Matt Damon in The Great Wall sadly isn’t unprecedented

Boris Karloff in The Mask of Fu Manchu

Last week, a trailer debuted for Matt Damon’s new film, The Great Wall, set during the Song dynasty in China. Matt Damon basically has no business being in that movie, and the fact that he’s the star at all sadly capitalizes on how international audiences associate white male action heroes with high production value.

It’s also yet another example of whitewashing in film. For as long as Hollywood has existed, white actors have been cast in non-white parts, usually to horrifying or embarrassing results. A few months back, IndieWire rounded up the twenty most egregious examples, in case you’ve forgotten the extent of this lousy tradition. It affects movies good and bad, past and present. We can look at Katharine Hepburn’s horrifyingly offensive portrayal of Jade Tan in 1944’s Dragon Seed and shake our heads in hindsight, but it’s less easy to dismiss the white casting of a real, living Indian-American man in The Social Network.

You could dismiss Damon’s new role as a byproduct of international film development, but consider how bizarre it is that America’s long, poor diversity track record in film has become the standard even for other countries. We can do better, folks.

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