Man, I just… I don’t know anymore.
I hadn’t seen the trailer for this movie before writing this post. I didn’t want to give it the views, as it seemed like just another nonsense example of oblivious Hollywood whitewashing. After doing some research into the movie, the situation is slightly more complex than usual, but… it doesn’t make Hollywood any less racist. Let’s dig in.
From this brief first teaser, we gather two things: the Great Wall of China was built to defend China from scary monsters, and Matt Damon is here to help.
I have so many questions, and they all begin and end with Matt Damon. What is he doing there? When exactly is this movie set? Had white people even been to China yet if this is set in “ancient” China? Why is Pedro Pascal with him?
The thing is, the concept of this film could be fascinating. The Great Wall of China is one of the wonders of human engineering, especially considering how long ago it was built. It can be seen from space, for heaven’s sake. Suggesting it was built to protect China from some sort of mythical beasts rather than more human invaders gives us the interesting spirit of the ancient aliens trope (a supernatural/nonhuman impetus) without the inherent racism (suggesting someone other than people of color had to have built an impressive thing because it’s too impressive for them to have done it themselves). But I guess producers decided that since they got rid of the racism of this trope, they needed to add a white savior to recoup that precious racism.
The director, Zhang Yimou, is no stranger to creating epic Chinese action films like Hero and House of Flying Daggers. He has defended his choices by saying Damon is only one of five heroes, the rest of whom are Chinese, but… where are they in the trailer? If they have equal importance to the story, why are the most notable people in the trailer Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal? Despite being directed by a Chinese man, bankrolled by a Chinese production company, and set in ancient China, I came away from this trailer with a serious The Last Samurai vibe.
However, all the blame on this can’t fall on the creators of this movie alone. The problem is far more insidious. Basically, this production company wanted this film to appeal to a mainstream American audience, so they had to get a big-budget action movie actor to star in it. And since Hollywood only casts white men to play big-budget action movie stars, when it came time to cast, it’s not like there were any Asian men on that tier of stardom sitting around waiting to compete with Damon for the role. It’s a self-replicating problem. There aren’t any big-name Asian action stars, so they couldn’t cast one, but without making the conscious decision to cast Asian action stars, there will never be any Asian action stars.
I am curious to see how the immediate backlash to this trailer and the prominent placement of Damon’s face on the poster will affect the tone of future advertisements. If there is more acknowledgement of the fact that 4/5ths of the main cast is apparently actually Chinese, I might at least decide to check this movie out on Netflix someday. I’m not holding on to any particularly high hopes, however.