Movie

‘The Great Wall’ mirrors a changing global economy, with a hint of white

This weekend, the Chinese film “The Great Wall” opened starring famed Chinese star — Matt Damon? Although the character he plays is European, this signifies an important issue in Hollywood.

The case of “The Great Wall” is rather complicated, as it is a co-production between Universal Pictures, a U.S. company, and a host of Chinese companies including China Film Group. While our views of American exceptionalism make us think, “Hmmm, how does this white savior narrative affect us?” the ultimate truth is that this movie was barely made for us. Matt Damon’s presence in the film is there for American audiences, but don’t be confused because Chinese audiences were the primary concern when this film was created. One can notice these efforts in the box office results for the film as the opening weekend in China was three times as large as the U.S. opening.

In many ways, “The Great Wall” is an oddly progressive film but it is flawed in its creation. The fact that a film of this size and scale is being made for Chinese audiences — with one of the largest Chinese casts ever assembled — is a huge step forward for the globalization of the film industry. For many Chinese audience members, this will be one of the first times they feel catered to on screen in a western blockbuster, which is exciting.

The problem, as previously mentioned, is that they’ll only feel represented with a big, white Matt Damon on the screen. While he might sell tickets in China too, Damon’s appearance in the film represents the need to cater to traditional American viewers, too.

This trend of putting white Europeans or Americans in roles where they do not necessarily belong is not a new trend and it doesn’t look like it will be going away in the foreseeable future. You can even see this in the most popular films, such as “Avatar,” where your white savior goes in and makes everything okay for the Na’vi. While this is problematic, at the very least it serves a purpose on a narrative level.

A truly disturbing issue is the concept of “whitewashing,” a premise that was prevalent back in the early days of popular film, but has never really gone away. You can see it in multiple films this year. While the practice is different than Matt Damon acting as a white savior, the premise is the same: American audiences will only be comfortable watching someone white and familiar on screen.

This year, we have a very interesting example of whitewashing with the upcoming film “Ghost in the Shell.” Coming out in a little more than a month, this film is a big budget adaptation of a beloved Japanese manga franchise. Now, seeing this is a Japanese film, it would only make sense if the protagonist was played by acclaimed Japanese actress … Scarlett Johansson. While Johansson is a spectacular actress, ultimately this film is not somewhere she should grace her presence.

“Ghost in the Shell” is a film so deeply rooted in Japanese culture. While there will be concessions made to accommodate for American audiences, to make such a vast change is to disrespect the source material of the film and the culture and people who love it. Through these processes of “Americanizing” films, it shows the world that as much as we want to participate in this global economy, we will only do it if we are front and center, or at the very least, made comfortable by the representation on screen.

As we move forward with global cinema, I expect we’ll see a lot more movies like “The Great Wall,” but with less and less Matt Damon. Eventually, Americans will get more comfortable seeing people on screen who look less “American,” a definition that is ever changing. Ultimately, the global cinema will be strong enough where “The Great Wall” won’t even need America, showing an economy that is less and less reliant on the red, white and blue super power.

Erik Benjamin is a sophomore television, radio and film major. His column appears weekly in Pulp. You can email him at ebenjami@syr.edu or follow him @embenjamin14 on Twitter.

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