The first poster and trailer for The Great Wall (opens in new tab) debuted online last week, and controversy swiftly followed. Many took issue with the fact that both marketing materials placed a heavy focus on Matt Damon, whose white American looks to be the hero of a film set in Ancient China. In a statement to Entertainment Weekly (opens in new tab), director Zhang Yimou explained why that won't necessarily be the case:
"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".
Yimou certainly makes some good points here. We aren't armed with all the facts yet, and as such concluding that Damon is a 'white saviour' type in the film may yet prove to be a premature assumption. It's also worth noting that trailers are cut much differently from region to region, so while the US trailer was 90% Matt Damon it's likely that the same won't be true for international trailers.
With that said, whichever party was responsible for OK-ing that trailer - be it filmmakers, studio, or otherwise - should have seen this negative reaction coming from several miles away. Whitewashing is a hot-button issue right now, and it's not surprising that people would immediately jump to the white hero conclusion given Hollywood's recent history (I'm looking at you Gods of Egypt, Pan, and Ghost in the Shell). For now though, let's take a step back and have a little faith that Yimou and co have avoided that trope with The Great Wall.
Directed by Zhang Yimou and starring Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Willem Dafoe, Pedro Pascal, and Andy Lau, The Great Wall will be released in US theatres on February 17, 2017 before making its way to the UK a week later on February 24, 2017.
Images: Legendary Pictures/Universal Pictures