Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Washed Out

With the recent cries of indignation over The Great Wall trailer release, I took to Facebook. This isn’t always the best idea, considering my track record for getting into arguments online and in person over film, feminism and change, but this time it was different. A couple of old buddies from work suggested I write this post and they were right.

The Great Wall, just to give some context is a film where Matt Damon is in China for some reason, to help the Chinese defend themselves against monsters. Set during the Northern Song dynasty, the film explores some fantastical mysteries that surround The Great Wall of China. But only Matt Damon can help save everyone, or something.

The current poster for the film is just Matt Damon’s face. This is not looking good Hollywood.

But wait, why am I getting annoyed by this stereotypical sounding film from Hollywood? Because enough is enough. Hollywood has been accused of white washing before and it looks like they won’t stop. We might even end up with a John Wayne as Genghis Khan situation – absolutely ridiculous. Whoever thought that casting was a good idea is obviously been banished from the land. For those who don’t know what white washing is, it is a term used when a white actor is cast as an ethnic character. And it’s happening more and more. 

Actress Constance Wu, currently in comedy, Fresh Off the Boat, was at the forefront of doing more than pointing out the choice of casting a white actor. Wu posted a large response saying “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 colour and our culture and our strengths and our own stories.” Wu also criticized the reasons behind the casting choices saying that they need bankable movie star to tempt an audience to see the films is all about money. “Money is the lamest excuse in the history of being human. So is blaming the Chinese investors,” she wrote. And I agree. Casting the typical white guy actor in these ‘saviour roles’ is taking an opportunity away from another actor who would actually be suited for the part. The idea that Hollywood ‘just wants to make money’ is a pitiful excuse. The Daily Beast covers this story far better than I could and you can read it here

Writer, Nicole Chung also pointed out via Twitter, ‘...why would white men need to be in a movie about the Great Wall, even if it's a monster movie?’. I was reading another article where the writer told everyone to ‘Shut Up About Matt Damon ‘Whitewashing’ Chinese History’ and his defence was that it was a monster film. So, in a fantasy film, its ok for a white guy saves the day? Still doesn’t explain why he is even on The Great Wall in Ancient China.

The controversy around The Great Wall is not a one off situation. We all saw the ghastly posters for Gods of Egypt that came out earlier this year, we have even sat through the trailer. I actually stopped it half way through and thankfully didn’t have to see it before another film. But we would have noticed the absence of Egyptian actors in the lead roles. They were played by Gerard Butler and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and various other non-Egyptian actors. Even though the film description makes a point of saying the film is set ‘In an alternative Egypt’, it doesn’t change the white washing. The same response was given to Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, a version of the story of Moses that featured white actors to play Rameses and Moses.

Most recently, a lot of backlash was received when Hollywood announced the live action remake of the popular series, Ghost in the Shell. But the uproar started when it was announced that Scarlett Johansson would be playing the lead role, cyborg detective Major Motoko Kusanagi. Twitter exploded with rants, suggestions and even a petition to have Johansson to be removed from the role. Looking over the articles that came out a few months ago when the first photo from the production was released, there are some excellent suggestions for who could have been cast, including Rinko Kikuchi, star of Brothers Bloom, Babel and Pacific Rim. But Hollywood didn’t call her or any other Asian actress. Screenwriter of the film Max Landis even tried to ‘defend’ the casting choice by saying that there were no other bankable Asian actresses. He tried to turn this around by saying that he wasn’t defending the casting of Johansson but merely pointing out the system is broken. Ghost in the Shell is a major part of Asian Media and from what I’ve read, this remake/live action film is more than white washing, it seems more like erasing.

Finally, I read this article from The Guardian makes some great points but I don’t entirely agree. The fact that some of the films that have been met with controversy over white washing casting have also been unsuccessful at the box office. Coincidence? The Last Airbender, an adaptation of the much beloved animation was probably one of the worst things I sat through. Firstly, an unknown was cast in the lead role, this was a good move. But then two major characters were two white actors. As these actors weren’t ‘big names’ I didn’t see the logic in the casting. The Lone Ranger (which I actually enjoyed) was also surrounded by a cloud of doom when Johnny Depp played Tonto, the Native American partner in stopping crime. Depp is obviously one of the biggest stars in Hollywood and can get his way but it doesn’t stop it making it wrong and the fact that this role was taken away from a Native American actor. This was the same situation with Joe Wright’s odd fantasy prequel, Pan.  I was excited about this film when I first heard about it but the more trailers I saw the more I felt an uneasy feeling in my stomach. When Rooney Mara was cast as Tiger Lilly, I think was the last straw. I was no longer interested in seeing this film. Mara very moodily defended herself at being cast saying that Neverland is fantasy island and that the natives are natives of this make believe place. While she has a point, it is still a beloved story that didn’t need to be changed and AGAIN deny a Native American actress of a breakthrough role.

I haven’t gone through some of the worst casting choices and numbered these white washing casting but from the looks of the internet and Hollywood habits, this will continue. But I hope I won’t have to write another post like this. White washing casting, to me, is a pointless exercise. A white guy doesn’t need to save the day or in fact isn’t wanted. I would much rather see a diverse cast not just the token here and there in the background. 


  1. Nice post! I hadn't thought about the connection between white-washing and movies failing at the box office. It might go to show to Hollywood that minorities matter when it comes to their movies making money and getting good reviews - who knew?! lol I can't believe Gods of Egypt tried to get over with that "alternative Egypt" disclaimer, OMG so sad and funny.

    An interesting thing about The Great Wall though is that the director said Matt Damon is one of five heroes in the film, and he is the only white hero while the others are Chinese. Damon's character wasn't originally conceived for a Chinese actor. It's possible the studio marketed as a Matt Damon saving everyone movie more and focus less on the surrounding cast, and that it will be a much more balanced movie than what the trailer is. I guess we'll see if the criticism holds up when the movie comes out.

    1. Thanks! I didn't make the connection until I did a bit of reading for this. Gods of Egypt was not fooling anyone - as proof from the failure at the box office.

      I think you're right. After watching the trailer and first getting over how ridiculous it seems, it felt like this was a Matt Damon vehicle but making him the only or one of few 'white guys' still doesn't seem right in this setting. Funny thing is that someone pointed out that over the years Matt Damon's head seems to be getting bigger on posters, its engulfing the frame. But as for the film, we shall see.