As soon as its first trailer was released, American-Chinese co-production The Great Wall was dogged by controversy.
The movie’s American marketing prominently featured its most famous face — that of Matt Damon. And after seeing how frequently Damon turned up in The Great Wall’s trailer and on its posters, film fans concerned about Asian representation in American movies (where it’s historically been anemic) were outraged.
How could a story about the Great Wall of China — even one where said wall was built to protect people from giant lizard monsters — be framed around Matt Damon? Wasn’t this whitewashing? Or at the very least a white savior narrative?
Eventually, the fervor reached such a degree that responses from both Damon himself (he called the controversy a “fucking bummer”) and director Zhang Yimou were sought. Zhang, who had waited decades for the Chinese film industry to grow enough to support a project of this scale, seemed particularly frustrated in his statement, offered to Entertainment Weekly.
In many ways The Great Wall is the opposite of what is being suggested. 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. I believe that is a trend that should be embraced by our industry. Our film is not about the construction of the Great Wall. Matt Damon is not playing a role that was originally conceived for a Chinese actor. The arrival of his character in our story is an important plot point. There are five major heroes in our story and he is one of them — the other four are all Chinese. The collective struggle and sacrifice of these heroes are the emotional heart of our film. As the director of over 20 Chinese language films and the Beijing Olympics, 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.
Zhang is arguably the greatest Chinese director of all time, but his statements weren’t enough to quell the frustration over what appeared to be yet another Hollywood production cutting out people of color in favor of a white guy. At the time of the film’s release, essentially every review of what ultimately proved to be an agreeably dumb monster movie had to deal with the controversy in some capacity.
And yet despite its persistence, the fervor over The Great Wall ended up not being particularly accurate. Zhang’s reading of his picture — Damon plays one of the film’s five main heroes — is more or less true, and his character mostly avoids white savior tropes. So where did all of those outraged headlines originate? And how do they illuminate the way we talk about pop culture today?
The Great Wall isn’t really a white savior narrative, but its marketing essentially sold it as one
Damon’s name is the first in The Great Wall’s credits, he’s the guy the film’s marketing is centered on, and his character has a nice little story arc. But the bulk of the narrative — including the final, decisive shot against the monsters — belongs to rising Chinese star Jing Tian, who also stars in the upcoming American films Kong: Skull Island and Pacific Rim: Uprising.
Jing plays the woman thrust into the role of general after her mentor and father figure dies. She’s the one who must figure out how to take on The Great Wall’s monster horde — known as the tao tei. And though she leans on Damon for counsel, his entire arc is about learning to give up his selfish tendencies and join the collective that is Jing’s army. There’s nary a hint of romance between the two, either.
Damon’s character is presented as adept at killing monsters. But his “skill” turns out to be dumb luck: He’s carrying a magnet, and the monsters are susceptible to magnetism for some reason. Once that advantage is removed, he’s no better or worse than any of the other soldiers. He isn’t so much a white savior as a hired mercenary — someone who helps get the job done but isn’t so key that only he could do it.
Zhang presents every major decision made in the fight against the tao tei as one made by the collective, and the one time the tao tei gain an upper hand is when a selfish teenage emperor (who has nothing to do with the movie’s main plot, really), longs to imprison one of the monsters as part of his own collection. This isn’t a movie about individual heroism at all. Instead, it’s about learning to work for the betterment of the whole — which makes it harder for the white savior narrative to take root in the first place.
But those who feared that The Great Wall would rely on such a narrative can be forgiven for that fear. For one thing, the film’s screenwriters include Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, who were behind The Last Samurai, a movie that’s frequently cited as a textbook example of a white savior narrative. For another thing, it’s definitely irritating that a story about China, centered on its most famous landmark and primarily featuring Chinese characters, has to involve a white movie star at all. And finally, well, look at the trailer and posters.
As a critic, I often feel it’s unfair for viewers to focus on a film or TV show’s marketing to the detriment of its content. But I also rarely see movie trailers or commercials for upcoming shows without seeking them out. And the trailer of The Great Wall sells almost the opposite of what the movie actually is — it really does suggest a film about Matt Damon traveling to China to save Chinese people from monsters.
Everybody knows trailers can be misleading, but trailers like The Great Wall’s can perpetuate damaging tropes, even if the films they’re selling don’t trade in those damaging tropes in the slightest. If you look back at many movie controversies of the recent past, a bad or misleading trailer is often at the heart of them. (Meanwhile, The Great Wall’s trailer doesn’t seem to have helped the movie’s box office. Though it’s been successful overseas, it notched a mediocre $18 million in its opening weekend in the US.)
And because movie marketing is the most star-focused portion of the Hollywood machine — i.e., it has the most incentive to keep Matt Damon front and center — this cycle is all but certain to continue.
We’re right to be wary of Hollywood’s record with racial representation, but judging trailers isn’t the best way to go about it
The Great Wall is a fun, genuinely groundbreaking film (in terms of scale of production) from one of the world’s great directors. What a shame, then, that the film has been almost completely swallowed by a conversation about story elements it barely contains.
I should note that I’m aware of how oblivious my complaint might sound. Most Hollywood narratives are designed to cater to me, the straight white American male — to such a degree that Crashing, a new HBO comedy, is basically my life story with some minor tweaks. I am in no way hungry for stories that reflect my reality.
But of course that’s not true for so many Asian-American film fans, who have watched as role after role has either gone to actors of the wrong nationality (as when Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi starred in the Japanese-set Memoirs of a Geisha) or to white actors (as with Scarlett Johansson in the upcoming Ghost in the Shell, where the protagonist in the source material is Asian). From that perspective, sounding an alarm about The Great Wall based on the film’s marketing makes a lot of sense.
And, indeed, the more those alarm bells ring, the more people in Hollywood — which, again, has a lousy record with Asian representation — at least consider them when making decisions. The resulting awareness and forethought are a good thing, and have helped move the film and TV industries in slightly, slightly more diverse directions. We’re already seeing an effect with projects like the first star vehicle for the terrific Fresh Off the Boat star Constance Wu, an adaptation of the book Crazy Rich Asians.
Yet at the same time, it’s getting harder to escape the notion that fairly common Hollywood practices are being read solely through the prism of what their worst possible outcomes could be. While I understand that impulse, it too often obscures movies and TV shows until they’re barely visible behind whatever outrage and controversy might be spun up around them — even if they’re directed by a visionary Chinese director.
Consider how The Great Wall uses Damon almost symbolically, as if noting that he’s only in the movie to add a name that American audiences know to all of the film’s marketing. Damon gets some cool moments and sequences throughout, particularly a sequence around the film’s midpoint where he and a pal played by Pedro Pascal face off against the tao tei on a smoke-filled battlefield. But when it’s time for the movie to end, Damon makes the assist so Jing can take the final shot, after Damon fails twice at the attempt.
Teamwork over individual heroism is emphasized yet again, in keeping with The Great Wall’s theme, and the movie embraces a Hollywood tradition as old as movies themselves: an older star handing off the reins of the industry to a younger, less known one. Except in The Great Wall’s case — as in, say, 2015’s Creed, where Sylvester Stallone reprised his most famous role of Rocky Balboa to hand off the franchise to Michael B. Jordan — that younger, less known face reflects a Hollywood that’s growing both more diverse and more international in its focus.
So that’s where we are. Discussions of The Great Wall’s merits — which include Jing’s performance, Zhang’s beautiful use of color, the film’s gorgeous and immense sets, the story’s emphasis on teamwork as the way to save the day, and a handful of imaginative action sequences — and, yes, its flaws (which include how shoehorned in Damon’s character can feel at times) have largely become secondary to discussions about what the film was perceived to be. And, sure, the trailer and marketing materials were bad. But 20 years from now, when people are watching retrospectives of Zhang’s work, they won’t be watching the Great Wall trailer.
I’m hesitant to say that nobody should ever criticize a movie trailer ever again; trailers can prop up ugly, pernicious tropes. But at the same time, any work of art — even the schlockiest movie of them all — is more than its politics. It has to be.
The more that people argue against marketing that’s ultimately disproved by the films the marketing promotes, the more it seems like they’re yelling about nothing. Discussions of diversity in Hollywood are incredibly important, but it’s also important not to mistake smoke for fire.