In the upcoming The Great Wall, Matt Damon plays the hero: A dragon-slayer defending the Great Wall in ancient China. Damon, for the uninitiated, is white. So probably not the most obvious choice for Champion Of Chinese People, but here we are.
Constance Wu is the star of ABC’s Fresh off the Boat, the first American sitcom to star an Asian family since Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl ran for a single season in the mid-1990s. On Friday, she posted a message on Twitter about her dismay at Damon’s casting and its significance. “We have to stop perpetuating the racist myth that only a white man can save the world,” she began. “Our heroes don’t look like Matt Damon. They look like Malala, Gandhi, Mandela.”
The usual excuses from Hollywood executives — that the Chinese market, which has enormous buying power and, by extension, influence, wants to see white faces; that no one was being racist on purpose; that movies need Damon-level stars above the marquee to sell tickets — leave Wu as unimpressed as McKayla Maroney in 2012.
Can we all at least agree that hero-bias & "but it's really hard to finance" are no longer excuses for racism? TRY pic.twitter.com/mvNet5PrtH
— Constance Wu (@ConstanceWu) July 29, 2016
Wu has spoken, thoughtfully and at length, about these issues before. When news leaked of CGI testing to make white actors look Asian in the film Ghost in the Shell (already under fire for its casting of a white woman as the lead in a movie based on a Japanese anima and manga series), Wu called it “the practice of blackface employed on Asians.” She spoke with Vulture earlier this year about the exclusion of Asian actors from leading roles, saying that “Asian erasure is largely based in systemic bias and microaggression, which inherently has good intentions,” but that those good intentions are part of the problem, because “when you cause a ruckus about someone’s choice who had a good intention, the human reaction is to become defensive.”
This spring, Wu was featured in the New York Times alongside Daniel Dae Kim, BD Wong, and Aziz Ansari in a feature about Asian-American actors “fighting for visibility” and refusing to “be ignored.” Landing the lead on Fresh off the Boat, she told the Times, “changed me,” moving her focus “from self-interest to Asian-American interests.”
Wu stresses that the issue is not only the run-of-the-mill whitewashing that made Cameron Crowe think it would be totally fine to cast Emma Stone as an Asian woman in Aloha; that keeps Marvel scrambling (yet still failing) to come up with a not-awful-sounding explanation for casting Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One in Dr. Strange, even though the character was originally a Tibetan-born man; and that let Paramount believe it would be a non-controversial call to cast Scarlett Johansson as the star in the aforementioned Ghost in the Shell.
What Wu points to is something even more insidious than just whitewashing: The way the film not only erases Asian people from an Asian narrative but furthers the (false yet somehow still quite popular) narrative that people of color can only be saved by a brave, well-intentioned white person. The go-to studio justification for this is that “mainstream” audiences won’t be able to relate to a protagonist that is too “different.” This is the sort of thinking that empowered director Roland Emmerich, in his film Stonewall, to all but eliminate the trans women of color who led the 1969 Stonewall riots and build his movie around a fictional character, Danny, a “very straight-acting” (Emmerich’s words) cis white boy from America’s heartland. Even with months to reflect on this, to use a gentle term, misguided decision, Emmerich held firm in his fantasy, telling the Guardian that “Stonewall was a white event, let’s be honest.”
As Hollywood hustles to provide more opportunities for black talent in film in order to avoid a three-peat of #OscarsSoWhite — over a dozen potential 2017 Oscar contenders with black stories and performers at their center will be released within the year — Asian-American actors (and Latino actors, and every other non-white demographic) still struggle to find parts. As a 2016 USC Annenberg study on diversity in entertainment found, Asians represented only 5.1 percent of speaking or named characters across all film, TV, and digital series in 2014. More than half of those projects did not feature any Asian characters at all. Only one Asian actress, Miyoshi Umeki, has ever won an Oscar; she took home Best Supporting Actress over 50 years ago.
Even at this year’s Oscars, where the clear headline was the Academy’s apparent inability to recognize the contributions of non-white talent, host Chris Rock thought it would be a good idea to make a mind-bogglingly tone-deaf, unfunny racist joke about Asian children. He trotted three kids onstage, introduced them as the accountants who tallied the Oscar votes, and then said, “If anybody is upset about this joke, just tweet about it on your phone, which was also made by these kids.” One of these child participants didn’t even know the nature of the joke until it was too late to back out of the performance.
Hours after her first tweet, Wu clarified her meaning, presumably to calm those who thought her tweet was all about trashing Damon or the studio behind The Great Wall:
Y'all sayin that im blaming ppl didnt read. It's NOT abt blame, it's abt awareness. That way we dont get in tired fights abt good intentions
— Constance Wu (@ConstanceWu) July 29, 2016
Once more, with feeling: