“Whitewashing”: Strange Days for Doctor Strange; Matt Damon Beats His Head against The Great Wall and neither Bruce Lee nor Jackie Chan Can Come to the Rescue
A lot of talk about “whitewashing” this week – not the Huck Finn-Tom Sawyer kind involving the bleaching of a fence, but more like the chatter around big action movies like the forthcoming Matt Damon-starring The Great Wall, director Zhang Yimou’s (Hero, Raise the Red Lantern, House of Flying Daggers)English-language debut, which also stars Jing Tian, Lu Han, and Andy Lau as leaders of the defending Chinese army to which Damon must prove himself. Followers of the Chinese culture space will recognize “whitewashing” as a term flung at the big bad imperialist filmmakers of the West who want to foist their values on the Chinese masses in order to siphon off their hard-earned yuan.
“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,” tweeted actress Constance Wu of TV’s Fresh Off The Boat. Wu’s complaint is that Asian actors can’t headline films even when the source material or the imaginary world is Asian because, outside of Jackie Chan, they can’t drive commercial success like a white Hollywood actor with Damon’s star power.
Wu leveled the charge following the release of The Great Wall teaser trailer. She proclaimed the movie was perpetuating the “racist myth that [only a] white man can save the world.”
Jason Bourne, or at least the actor who plays him for one, finds it offensive that Sino-centric critics are offended by him playing a great white savior type. Asserting that he is most progressive in his sensitivity to ethnic differences and that critics have rushed to judgment of Zhang’s sci-fi monster film based only on a premature and uninformed viewing of the trailer, “Ultimately I feel like you are undermining your own credibility when you attack something without seeing it. You have to educate yourself and then make your attack so that it’s easier to listen from both sides,” Damon said.
“It was a f — ing bummer,” Damon said of criticism at New York Comic Con, as reported by some entertainment sites. “I had a few reactions. I was surprised because it was based on a teaser. It wasn’t even a full trailer, let alone the movie. So to get those charges levied against you just isn’t fair.
”To me, whitewashing I think of Chuck Connors when he played Geronimo.” While the stereotyping issue goes back much further than Chuck Connors’ portrayals of Native American portrayals to J. Carroll Naish’s casting as Charlie Chan, the current wave of criticism is China- and ethnocentric, and has been leveled at more recent films with Chinese celebrities in American productions (For example, Fan Bingbing in X-Men, Beijing, New York‘s Chiling Lin and Liu Ye).
In Hollywood, whitewashing reared its ugly head last year regarding Cameron Crowe’s Aloha. Director Crowe came under fire from an Asian-American advocacy group that said his new film totally whitewashed Hawaii because it cast a Caucasian actor in a role with a Chinese last name. In Crowe’s romantic comedy, Bradley Cooper stars alongside a slew of white co-stars. That’s completely untrue to the rich diversity of the 50th state. “Caucasians only make up 30 percent of the population [of Hawaii], but from watching this film, you’d think they made up 99 percent,” Guy Aoki, head and co-founder of Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA), said in a statement.
Asians played only non-speaking background characters in the film, which “uses Hawaii for its exotic backdrop but goes out of its way to exclude the very people who live there. It’s an insult to the diverse culture and fabric of Hawaii,” Aoki said. He added that Aloha, which also stars Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams, Alec Baldwin, and Bill Murray is not the first film that fails to accurately portray Hawaii’s demographics. He cited The Descendants, 50 First Dates, Blue Crush, and Pearl Harbor as being among the other cinematic culprits.
And last week, blogger S.T. Wong of KultureMedia, a media watchdog on behalf of Asian Americans, op-edded in China’s state-run The Global Times that “…there has been a spate of racial issues involving Chinese lately that received some widespread attention.” He urges his readers to action, including protest, alerting the media, and sharp attacks like Wu’s on The Great Wall. “When news of a Mulan remake came to light, people took to a petition to protest against ‘whitewashing’ the film and including white characters for no good reason. Some lesser known examples include the Bruce Lee biopic Birth of the Dragon, which inexplicably focused on some white guy and his romantic relationship with a Chinese girl. Bruce Lee’s own daughter Shannon has distanced herself from the film. Hollywood’s obsession with injecting white male characters into films is borderline pathological at this point,” he wrote.
CFI‘s Fergus Ryan pointed out that IMDb users who say they have seen Birth of the Dragon protest the film’s emphasis on the Caucasian character mastering martial arts and dating an Asian woman as offensive. While Hong Kong-born American actor Philip Ng (伍允龍) plays Bruce Lee, and China actor Xia Yu (夏雨) plays Wong Jack Man, many fans have expressed concern that they get less screen time than American actor Billy Magnussen, who plays Lee’s fictional friend Steve McKee.
Lee’s daughter Shannon, whose Bruce Lee Entertainment is spearheading a rival biopic about her father, took to Instagram to lodge her own protest calling the film “a travesty on many levels. … This film is a step backward for Asians in film not to mention that the portrayal of Bruce Lee is inaccurate and insulting,” Lee wrote. “I am disappointed that such a project would be funded and produced.”
Director George Nolfi likened the role of the Steve McKee character to the narrator in The Great Gatsby, in an interview with Deadline in September. “The reality is, Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man did not know each other for a long period before the fight and they weren’t heavily involved with each other after the fight,” Nolfi said.
Stateside, meanwhile, where #OscarsSoWhite and #BlackLivesMatter are prevalent, the Asian American community has responded with its own hashtags #AsianWhiteWashing, #yellowface and #whitesavior trending as topics on entertainment press and blog sites. The Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) together with Comcast NBCUniversal, have organized a forum on these topics next month. “Expanding the Conversation: Asian Americans in Media” will be addressing issues facing both the Asian American community and the entertainment and media industry at large, organizers say. They are calling it Solutions-Oriented Conversation About the Status of Asian Americans Moving the Needle on Diversity and Inclusion in Hollywood, an interactive conversation with Sandra Oh (Sideways, Grey’s Anatomy), Grace Lee (American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs), Karen Horne (SVP, Talent Development & Inclusion, NBCUniversal), with moderator MSNBC Anchor Richard Lui. Touted as a “national conversation about how Asian Americans are moving, pushing forward to ensure that we are represented in front of and behind the camera in the worlds of film, documentary, public media, entertainment, talent development and network TV,” the seminar will take place November 2 on the Universal Studios lot in Los Angeles.
The Bruce Lee story cited a number of recent cases of alleged “whitewashing” in movies including Scarlett Johansson’s casting in a remake of the Japanese anime classic Ghost in the Shell, Disney’s stated intention to cast a Chinese female actor in the lead of their upcoming live-action remake of Mulan and Tilda Swinton’s casting in Doctor Strange, in U.S. theaters November 4.
Swinton’s character switch from a Tibetan mystic to a Celtic female was not just a story about racial stereotypes. The casting move could be a factor in Marvel’s easy passage through censors’ grasp in day-and-date global release, but some fans are calling it a whitewash, nonetheless, CFI reported this week. Protests gained steam earlier this year when Doctor Strange screenwriter C. Robert Cargill argued on the Double Toasted podcast that Tilda Swinton was cast partly as a political move to prevent the Chinese government from banning the film.
Yet, Vanity Fair jumped on the #AsianWhiteWashing bandwagon with director Scott Derrickson’s commentary that “The Ancient One in the comics is a very old American stereotype of what Eastern characters and people are like, and I felt very strongly that we need to avoid those stereotypes at all costs,”
Cumberbatch, best known to local fans for his role as TV’s Sherlock, joined director Derrickson and Swinton in Hong Kong to promote the film. In the original Marvel comic, Swinton’s character “the Ancient One,” is portrayed as a mystical male Tibetan mentor for Cumberbatch’s character Stephen Strange. But in the upcoming film, the character’s ethnicity has been changed to Celtic and gender to a woman, prompting many to accuse Marvel of whitewashing the character.
Noë Gold previously was features editor at The Hollywood Reporter, executive editor of Movies USA, LA Family, Parenting OC, LA Times Custom Publishing, Bikini, Home Entertainment, and Guitar World. He has been a Hollywood correspondent for Jing Daily and a columnist for the Village Voice and the New York Daily News. In 2015, Gold came on board to create the prototype for China Film Insider and manage the editorial during its initial phase. He is now China Film Insider’s content manager.