Shut Up About Matt Damon ‘Whitewashing’ Chinese History

Shut Up About Matt Damon ‘Whitewashing’ Chinese History

Constance Wu isn’t all that appreciably closer than Matt Damon is to the culture and mindset of playing a Chinese guy who lived in the fourteenth century.
Mark Hemingway
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Matt Damon now finds himself at the center of the latest politically correct controversy because the actor is starring in “The Great Wall.” You can watch the trailer here. As a result, Damon is being accused of “‘whitewashing’ Chinese history.

Damon isn’t just a regular Hollywood liberal; he’s such a diehard lefty he thinks Howard Zinn is an important, let alone honest, historian (see here, here, and here). He has also miraculously made a lot of money asking the question, “What if we turned the James Bond franchise into joyless, left-wing agitprop?” Since Damon now finds himself victimized by the identity politics he otherwise seems to champion, the temptation here is to say, “How do you like them apples?”

However, the idiocy of poring over every movie to ensure it meets whatever sexual or ethnographic standards are en vogue at the moment is something I’m confident the vast majority of the movie-going public is pretty sick of. So here’s a quick accounting of the ways this critique is brain-damaged.

4 Reasons This Is Obviously Stupid

1) This is a film about dragons. Yes, really. This is not a somber meditation on Chinese history, but an action-fantasy flick that posits the Chinese built the great wall of China to keep from being attacked by dragons. So if I’m understanding this right, we’re cool with suspending belief to watch Chinese warriors from hundreds of years ago fight dragons. But having one of those heroes fighting the dragons look like Matt Damon—well, that’s just outrageously unrealistic. Uh huh.

2) The director of this film is Chinese. If you’ve seen his work such as “Hero” and “House of the Flying Daggers,” you know Yimou Zhang is a brilliant visual stylist. Attacking Damon just for accepting the role is a cheap way to avoid the uncomfortable truth that Zhang cast him. Shouldn’t we just respect Zhang’s artistic choices and let him cast whoever he wants?

3) If casting Damon is a commercial ploy, so what? Fine, let’s sweep assumptions of Zhang’s artistic integrity aside and assume Damon was cast strictly because it helps open the film to American audiences. (Several critics are already making this leap.) Is this necessarily a bad thing if it helps expose Americans to the impressive work of Zhang and other Chinese filmmakers? Besides, China’s film market is about to overtake that of the United States in size. It isn’t exactly looking like China’s global cultural influence is in danger of being smothered by Hollywood.

4) The critics of “The Wall” are insufferable and have no concrete point. Sitcom star Contance Wu is getting her 15 minutes of fame for this Twitter rant about Damon and “The Wall”:


I don’t know about you, but I find it really hard to read angsty walls of text when I can’t stop my eyes from rolling. What I don’t understand is the moral authority Wu thinks she has here. If we all agree that appearance is a pretty superficial way to judge one’s cultural background, Wu has a helluva lot more in common with Damon than, say, Yimou Zhang.

Cultural Appropriation Is Turtles All the Way Down

That’s because Wu is an American and graduated from high school in Richmond, Virginia. If Damon were playing the role of a child of Taiwanese immigrants, her case for “cultural appropriation” might mean something. But epicanthic folds aside, Wu isn’t all that appreciably closer to the culture and mindset of playing a Chinese warrior from centuries past than Damon is. Have at it, Matt.

Seriously, think about this for moment. Because I’m an American descendant of Scottish immigrants, would anyone seriously respond to me complaining that the most famous film portrayal of Rob Roy was played by an Irishman? Is casting Liam Neeson as a Scottish folk hero acceptable just because the Irish and Scots all look essentially alike, despite having distinct languages and cultures?

Or are we really hung up on physical characteristics? Should I be offended that Taiwanese director Ang Lee was allowed to make “Brokeback Mountain” instead of producers scouring Wyoming for a gay cowboy to better represent his people? Are there any actual lines we can draw here that don’t run roughshod over creative freedom?

The answer, of course, is no. That’s why after uncorking this mess, Wu couldn’t define any of the problems or contradictions here, and thus quickly arrived at the last refuge of any damned identity politics argument. It’s all about “awareness”:

Great. Consider me aware. Now can we shut up about Matt Damon and let Yimou Zhang make a movie about dragons? It looks pretty cool.

Mark Hemingway is the Book Editor at The Federalist, and a senior writer at The Weekly Standard. Follow him on Twitter at @heminator

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