Matt Damon in ‘The Great Wall’ movie: Director defends casting white man

Matt Damon speaks at a news conference in China about his upcoming movie, 'The Great Wall.'. AP Photo/File

It’s a disturbing trend in cinema: when actors or actresses of a completely different race are cast in specific roles.

Recent examples include the rumours that Caucasian Leonardo DiCaprio was to be cast as a Muslim poet, or the actual casting of Emma Stone, a white woman, as a partially Chinese woman in Aloha — but this type of casting has been going on for decades.

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The latest casting decision making waves is “white man” Matt Damon playing the lead in The Great Wall, an English-language, $150-million Chinese-Hollywood fantasy movie set in China involving menacing supernatural monsters.

Acclaimed Chinese director Zhang Yimou has responded to criticism from Asian-American actress Constance Wu (Fresh Off the Boat) over the casting of his movie’s lead, saying the role was never conceived for a Chinese actor.

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Constance Wu posted on Twitter last week: “We have to stop perpetuating the racist myth that a only [sic] white man can save the world.”

“Our heroes don’t look like Matt Damon,” her post read, listing alternatives such as Pakistani schoolgirl turned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai, Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi and South African president and anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela.

The Great Wall is the first English-language movie by Zhang Yimou, the director of the romantic Kung Fu drama House of Flying Daggers, and the opulent opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

“For the first time, a film deeply rooted in Chinese culture, with one of the largest Chinese casts ever assembled, is being made at tentpole scale for a world audience. I believe that is a trend that should be embraced by our industry,” Zhang said in a statement posted on Entertainment Weekly Thursday.

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“Our film is not about the construction of the Great Wall. 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,” he was quoted as saying. Zhang said actors portraying the movie’s other four “major heroes” are Chinese.

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The casting of Damon hasn’t sparked any controversy in China, where producers are increasingly entering into co-productions with American and other movie makers to improve their filmmaking techniques, and where the government is pushing for Chinese films to be global hits. Hollywood has been drawn to China by the country’s deep-pocketed financiers and its box office that is now the world’s second biggest.

The Great Wall is due to be released in December in China and in early 2017 in other countries, including Canada.

With files from The Associated Press

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