A brief history of whitewashing—from Charlie Chan to “The Great Wall.”
Chinese director Zhang Yimou, of Hero and House of Flying Daggers fame, made his English-language debut with The Great Wall, which opened Friday. But in a story set in ancient China, Matt Damon’s character sticks out like a sore thumb. The presence of his pale mug in movie posters and trailers drew backlash even before the film’s release. “We have to stop perpetuating the racist myth that only a white man can save the world,” Fresh Off the Boat actress Constance Wu wrote in a Twitter tirade. “We don’t need salvation.” Damon and Yimou both publicly defended the film, with Damon calling it “historical fantasy.”
The lack of people of color in starring roles is a longstanding Hollywood problem, and things are especially bad for Asians. A 2016 study (PDF) by the Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism at the University of Southern California found that more than half of films and TV shows had no speaking roles for Asian characters—and it’s exceedingly rare to see Asians in lead roles. Producers often claim there just aren’t enough roles for Asian actors, which is true—or vice versa, which is not. Often, when the opportunity arises to cast Asian characters, Hollywood decision-makers hire white actors to portray them. Sometimes they simply rewrite nonwhite characters as white ones. These things are called whitewashing.