No, 'The Great Wall' Isn’t Racist Whitewashing

The question of whether 'The Great Wall' is a white savior movie is a bit trickier.
02/17/2017 10:47 am ET Updated Feb 18, 2017
Frazer Harrison via Getty Images

As a progressive Asian American movie critic, I had a lot of conflicting biases and concerns heading into The Great Wall, mostly stemming from the announcement that Matt Damon would play the film’s star. Did this mean that The Great Wall would be yet another “white savior” film, where it’s up to a white character to save non-whites from their inability to solve their own problems? Would this be yet another case of “whitewashing,” where a white actor is cast as a non-white character? Or were the vociferous denunciations of Damon’s casting, its producers, and the film as a whole an example of knee-jerk liberalism based on incomplete information?

Here is the trailer for The Great Wall (review following).

The Great Wall takes place during China’s Song dynasty and follows two European mercenaries — William (Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) — who accidentally stumble upon the Great Wall during their quest to obtain China’s fabled black powder (gunpowder). After being taken prisoner, William and Tovar soon learn that the sole purpose of the 5,500-mile Great Wall and the Nameless Order military unit defending it is to ward off the Taoties, a swarm of hive-mind alien monsters who landed on earth via meteor centuries ago and emerge to attack every sixty years. With the Great Wall as the only thing preventing humanity’s annihilation, William (an expert archer) joins with the leaders of the Nameless Order (Hanyu Zhang, Tian Jing, and Andy Lau) to fight the Taoties, while Tovar and another European prisoner, Ballard (Willem Dafoe), focus on escaping with enough black powder to make them rich.

A reason why I was initially conflicted about The Great Wall is because I’m a huge fan of Matt Damon, as well as his progressive political stances and support for humanitarian causes like water.org, the non-profit he co-founded to provide millions of people with safe drinking water and sanitation. Also, I was lucky enough to meet and talk to Damon at the Los Angeles premiere of Manchester by the Sea (which Damon produced and is my favorite movie of 2016). It was a great thrill, and I found him to be a lovely, genuine guy.

On the other hand, I’m also a big fan of Constance Wu, the breakout star of Fresh Off the Boat, a vocal progressive, and an outspoken critic of Hollywood’s lack of diversity and its continuing history of under-/mis-representation of non-white stories and characters. As an Asian American who grew up yearning to see anyone like myself, my family, or my Asian American friends in TV shows and movies, this is obviously a subject very close to my heart, and I’m glad Wu is out there calling attention to it. When Damon was announced as the star of The Great Wall, Wu was one of Hollywood’s earliest and loudest critics of his casting, claiming that it was part of “the repeatedly implied racist notion that white people are superior to POC [people of color] and that POC need salvation from our own color via white strength.” She also called out the makers of The Great Wall and the film industry as a whole for their lack of courage and “lame” excuses for not trying harder to diversify their films and the stories they tell.

Having seen The Great Wall, I can say that, as a movie, The Great Wall is fine. Not horrible, not terrific, not terribly original, but fine, with a few neat details to appreciate.

The Great Wall is essentially a historical fantasy/monster/siege film most closely resembling the Helm’s Deep battle in Lord of the Rings: the Two Towers. Uruk-hai soldiers have been replaced by the Taoties, which look like knock-offs from a discarded Guillermo Del Toro sketch, and the elves and villagers have been upgraded to much cooler, more capable Chinese soldiers in color-coded armor. The battles are adequately exciting, though the film’s visuals never surpass the beauty and poetry of Zhang’s superior work in films like Hero and House of Flying Daggers, nor are they as realistic as those in Two Towers, which is disappointing considering that Two Towers was released almost fifteen years ago. With solid performances from the multi-national cast and some welcome bits of humor, action fans looking for some excitement during the post-Christmas doldrums should be satisfied, though probably not blown away.

Other than William’s bravery and skill as a warrior, the film’s three white characters are often portrayed as being less advanced — whether morally, culturally, or technologically — than the Chinese.

And is The Great Wall a racist, whitewashed white savior film that promotes white superiority and denigrates the Chinese, in spite of the film’s Chinese director, producers, and cast?

Other than William’s bravery and skill as a warrior, the film’s three white characters are often portrayed as being less advanced — whether morally, culturally, or technologically — than the Chinese. William and Tovar are in awe of the Wall, the size and sophistication of the Nameless Order, and the many innovative techniques and weapons the Order uses to fight the Taoties, including the gunpowder William and Tovar regard as a type of magic that “turns air into fire.” All three men describe themselves as honorless thieves and soldiers-for-hire who only care about money and saving their own lives. In contrast, the Chinese soldiers and officers of the Nameless Order are portrayed as brave, disciplined, honorable, skilled, and willing to die in order to save not just China, but all of humanity, even if the rest of the world never knows of their sacrifice. William doesn’t teach the Chinese how to be better Chinese — it’s William who must redeem himself by risking his life to serve the greater good, which is a popular theme in both Chinese culture and entertainment. In other words, it’s William who has to learn to be more Chinese.

So on the charge of The Great Wall insulting the Chinese and promoting white superiority, I say: Not Guilty.

The question of whether The Great Wall is a white savior movie is a bit trickier, but I’m still going to say Not Guilty for the same reason that Mad Max: Fury Road — which has been lauded as a modern feminist classic — isn’t a male savior movie reinforcing male superiority. Yes, Fury Road is about a man named Max who helps a group of women escape from a tyrant, but Max does this by joining forces with the women’s female leader, Furiosa, and by being willing to sacrifice himself to help her achieve her goal. In the same way, William’s bravery and skill is instrumental in the Nameless Order’s battle against the Taoties, but not because he becomes the Order’s leader or teacher. It’s because William is able to put aside his selfishness and team up with Commander Lin Mae (Jing), the leader of the Nameless Order, and risk his life to help her defeat the Taoties.

Is Damon being the star of The Great Wall a case of whitewashing? As Zhang has attested, William was always written as a European character, not a Chinese one that was changed to accommodate Damon’s whiteness. In fact, it’s integral to the story that William and Tovar are foreigners in search of gunpowder and fortune who know nothing of the Great Wall, the Nameless Order, or their true purpose. For this story, changing William into an Asian character would make little sense, as would casting an Asian actor to play European William. Yes, a movie could be made with an Asian main character about the Great Wall being a barrier against invading monsters, but that would require a different script and characters. So if you’re upset that Matt Damon is the star of The Great Wall, your issue isn’t that William is a whitewashed Asian character, Damon is playing an Asian character, or that an Asian actor should have been cast instead of Damon — it’s that you want The Great Wall to have a different story that would necessitate an Asian lead character.

So on the charge of whitewashing, I say: Not Guilty.

More non-white actors in stories centered around people of color is one of the things Constance Wu called for in her criticism of The Great Wall, and it’s something I want to see more of for countless reasons, including long-held, deeply personal ones. I grew up at a time where the only Asian people I saw in movies and TV were exchange students, Japanese businessmen, perverts, and comic reliefs with thick accents who were almost never Americans. Believe me, I get it.

But I also get that the entertainment industry is an industry, and as Jay Mohr’s character says in Jerry Maguire: “It’s not show friends. It’s show business.”

A lot of filmmakers and creative people want to make art that shines a light on important issues and stories, increases diversity and minority representation, and hopefully nudges the human race forward. But this is only possible if the entertainment industry can first fulfill its #1 priority of making money (winning awards comes in at a distant second). The Great Wall, with an estimated budget of $150 million, is likely the most expensive Chinese movie ever made, as well as the biggest American-Chinese co-production to date. It will surely play in more theaters around the world than any other Chinese film in history. And to raise the stakes even more, The Great Wall is carrying the weight of the entire Chinese film industry, with hopes that it will mark the beginning of China becoming a global entertainment powerhouse that someday rivals Hollywood. But this can only happen if The Great Wall is a success.

With risks and opportunities that enormous, having arguably the world’s biggest international superstar in your movie — even if he’s white — probably sounds like a good idea.

P.S. Constance Wu: If you read this, I hope we can still be friends :-)

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