There is a lot to be said for the case that Hollywood is, at least partially, unfair to the depiction of certain races. Whether it be horrendously stereotyping them or not giving particular races roles at all, history is rife with evidence that the film industry has been slow on being more diverse. When the trailer for The Great Wall was released I was personally unenthused. The CGI looked crummy and Matt Damon’s inclusion had no particular significance for me. I forgot about it and moved on with my day. But suddenly the internet was a flame, as it is prone to do, as others saw this trailer and were enraged that Matt Damon’s white male character was a seeming savior for an overwhelmed, Chinese majority army. Though on the surface I can see where this interpretation would come from, I can’t agree that his character is by any means an insult to Asian races or acting as a white savior to any characters in this film. Why you ask? Because unlike most people I forced myself to watch the damn film.
I have a love hate relationship with trailers. Give less than an ounce of material like Christopher Nolan and you find yourself intrigued mainly by the mystery of what the film actually is rather than wanting to see the film itself (until the film turns out to be awesome as Nolan is wont to do). Give too much and there’s really no need to see the film given that the entire plot has been handed to you on a silver platter, ridiculous ticket price free. In The Great Wall’s case we get more of the former, at least initially. Primary trailers have a shady looking Damon walking in smoke and narrating over CGI shots of the titular Great Wall of China until finally at the last second a monster pops out, then boom, black. Sure you can assume that Damon is the main character and that he will have some sort of hand in the upcoming events but no more. Then the rage starts that his inclusion in a movie with a talented Asian director set in an Asian location is racist because he is a white man and that is not okay in a hero role dealing with other races. If the Chinese army that Damon’s character encounters was somehow shown as lesser or incompetent than maybe you could make the argument that racism is involved here. But that’s not how casting works. Matt Damon did not whip up this script and say “Hey, watch me shower a bunch of Asian people in the glory that is my white privilege.” The guy got a script from his agent, said, “Hey, I could use a couple million more dollars,” and auditioned for the incredibly talented Zhang Yimou. Yimou is known for such masterpieces as Raise the Red Lantern and The Story of Qiu Ju. Most of his films center around a theme focusing on the resilience of the Chinese people and despite its faults, The Great Wall is no different.
Damon’s character is a mercenary that finds himself in the middle of a war that he never even knew existed. An unnamed clan of protectors of The Great Wall of China have fought against supernatural beasts for centuries but find themselves shorthanded against an upcoming massive assault. Now, Damon’s character is skilled and a good help to be sure but he is no leader, savior, or morally righteous sort of man. He is a killer, plain and simple, and does it for whoever has the cash on hand. Various elements compel him to fight for the Wall, though it mostly revolves around a chemistry lacking romance with the film’s female lead played by Jing Tian. Her character is quite the badass, preforming death defying leaps and wonderfully choreographed kills to show that she is a strong independent woman who don’t need no man. The same can be said for most of the massive army that guards the walls poorly explained secrets. There is no worship of Damon, rather he is ridiculed and shown suspicion from most of his “allies” throughout. But he can make an action scene look cool and appeal to American audiences and so he was cast.
Again, I am not saying that film and even TV do not have a diversity problem. Do not even get me started on the casting of Ghost in the Shell and Iron Fist. But give casting directors a bit of a break, they have a job to find someone who fits a role and appeals to audiences at the same time and occasionally there is not always a perfect answer to that. And if that does not make you feel any better than at least leave knowing that the movie really isn’t that good. That’s just me though.