The White Savior trope is so-named for the cinematic trope wherein a white and typically male protagonist is a 'savior' who saves people of color from their oppression. Historical epics such as The Last Samurai and Dances with Wolves are frequently cited as examples of this widely-criticized trope, though it often pops up in fantasy and/or science-fiction fare too, where the white male protagonist protects a marginalized non-human population (symbolizing people of color) from their oppressors a la Avatar.
There are, of course, also variations of this trope in films that are based on real-life events and people, as was the case with this year's Matthew McConaughy-led historical drama, Free State of Jones. Thus The Great Wall, the upcoming historical fantasy adventure movie from Chinese director Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern, Hero, House of Flying Daggers), is but the latest in a long line of Hollywood movies to be criticized for using a variation on the White Savior trope, following the release of the film's teaser trailer.
Matt Damon headlines the film as a missionary traveling through ancient China, where he discovers the truth about the country's famous Great Wall; that it was really constructed in order to protect the people of China from dangerous creatures that linger beyond the outskirts of the Wall - creatures that Damon's character must also do battle with. Writers such as The Daily Beast's Jen Yamato have already weighed in with their criticisms of Damon's casting in The Great Wall.
Now, Constance Wu, star of ABC's acclaimed sitcom Fresh Off the Boat - one of but a few sitcoms in TV history on network primetime to revolve around an Asian-American family - has posted a statement on her verified Twitter account in response to The Great Wall's trailer release and start of marketing; not only criticizing the casting of Damon as The Great Wall's protagonist, but also the typical argument that is used to justify similar casting decisions (and the use of the White Savior trope). Namely, that it's necessary in order for a big-budget film such as The Great Wall to be commercially viable in both the U.S. and international markets.
You can read Wu's full statement on The Great Wall's casting of Damon and related matter, below (and click here for her followup tweets to the statement).
On The Great Wall: We have to stop perpetuating the racist myth that only a white man can save the world. It’s not based in actual fact. 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.
Money is the lamest excuse in the history of being human. So is blaming the Chinese investors. (POC's choices can based on unconscious bias too.) Remember it’s not about blaming individuals, which will only lead to soothing their lame 'b-but I had good intentions! but…money!' microaggressive excuses. Rather, it’s about pointing out the repeatedly implied racist notion that white people are superior to POC and that POC need salvation from our own color via white strength. When you consistently make movies like this, you ARE saying that. YOU ARE. Yes. YOU ARE. YES YOU ARE. Yes dude, you f***ing ARE. Whether you intend to or not. We like our color and our culture and our own strengths and our own stories. (If we don't we should) We don't need you to save us from anything. And we're rrrrreally getting starting to get sick of you telling us, either explicitly or implicitly, that we do.
Think only a huge movie star can sell a movie? That has NEVER been a total guarantee. Why not TRY to be better? If white actors are forgiven for having a box office failure once in a while, why can't a POC sometimes have one? And how COOL would it be if you were the movie that took the 'risk' to make a POC as your hero, and you sold the s**t out of it?! The whole community would be celebrating! If nothing else, you’d get some mad respect (which is WAY more valuable than money) so MAKE that choice.
I know that overcoming your own bias and doing something differently takes balls... Well don't you WANT balls? I know there are lots of POC who honestly don't care. Who think I'M being crazy. Well excuse me for caring about the images that little girls see, and what that implies to them about their limitations or possibilities. If you know a kid, you should care too. Because we WERE those kids. Why do you think it was so nice to see a nerdy white kid have a girl fall in love with him? Because you WERE that nerdy kid who felt unloved. And seeing pictures in Hollywood's stories made it feel possible. That's why it moved you, that's why it was a great story. Hollywood is supposed to be about making great stories. So make them.
While Yimou has said that he attempted to bring a degree of cultural authenticity to The Great Wall, including casting Chinese actors such as Andy Lau (House of Flying Daggers) and Tian Jin (Police Story: Lockdown) in key supporting roles, the filmmaker has also admitted the the movie "is really told from an American’s perspective."
The Great Wall screenplay is likewise officially credited to writing duo Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro (Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time), as well as Tony Gilroy (the Bourne franchise), and based on a story credited to World War Z author Max Brooks and Last Samurai duo Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick. Based on the collective resume of the film's writers, it becomes easier to see how The Great Wall ended up including frequently-criticized elements such as the White Savior trope (or a variation of it), even with a seasoned and respected Chinese filmmaker in Yimou at the helm.
However, as Wu notes, even setting the issue of representation in pop culture aside, The Great Wall's casting formula - having a white male A-lister (Damon) lead a cast that includes other U.S. Actors (Willem Dafoe) and non-white actors (Pedro Pascal) in a supporting capacity - is far from guaranteed to result in global box office success. In recent years, more and more movies that have either white-washed roles or seemingly gone out their way to feature white actors in stories where their inclusion feels out of place or "forced" (a la The Great Wall) have under-performed at the box office.
Whether or not The Great Wall (a film estimated to have cost $135-160 million to produce) will buck that trend remains to be seen, but it's probably fair to say: this wasn't the response that the movie's backers and U.S. distributor Universal Pictures hoped for when beginning the film's marketing campaign.
The Great Wall opens in China and U.S. theaters on February 17th, 2017.
Source: Constance Wu
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