Remember the outrage late last year about Matt Damon playing the lead role in “The Great Wall”?
The movie’s trailer sparked criticism in the US that a white man had been chosen to play the lead in a film set in China and meant to showcase Chinese culture.
The furore came amid other accusations of a lack of diversity and opportunities for Asian actors in Hollywood.
Hollywood was accused of “white-washing”, but Damon was not a Caucasian playing an Asian on the screen; his character was an English mercenary in the Chinese employ.
Be that as it may, many of the SJW critics no doubt rejoiced when this $150 million fantasy blockbuster flopped domestically, earning just under $50 million at the box office. Whether or not this was because American movie-goers were likewise as offended by Hollywood’s lack of support for Asian-American actors or whether they were sick of Matt Damon and silly monsters, the critics in all their self-professed multicultural openness have proved to be as America-centric as the stereotypical racist flyover country rubes they routinely disdain.
Hollywood is no longer about America. In the past, parents and grandparents of the current generation of SJW critics used to bemoan Hollywood’s cultural imperialism – exporting (or in their eyes inflicting) the American dream, American values, and American life, as distilled through the prism of a camera, and thus subtly brainwashing the rest of the world. These were the good old times when Hollywood actually believed in American values. These days Hollywood recognises that money it goes after is increasingly overseas. And overseas doesn’t particularly care for or like American values, which is just as well because neither does Hollywood.
So “The Great Wall”, which flopped domestically, actually racked up a reasonably respectable worldwide box office total of $331,957,105. And of the 86 per cent or $286 million made by “The Great Wall” overseas, $170 million was made in China, making it the seventh highest grossing movie there last year.
It seems that Chinese themselves don’t mind at all if Matt Damon is the star of a movie about China (just like Japanese moviegoers were amused by another “white-washing” fuss about casting Scarlett Johansson in the adaptation of manga “Ghost in the Shell”). Why can’t those ungrateful Asiatics realise how much the American SJWs care about them?
While the American sophisticates wage an irrelevant war over how the American cinema portrays and therefore influences the world, a far more real and relevant war is going on about how the world increasingly influences the American cinema.
The Chinese government is particularly serious about it.
On one level it’s a simple story of direct investment:
Chinese companies poured record amounts of capital into Hollywood in 2016 — a trend eagerly embraced by the U.S. film industry. Among the deals: Dalian Wanda Group acquired Legendary Entertainment for $3.5 billion and Dick Clark Productions for $1 billion; Alibaba made a major investment in Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment; and Beijing-based Perfect World Pictures put $500 million into 50 films from Universal.
But as the above “Hollywood Reporter” story acknowledges neither the Chinese nor the American authorities are quite happy – though for different reasons – with this open Chinese tap soaking Hollywood.
The indirect influence is therefore far more important.
China is now the second largest box office in the world. But it’s also a restricted box office, with the government deciding how many, and which, American movies will be screened. As “The Wall Street Journal” recounts, in 2012:
The quota of imported movies permitted into China was raised to 34 from 20 in a deal negotiated between then-Vice President Joe Biden and then-Vice President Xi. The deal all but guaranteed that most big-budget Hollywood features—except those with content deemed objectionable—would be shown in China.
This gives the Chinese authorities huge power in shaping the content of Hollywood blockbusters.
Sometimes this is very innocuous and involves merely minor re-cutting for the Chinese audiences (“For ‘Passengers,’ the space adventure starring Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, a scene showing Mr Pratt’s bare backside was removed, and a scene of Mr Pratt chatting in Mandarin with a robot bartender was added.”)
But more often the changes will come in pre-production and will be much more significant: “Marvel Studio cast Chinese superstar Fan Bingbing in ‘Iron Man 3’ — even though they cut her scenes from the international version of the film. The Chinese government saves humanity in ‘2012’ and ‘Transformers: Age of Extinction,’ and the heroes of ‘The Avengers,’ in an act of flagrant Chinese product placement, use Vivo V3 phones.”
“The Wall Street Journal” again:
Hollywood executives can rattle off the rules for getting a movie approved by Chinese censors: no sex (too unseemly); no ghosts (too spiritual). Among 10 prohibited plot elements are “disrupts the social order” and “jeopardizes social morality.” Time travel is frowned upon because of its premise that individuals can change history.
Ponder on that for a moment.
Some could say this is merely capitalism pure and simple – Hollywood, like any other business, is chasing the mighty dollar wherever it can find it and does what it needs to do to catch that dollar. This is true, as far as it goes, though Hollywood doesn’t seem to care too much about maximising its profits when it consistently, year after year, produces output that in all sorts of subtle and not-subtle-at-all ways ridicules and denigrates about half of its own domestic audience – the half that isn’t as cosmopolitan and sophisticated as the coastal elites, and which votes Republican, goes to the church, and believes in an old-fashioned patriotism and other American values.
It is rather dispiriting then that Hollywood finds it easier and more appealing to pander to the communist Chinese government that it does to large parts of its potential domestic audience.
Let’s be clear about it: China is an increasingly wealthy and influential country, and one with a fascinating history and rich culture to share with the world. But for all the recent capitalist gloss, it is still a one party dictatorship, where most aspects of life (and certainly the economy) are still subject to government controls, overt or covert. The Chinese Communist Party presides over a country that might be an infinitely better place to live for the hundreds of millions of Chinese people than was Mao’s China, but for all the economic and social progress over the past 35 years is not a democracy that respects basic human rights we all take for granted.
These are the people who get to influence the plots of big movies you see. The legatees of the largest mass-murder in human history – to be clear, I mean the Chinese rulers not the Chinese people – are now being increasingly portrayed as the good guys. This is the real white-washing, and it’s much more concerning than the question of which actor plays the main character.
The SJWs are in an uproar because Matt Damon saves China from CGI monsters; I’m much more worried that he can’t travel back in time and save China from very real human ones.
Arthur Chrenkoff blogs at The Daily Chrenk where this piece also appears.
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