There’s lots of exciting Hollywood releases coming our way in February, but none have caused more controversy than the upcoming The Great Wall. Directed by popular Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou, The Great Wall tells the story of a white mercenary, played by Matt Damon, who becomes imprisoned within China’s Great Wall.
While Damon is playing a character who’s supposed to be white, many critics have expressed outrage at the idea of a Caucasian person starring in a film that is centered around China’s greatest historical landmark. Many have made comparisons to The Last Samurai, a 2003 Tom Cruise vehicle with a similar premise: A white warrior’s story unfolds within an Asian landscape.
Interestingly enough, the controversy didn’t start with millennial think piece authors, who are the usual suspects when it comes to outrage online. Rather, it came from a Hollywood actress, Fresh Off The Boat star Constance Wu.
“We have to stop perpetuating the racist myth that [only] a white man can save the world,” Wu said in a Tweet, adding that Asian heroes “didn’t look like Matt Damon.”
While many Hollywood stars tend to stay quiet in the face of controversy for fear of causing offense, Damon hasn’t been afraid to speak up against the allegations made against himself and the team behind The Great Wall.
Damon told the Associated Press that the role was always intended for an actor of European descent, as the script is written explicitly that way. He explained that The Great Wall has fantastical and science fiction elements and that it is not a retelling of an actual historic event.
“I didn’t take a role away from a Chinese actor,” Damon asserted.
However, Damon’s defense of the project hasn’t done much to quell the internet outrage. On the film’s IMDB page, users have flooded the message board with comments reflecting their offense. “I had no idea there was [sic] so many white guys in ancient China,” one user wrote.
“What a disgraceful rewriting of history,” wrote another.
It’s not just anonymous commenters who are continuing the outrage narrative. Opinion authors and bloggers are also rejecting Damon’s defense of the film, asserting that it’s an example of Hollywood whitewashing, despite Damon’s assertion that the role was always intended for a white person. Fusion writer Tahira Hairston called Damon’s response to the backlash “totally ignorant.”
“Whitewashing is a lot more than just painting a white actor’s face a different color than their own,” Hairston argues in her piece. “It’s more about the erasure of the representation of people of color when telling their own stories. That can mean putting a hotshot white actor in a lead role surrounded by people of color [in an effort] to make more [money].”
While Damon’s defense of the film might seem fair to many, it seems unlikely that many others are willing to accept his argument. Only time will tell if the outrage affects The Great Wall’s performance at the box office.