Matt Damon Talks The Great Wall Whitewashing Controversy

Matt Damon spoke about the whitewashing charges leveled against The Great Wall.

New York Comic-Con is in full swing and one of the well-attended panels at The Theater under Madison Square Garden was the one for Legendary and Universal Pictures’ The Great Wall where they premiered the new trailer.

Afterwards, Den of Geek sat in on a press conference with director Zhang Yimou, Matt Damon, and some of the others in the cast and eventually, someone addressed the elephant in the room, which is the claims that the film engaged in “whitewashing” by having a white actor coming in to save the Chinese in what’s seen as a historical epic.

Damon gave a rather long and thoughtful response to the accusations, making it clear that he did take them more seriously than some thought.

“Yeah, it was a fuckng bummer,” Damon said to laughs from the press after being presented with the question. “I had a few reactions. I was surprised, I guess, 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… but what really bummed me out was that 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.”

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“Look,” he continued, “there are far more nuanced versions of it, and I do try to sensitive to that, but (his co-star) Pedro Pascal called me and goes, ‘We are guilty of whitewashing. We all know that only the Chinese defended the Wall against the monsters when they attacked.’”  

(Pascal, who was sitting next to Damon at the press conference, denied saying that.)

“It was nice to react a little sarcastically, because we were wounded by it. We do take that seriously. That is a serious thing,” Damon said.

Pascal, best known from his roles in Game of Thrones and Narcos, jumped in with a few of his own thoughts. “We don’t want people to be kept from work that they wouldn’t have the opportunity otherwise to see that is very specifically Chinese,” he said. “It’s Zhang Yimou’s lens. It is a creature feature. It’s a big fantastical popcorn entertainment movie, but it has a visual style that is very much his and there are actors we haven’t met that are from China. There’s a Chinese crew and stars that some of the Western world knows but not a lot.”

“When you look at it from a marketing perspective, what’s the worst wipe-out for a marketing team then to have that happen, as the backlash against a teaser you put out?” Damon continued. “I thought about it from their perspective. Okay, they’re trying to establish a number of things. In 30 seconds or a minute or whatever much they had—it’s not a full length trailer, it’s a teaser—and they’re trying to tease a.) the monster, right? They’re trying to say, ‘Look, it’s a visionary filmmaker that you probably don’t know.’ (They’re trying to speak to a bigger audience, not us.) ‘You probably don’t know who this director is in Middle America, but he’s the Steven Spielberg of China, right? Don’t worry.”

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“They speak English in this movie,” Damon said, “so you hear my voice speaking English. ‘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. And 30 seconds and you’re done. So there’s a lot of pipe they’re trying to lay in that thirty seconds, and I guess in retrospect, I watched that teaser a number of times to try to understand the criticism, but ultimately, where I came down… look, if people see this movie and feel like there’s somehow whitewashing involved in a creature feature that we made up, I will listen to that with my whole heart and I will think about that and try to learn from that.”

But Damon does believe in the film. “I will be surprised if people see this movie and have that reaction,” he said. “I will be genuinely shocked. It’s a perspective that as a progressive person, I really do agree with and 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 about what it is and then make your attack for your argument and then it’s easier to listen to from my side.”

The Great Wall opens February 17, 2017.