Earlier this summer, controversy arose after the announcement that Matt Damon was cast as the lead in the upcoming epic, The Great Wall. The current dilemma with whitewashing is on both sides concerning studio marketing and film authenticity. The casting of a well-known American actor over an unknown international actor to secure funding is a common tactic; however, this marketing tool often undermines the film’s authenticity and historical accuracy.
Accusations of whitewashing were almost immediate; Fresh Off The Boat star Constance Wu took to social media to vent her frustration with the casting choice. Wu stated that the film perpetuates the “white savior” narrative, all too common in the film industry.
“We don’t need salvation. We like our color and our culture and our own strengths and our own stories,” Wu wrote. “We don’t need you to save us from anything.”
The Taiwanese-American actress further explained how non-white filmmakers also contribute to this problem.
“Look. I know there are lotsa POC (people of color) who honestly don’t care. Who think I’M being crazy. Well, excuse me for caring about the images that little girls see, and what that implies to them about their limitations or possibilities.”
Ironically enough, the film’s director, Zhang Yimou, defended Damon’s casting. Zhang is one of China’s most renowned filmmakers whose work has crossed over into international markets with substantial success. In defense of his film, he stressed how the film’s release is more monumental than problematic. He cited the film’s international cast — many of them Chinese — and its roots in Chinese culture as a milestone.
“For the first time, a film deeply rooted in Chinese culture, with one of the largest Chinese casts ever assembled, is being made at tent pole scale for a world audience,” said Zhang in a statement provided to Entertainment Weekly. He pointed out that out of the five, main heroes of the film (one of them being Damon), four of them are Chinese. Likewise, he said the film is by no means intended to be historic in nature.
“I have not and will not cast a film in a way that was untrue to my artistic vision. I hope when everyone sees the film and is armed with the facts, they will agree,” concluded Zhang.
The controversy surrounding The Great Wall is not the first of its kind. The complex and painful history of race relations in the United States is apparent in the films of the past and present. During the first half of the twentieth century, many films produced in the U.S. featuring minority characters were often chock-full of stereotypes. Actors often based their performances on negative perceptions of these groups, usually through mocking their accents or cultural practices. White actors frequently portrayed black, Asian, and Hispanic/Latino characters using makeup, such as blackface and yellow face to give them the appearance of an ethnic character. Prosthetics were also used, such as those worn by Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, in which he appeared as the Japanese character, Mr. Yunioshi.
Today, minority groups still face discrimination in film, often through lack of opportunity rather than mockery. A study conducted by University of Southern California revealed that despite over a quarter of movie tickets being sold to Hispanics, they are the least represented ethnic group in film, making up only 4.2% of speaking characters. Likewise, African-American, Asian, and other minority groups receive much less representation than their white counterparts, who accounted for 76.3% of all speaking roles in 500 top-grossing movies released from 2007-2012. Just as before, white actors are still being cast in roles specifically based on or written for non-white characters. Some examples of this include Angelina Jolie in A Mighty Heart (portraying a woman of Dutch and Afro-Cuban descent; she also wore black face for this role), Ben Affleck in Argo (portraying a Mexican-American man), and Jake Gyllenhaal in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.
The list goes on and on, but the point is obvious. By casting these actors in ethnically specific roles, filmmakers have denied the opportunity for non-white actors to progress in a competitive field that overwhelmingly caters to white actors.