not change the fact that there is a very obvious placement of a white character where a white character does not belong. Additionally, this character plays the most important role in the film and is highlighted (based on the trailer) as being more essential than the rest of the characters. In fact, Matt Damon is the only actor that has any speaking lines in the entire trailer, even though several other Chinese actors are stated to have leading/crucial roles in the film.
There are so many different elements here that display Hollywood’s rejection of non-white actors and it makes it hard to believe that there has been any progress made. The white savior narrative, the whitewashing, the trailer, the promotional photos, and more, all point to one thing – Hollywood doesn’t believe that Chinese actors are marketable. At the very least, Hollywood believes that White actors are the most marketable, the easiest to sell, and perhaps the easiest to relate to. But this self perpetuating philosophy confines Asians in the entertainment industry and guarantees that no progress can ever be made. People sometimes wonder why so few Asians show up at award ceremonies like the Oscars, but the truth is simply that Asian Americans are never granted the opportunity to play Oscar winning roles because they are too often seen as a “niche” market or as “too exotic” to be front and center.
While minor progress has been made, such as the writing of the film “Crazy Rich Asians” and the popularization of the TV show “Fresh off The Boat,” we have yet to see the integration of the Asian community in the entertainment industry and Asian actors remain very much a niche group. So while hope ultimately prevails, Hollywood still needs to make great strides before genuine diversity can be reached.
If you’re more interested in learning about the Asian American’s role in Hollywood today read this article from the NYT: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/29/movies/asian-american-actors-are-fighting-for-visibility-they-will-not-be-ignored.html?_r=0