clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Matt Damon wants you to see The Great Wall before you call it whitewashed

The actor defended the film at New York Comic Con this weekend.

2016 Toronto International Film Festival - 'Manchester By The Sea' Premiere Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

“It was a fucking bummer,” Matt Damon said, in response to a question about his new movie.

That’s not usually what you hear from actors who are promoting their upcoming films, as Damon was doing at New York Comic Con this weekend. It's also not the type of thing you usually hear when the upcoming film in question is a seemingly harmless popcorn epic like Damon’s The Great Wall a built-for-Comic-Con-and-IMAX movie where the audience slurps down vats of soda while everyone onscreen fights a giant monster, this time in ancient China.

Damon’s disappointment lies in the whitewashing and white savior criticism that was thrown at The Great Wall this summer when its teaser trailer hit the internet. The gist: A white dude (Damon) has come to China to save the country’s people from the giant monster that awaits beyond the wall.

“I was surprised, because [the criticism] was based on a teaser, not even a whole trailer, let alone a movie,” Damon said. “To me, whitewashing is — I think of Chuck Connors when he played Geronimo. Though there are far more nuanced versions of it.”

He continued:

“Pedro [Pascal, Damon’s co-star] called me, and he goes, ‘We are guilty of whitewashing. We all know only the Chinese defended the wall against the monsters.’ [We reacted] sarcastically because we were wounded by it. We do take that seriously. We do think that’s a serious problem.”

To be fair to Damon, he was answering the last question at a very brief press conference. I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to provide an expansive, thorough, and nuanced answer about whitewashing in Hollywood in four minutes.

But he and the movie’s most vocal critics seem to be talking about two different things. When the teaser was released, Fresh Off the Boat’s Constance Wu asserted that the movie was perpetuating the white savior trope.

“We have to stop perpetuating the racist myth that [only a] white man can save the world,” she wrote on Twitter. "Our heroes don't look like Matt Damon. They look like Malala. Ghandi [sic]. Mandela. Your big sister when she stood up for you to those bullies that one time."

Her point was more about the type of story — a white man saving Asian people — being perpetuated, not that Damon was in yellowface or that The Great Wall was rewriting history. And she added that her criticism wasn’t about blaming Damon for taking a role, but rather about calling out the industry that influences these types of stories and allows them to keep being made:

Damon was very firm in stating that he believes in this film. That he trusts director Yimou Zhang’s vision. (Zhang has previously made films like House of Flying Daggers and Hero, which are part of the same fantasy genre as The Great Wall and featured Asian casts and heroes.) And Damon believes we need to see the film before we judge it.

“Where I came down is if people see this movie [and still believe] there’s whitewashing involved in it, I will listen to that with my whole heart.” he said. “I will be genuinely shocked if [the people who see the movie] have that reaction.”

He also had a message for people who have not seen The Great Wall but are attacking it anyway:

“Ultimately you are undermining your own credibility when you attack something and you haven’t seen it.”

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.