Matt Damon has been receiving tons of backlash from people who think his role in the upcoming film The Great Wall is a classic example of “whitewashing” in Hollywood. But instead of taking the critique seriously, he’s blamed “fake news” for the controversy and has shown that he doesn’t even have a real grasp on what the concept of whitewashing really means.
In the Zhang Yimou-directed fantasy film, Damon stars as William Garin, an English mercenary who comes to ancient China to steal gunpowder. He also turns out to be a hero who saves the Chinese people from the dragons attacking the wall. In other words, he’s a white savior rescuing people of color from their own downfall—a tired trope that has been prevalent in the film industry since just about forever.
Since the trailer for the film was released, Damon’s character has been criticized in many corners, with the most notable commentary coming from Fresh Off The Boat star Constance Wu. “We have to stop perpetuating the racist myth that [only a] white man can save the world. Our heroes don’t look like Matt Damon. They look like Malala. [Gandhi]. Mandela. Your big sister when she stood up for you to those bullies that one time,” Wu said on Twitter in August.
But, instead of actually acknowledging the problems that one of his peers (who is Asian American) and critics have about whitewashing in The Great Wall, Damon blamed fake news and “click-bait” headlines for all of the backlash he’s getting. “It suddenly becomes a story because people click on it, versus the traditional ways that a story would get vetted before it would get to that point,” Damon told the Associated Press.
Despite his objections, it’s pretty clear that Damon doesn’t exactly know what “whitewashing” really means. And by “exactly,” I mean “at all.” He explained to the AP that whitewashing is when white actors put makeup on to play another race, a concept he takes very seriously and doesn’t agree with. But as for his role in The Great Wall? “I didn’t take a role away from a Chinese actor . . . it wasn’t altered because of me in any way,” Damon said.
Unfortunately, Matt Damon, whitewashing is a lot more than just painting a white actor’s face a different color than their own. In fact, nobody calls that “whitewashing.” They call it, for instance, “yellowface.”
It’s more about the erasure of the representation of people of color when telling their own stories. That can mean putting a hotshot white actor in a lead role surrounded by people of color (like Damon in The Great Wall) in an effort to make more money, or turning a story originally about people of color to one entrenched with whiteness in order to make the film appeal to a more “mainstream” audience (like Scarlett Johansson in Ghost In The Shell). That, Matt Damon, is whitewashing. Do you get it now?