“The Great Wall” (2017)

Warning: this whole thing is one big whatever the “Asian equivalent of a Sambo Alert” might be.  Here there be dragons.

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Just saw “The Great Wall.” It was 100% what I thought it was: white hero saves China.

Nothing intrinsically wrong with that: if Chinese made a movie set in America with a Chinese star, he would save the day. Why? Because Chinese, predictably, will prefer to see a Chinese star. That’s human nature. Asians will have a special preference for Asians, blacks for blacks, whites for whites. We will expand that to include certain members of “the other” but in general, whether we want to admit it or not, that’s the way to bet. The problem isn’t the movie (which was fun, although I wondered why the hell the Chinese didn’t use that damned McGuffin  gunpowder more, instead of dangling women like hors d’oeuvre yo-yos) but lets have some truth here.

 

  1. The issue was always getting a white hero in there, to appeal to white Americans. In all our cinematic history, there may have been a couple of “honorary white” actors like Morgan Freeman or Will Smith, who might have stepped into the role of “window into the exotic”   Damon supplied (he plays a Westerner in Asian to steal gunpowder…and why didn’t they use it against the monsters more, from the damned beginning, concentrating all fire on the queen for about two hours until she and all her guards were cinders?  Oh well), but in general, of COURSE that’s what they were doing. Nothing wrong with it, except the perceived need to lie, or the obliviousness.
  2. OF COURSE Matt Damon was Tarzan, the traditional “one of us who becomes one of them and is better at it.”   Again, I’d bet there are stories like this in all cultures. Everyone wants to believe they are the best, sexiest, strongest. People who claim this isn’t true of GREAT WALL obviously fell asleep during the critical plot turns of capturing the monster, and the climax of the film.  Little major points like that.   In the former scene, there are thousands of Chinese soldiers watching as two white guys sally out and catch the beast. And at the end, out of a billion Chinese,  Matt Damon’s brawn and brain are 50% of the team that solves the problem.   Again, nothing wrong with that, except the lying or obliviousness.
  3. There would be nothing overall wrong with the movie, except it is part of a pattern.  What’s the pattern?  Let me ask you one question: what was the last major studio film starring an Asian American?  I mean Chinese, Japanese, Korean, you know. “The Rock” Dwayne Johnson is half Samoan, which is kinda sorta Asian…which is a lot like pointing to Vin Diesel as “proof” that blacks can be sexual in boxoffice giants.   You are missing the point, and I think, deliberately.  Where is Donnie Yen? Or an Asian American without godlike martial skills?  I’ll tell you where–in the background, or not in your Multiplex at all.  Why?  Because people like to see themselves. Let’s be honest, shall we?  When you say “they wanted an American star” or “A Western Star” you mean “they wanted a white star, because white people control Hollywood and drive the box office, and like other human beings they want to see themselves.”    If you’re white, should you feel guilty about this?  Nope, because everyone else feels the same way.  I’m just saying “tell the truth, dammit.  Or wake up, because you’re driving while asleep.”
  4. Poor little Matt Damon.   I heard people defending him.  Why blame the actor? He just wanted to work with a beloved director and have a free Chinese vacation and make a few more million dollars.  He did those things. Huzzah.  But what he DOESN’T have the right to do is to do them, and not be criticized for doing them.  Is it his fault that this situation exists?  That there aren’t any American films with Asian-American leads?  No, it isn’t.  But neither was it specifically the fault of any of the actors, producers, or directors who made the countless films that  excluded Asian Americans and/or cast white people  in makeup in their roles and/or changed the backstories so that white people could play them.  In no case that I can think of did anyone ever say “we didn’t want to cast/see an Asian in that role.”  NO ONE EVER SAYS IT.  Someone, therefore, is lying.     There is always an excuse (sorry, I mean a reason).  And it is predictable that 90% of the people who lost the role will complain, and 90% of the members of the racial group advantaged by the change will look the other way and say “who, us?”
  5. Damon is probably a nice guy, but he is as blind or dishonest as anyone else.  On “Project Greenlight” he got into it with my friend, producer Effie Brown, on the question of diversity.  So far as he was concerned, diversity is only important IN FRONT OF the camera.  Not BEHIND the camera.  You know what happens when you don’t have representation BEHIND the camera? You end up explaining this shit again and again and again, to people who are profited by remaining oblivious.  When you have representation BEHIND the camera, magically and mysteriously, the right decisions begin to be made, and statistical parity is approached.   Odd how that happens.  You also get more human characters who are treated better. Prime example: WALKING DEAD.   No black creative talent?  The black male characters are treated like dirt, emasculated with less force or Yang energy than white women and children.   Are killed protecting white people, and so fragile that a single zombie child ends them. Put a couple of Asian-American writers on the staff? Glenn gets laid, is forceful and resourceful, and can be BURIED in zombies and get away without a scratch.   Oh, please…if you want to do this crap, be my guest. But don’t think you can keep lying about what you’re doing, or shame me for pointing it out.  Bring a lunch.

 

So there ya go.  In a better world, “GREAT WALL” is just a “B” monster movie with “A” production values.  A popcorn movie.  But in our world, where I cannot even remember the last Asian American who top-lined a major American film, it is another example of a very specific trend.  Did it get unjustly maligned?   Only if you don’t care about the pattern, IMO.  Was Damon unjustly blamed?  Same answer: he can do what he wants. And we have the right to comment on it, just as some of you will criticize my criticism.   If you have the right to criticize ME, I sure as hell have the right to criticized THEM.

Am I “telling China what to make?”  Hell no, I’m commenting on it. Do you really not understand the difference?   My concern isn’t Chinese, who are surrounded by films and culture that reflect them, and for whom Matt Damon is appealingly exotic, as well as a way to siphon up white dollars.

My concern is for Asian Americans, my brothers and sisters in a fight to make America live up to its promise, or tell the truth that it has no intention to do so.  You can’t have it both ways.

You know, until black people started complaining, minstrel shows merrily lampooned us in blackface, and we were told complaining was absurd: it was a sign of respect and affection!  And if we weren’t in movies, why make your own! And when we appeared only in secondary roles, well, you’re not “the majority”…it’s nothing personal. Nothing racial at all.  And if we died more often, or never got laid, well, that was just the script, and maybe those black actors just didn’t WANT to do love scenes…

EVERY SINGLE STEP we were told we were wrong.  Everything I’ve ever spoken of in this regard, gaslighting was attempted in return: I was told I was wrong, racist, exaggerating, pushing too hard and too fast, and should wait a little while longer…

Screw that.   We pushed, and we’re still pushing. Want our money?  Tell our damned stories, and hire our people.  PERIOD.

And I am so damned happy the Asian American community is finally making its voice heard.  Some innocents will be caught in the crossfire.

Innocents have been getting caught in that crossfire from the beginning. The only difference is that now, not all the blood is ours.

That’s war, but we didn’t start it.

 

Namaste,

Steve

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