How Matt Damon Really Feels About The Great Wall Whitewashing Controversy

The Great Wall

When the teaser trailer for The Great Wall was released back in August it was instantly accused of white-washing, as critics insisted that Matt Damon's leading role should have gone to a Chinese actor. Set in medieval China over a thousand years ago, it was alleged that Damon's casting was just carrying on the cinematic trope of a special white person saving the day instead of a person of color. But now Matt Damon himself has shot back against this whitewashing controversy, denying it and then insisting that it's still way too early to make a judgment on the film as it hasn't even been released yet.

Matt Damon made his impassioned defense of The Great Wall at a press conference for the film at New York Comic Con on Saturday that I was in attendance for, during which it was made clear that Damon isn't playing a character of Chinese descent. Damon admitted that he was devastated at the initial reaction to the teaser, while at the same time admitting he was surprised that people had been so quick to judge. When asked for his reaction to the furor Damon remarked:

It was a fucking bummer. I had a few reactions. I was surprised, because it was based on a teaser. It wasn't even a full trailer, let alone the movie. So to get those charges levied against you. What bummed me out actually, I read The Atlantic religiously and there was an article in The Atlantic, and I was like, 'Really guys?' To me, whitewashing I think of Chuck Connors when he played Geronimo. And, look there are far more nuanced versions of it and I do try to be sensitive to that. But Pedro [Pascal] called me and he goes, 'You know we're all guilty of whitewashing. We all know that only the Chinese defended the wall against the monsters when they attacked.' We react a little sarcastically because we were wounded by it. We do take that seriously. That's a serious thing to be [accused of].

Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal were quick to note that insist that The Great Wall is still "very, very specifically Chinese", insisting that it couldn't not be because it's being seen through director Zhang Yimou's lens. At the same time they also noted how it's a giant co-production, and that not only was the crew was entirely Chinese but that most of The Great Wall's cast is, too.

After launching his own defence of the teaser, Matt Damon decided not to leave the marketing team behind the heavily criticized trailer for The Great Wall in the lurch by themselves. Instead, he looked at things from their perspective and explained.

When you look at it from a marketing perspective. What's a worst wipe out for a marketing team than to have that happen as a backlash against a teaser? I thought of it from their perspective. They're trying to establish a number of things in 30 seconds, or whatever amount of time they had. It's not a full length trailer, it's a teaser. And they're trying to tease a) the monster, and they're trying to say, 'Hey look, it's a visionary filmmaker that you probably don't know,' they're trying to speak to a bigger audience. It's the Steven Spielberg of China. 'Don't worry they speak English in this movie.' You hear my voice. 'Don't worry Matt's in the movie, you've seen this guy before.' They're trying to establish all these things. 'And, by the way, there are monsters'. All in 30 seconds. So, there's a lot that they're trying to hype.

Matt Damon even admitted that he was a little haunted by the varied attacks on The Great Wall, which then forced him to return to the trailer on a number of occasions so that he could try and understand the criticisms being made. After a little soul searching he decided that the onslaught was still premature, but admitted that if they continue once The Great Wall is released he'll hold his hands up and learn from the mistakes. Damon explained:

I watched the trailer a number of times to understand the criticism. And, ultimately, where I come down is if people watch the movie and still believe there's whitewashing involved in it, in a creature feature that we made up, then I will listen to it with my whole heart. And I will think about that and I will try to learn from it. I will be surprised if people watch it and have that reaction. I will be genuinely shocked. But it's a perspective as a progressive person I really do agree with and try to listen to and try to be sensitive to. But ultimately I feel like you are undermining your own credibility when you attack something without seeing it. You have to educate yourself and then make your attack so that it's easier to listen from both sides.

The Great Wall sees Matt Damon's mysterious warrior travel over 1,000 miles to the titular location alongside his companion (Pedro Pascal). They make this excursion so that they can claim a weapon that will bring any army in the world to its knees. However, when they arrive, the wall is attacked by a legion of creatures. Damon looks to join the army, which is lead by Jing Tian, Lu Han, and Andy Lau, but in order to do so he must undergo a series of tests before he can help to defend the great wall.

The Great Wall will be released on February 17, 2017, and it marks the English-language director of the acclaimed director of Hero, Raise the Red Lantern, and House of Flying Daggers, Zhang Yimou.

Gregory Wakeman