Matt Damon Says White Savior Movie Controversy Became a Story Because People Would Click On It

Image via Universal Pictures.
Image via Universal Pictures.

When the teaser trailer for director Zhang Yimou’s new movie The Great Wall was released in late July, it stirred the controversy pot into a frothy boil that has spilled over onto Matt Damon’s complacency.


Hollywood whitewashing has been called out frequently in the last several years, especially since it continues to happen. Damon is featured as the main player in the trailer, though it is a story about Chinese warriors defending the Great Wall against monsters. In China.

On Tuesday, in an interview with the Associated Press, Damon attributed people’s problems with a white man being cast as the savior of China to “fake news,” which is having its moment as an excuse for inconvenient facts. At least, that’s how the AP reports it, though Damon isn’t quoted directly as saying the words “fake news” himself:

Damon questioned whether the critical stories on online news sites based on “a 30-second teaser trailer” would have existed before the era of fake news and headlines designed to make people click on them.

“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,” said the star of the “Bourne” franchise.

People fall for outrageous headlines, but “eventually you stop clicking on some of those more outrageous things because you just realize there is nothing to the story when you get to it,” Damon said.

Zhang had defended his film during the summer in a statement to Entertainment Weekly, writing:

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.

Both Damon and Zhang are hanging the crux of their argument on the fact that Damon’s character was never envisioned as an Asian man. He was intended to be white: a white man leading a film set entirely in China, saving their country and culture through his heroic actions. Damon said to the AP, “Once people see that it’s a monster movie and it’s a historical fantasy and I didn’t take a role away from a Chinese actor,” adding, “It wasn’t altered because of me in any way.”

This of course disregards many of the actual complaints about the movie’s content. One could argue that writing a role for a white man doesn’t take a role from an Asian actor the way literally changing a character’s race does, but it’s still just another role marked for a white actor. Zhang seems to be hoping for a crossover hit, and set out to make a film with a high profile actor in the U.S. who is also popular in foreign markets; in the same interview with the AP, he said, “It is just like relations between countries; cooperation is always a good thing and confrontation is not.”

Contributing Writer, writing my first book for the Dial Press called The Lonely Hunter, follow me on Twitter @alutkin


The Noble Renard

I have to say, as much as I’m not a huge Matt Damon on diversity fan, I trust Zhang Yimou on this one.

Zhang is a fantastic director who has produced incredible works over the past decades and shown that he knows how to make a movie succeed in Hollywood without a single white actor (Hero and House of Flying Daggers, for example). He deserves something of a pass.

I think one can be very much anti-whitewashing and also accept that a foreign director wanting another huge hit (Zhang is kind of the Spielberg of China) might choose to cast a major Hollywood actor in a role that theoretically could have gone to another Chinese actor.