When I first heard that a movie called The Great Wall was coming out, I was thrilled. Then i learned the film's premise: Matt Damon is in ancient China, where he discovers that the Great Wall was built by the Chinese to protect themselves from dangerous creatures, and now he must fend off said monsters and save the day. Any hope I had for this film diminished upon seeing it for what it really is —Hollywood's most recent contribution to a longstanding history of whitewashing and the implementation of the white savior trope.
Those of us who are angered by the idea that only a white guy can save all of China are in good company. Fresh Off The Boat star Constance Wu was outraged over the film and she is letting the world know it. Wu is an ever-growing voice in support of casting people of color in leading roles and employing them to portray characters of color instead of just making all major characters white. Wu continues to make her presence known by addressing the ongoing, underlying racism in Hollywood's casting system. But, before we get to that, let's first look at some other examples of the liberties Hollywood has taken to keep white people on top.
Hollywood's Obsession With The White Savior Trope
The Great Wall is the latest in a long line of films that employ the white savior trope, a storytelling device where a white (usually male) protagonist saves people of color from their oppression. Examples of this are plentiful and include films everyone has heard of like The Last Samurai, Avatar, and The Blindside. If you have seen any of those films, you know that the white person saves the day. Movies like The Great Wall and The Last Samurai take this concept to a new level, suggesting that white men will save the day no matter where they are; no matter if they are the minority in a foreign country like China or Japan.
Perhaps just as bad, if not worse, is casting white actors to play characters intended to be people of color. Many of us cringed at the whitewashing number M. Night Shyamalan did on his live-action take of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Fans know that Avatar is not just portrayed in Japanese style anime art, but that it takes place in a completely Asiatic world. Yet, somehow, the main characters in the movie are white. This was devastating to any fan of the television show.
Other recent examples of whitewashing include Scarlett Johansson’s casting as the lead in the upcoming live-action interpretation of the Japanese anime classic Ghost in the Shell. Tilda Swinton was the center of controversy when she appeared as the Ancient One, a Tibetan character, in the trailer for Marvel's Doctor Strange. There was also Emma Stone’s role as Allison Ng in Aloha and Rooney Mara’s role as Tiger Lily in Pan. Whitewashing does not just perpetuate the white savior trope, but it robs the characters of all their unique cultural and racial qualities.
Constance Wu recently took to Twitter to argue against the underlying myth films like The Great Wall perpetuate — that only a white man can save the world.
According to Wu, we need diversity in our big screen heroes. And that's especially true for underrepresented groups:
Our heroes don’t look like Matt Damon. They look like Malala. Ghandi. Mandela. Your big sister when she stood up for you to those bullies that one time. We don’t need salvation. We like our color and our culture and our strengths and our own stories.
She went on to contend with the potential excuse that minority actors are more of a financial risk and less likely to secure success at the box office:
If white actors are forgiven for having a box office failure once in a while, why can’t a POC [person of color] sometimes have one? And 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 sh*t out of it?! The whole community would be celebrating!
While it will take time, actors like Wu and others, including Daniel Dae Kim and BD Wong, are working to increase visibility among people of color in the film industry. In the meantime, if you are curious to check out The Great Wall, it will be released in theaters February 17, 2017.
What do you think of whitewashing in Hollywood? Let us know in the comments below.