Hollywood Mythology: How White Men Save the World

It seems Hollywood can’t help itself when it comes to asserting the white man’s role in saving the world. The latest example is the fantasy blockbuster The Great Wall, starring Matt Damon in the lead role despite the story being set in 15th century China.

Many mistakenly believe that Washington’s most potent weapon is its vast military machine, by which it polices a world it believes is their world to police, keeping those recalcitrant and pesky foreigners know their place, else find themselves showered in cruise missiles.

However, as vast as Washington’s military machine undoubtedly is, the true and most potent locus of Washington’s power is Hollywood, where the assertion of the superiority of American cultural values is reproduced day in and day out, preparatory to being unleashed on a world that really needs to show more gratitude for everything America has done to make it better. Movie after movie and TV show after TV show is churned out in which every other nation and its people are reduced to the role of spectator or bit part player in America’s on-going love affair with itself.

The controversy that has erupted over the decision to cast Matt Damon in the lead role of ‘The Great Wall’, directed by Zhang Yimou, is at least evidence that the world is tired of the exaltation of white America as the fount of everything good and pure and honest and heroic in history, and that its distorted narrative will no longer be allowed to pass uncontested. The $150 million mammoth joint US-Chinese production, scheduled for release at the end of this year, finds Matt Damon cast as the leader of a band of mercenaries in search of gunpowder who arrive at the site of the wall as it is under construction, where they learn it is being built not only to keep out marauding Mongolian hordes but also monsters. It probably doesn’t take a genius to work out how the story unfolds from there.

Leading Asian-American actress Constance Wu took to social media to lambast the movie, writing, “We have to stop perpetuating the racist myth that only a white man can save the world…Our heroes don’t look like Matt Damon. They look like Malala. Ghandi. Mandela. Your big sister when she stood up for you to those bullies that one time.”

Defending the decision to cast Damon in the lead role, director Zhang Yimou wrote, “Our film is not about the construction of the Great Wall …The arrival of (Damon’s) character in our story is an important plot point. There are five major heroes in our story and he is one of them – the other four are all Chinese. The collective struggle and sacrifice of these heroes are the emotional heart of our film. As the director of over 20 Chinese language films and the Beijing Olympics, I have not and will not cast a film in a way that was untrue to my artistic vision.”

It should be mentioned that the majority of the actors in the movie are Chinese. However the lead actor is not, thus substantiating the criticism that the role of the Chinese talent in the movie is akin to decoration.

Astonishing, when you think about it, that racial stereotyping and/or omission remains a feature of the movie industry in Hollywood in the 21st century. Earlier this year similar controversy engulfed the annual Oscars extravaganza over the lack of nominations for black or minority performers and artists.

Students of the history of Hollywood could point to countless examples of both its propensity for racial stereotyping and blatant distortion of history and historical events. Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle, set the tone for a long exercise in the promotion of American and white cultural values in the guise of entertainment. In their landmark work on US cultural hegemony and how is helps sustain America’s empire,  authors Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies point out that, “Africa enters the movies through the Tarzan genre.”

The reality is that American geopolitics and Hollywood have always walked hand in hand, with the movie industry Washington’s most potent weapon by which it seeks to assert cultural supremacy, the foundations upon which its economic and military power rest. The message promoted in this process is a simple but effective one: America is the world and the world is America. Consider for example the 2014 Oscar-winning movie American Sniper, directed by Clint Eastwood, in which Bradley Cooper plays the role of famed US Navy Seal sniper Chris Kyle, a man who over the course of four tours of duty in Iraq was credited with more ‘kills’ than any sniper in US military history. As I wrote in a review of the movie, “if you had just arrived in the movie theater from another planet, you would be left in no doubt from the movie’s opening scene that Iraq had invaded and occupied America rather than the other way round.”

As Sardar and Davies observe, “The myth of the reluctant hero is used to camouflage the fact that the majority of Americans actually do believe that America has the right to be imperial. There is an inner fitness in America forged by its founding principles that makes it the right nation to be pre-eminent.”

American exceptionalism has much to answer for. It has not only fuelled countless wars in its name, it has perpetuated the lie that the world could not survive without America – which is to say ‘white America’ – as the one indispensable nation, standing forth as a beacon of democracy and freedom, heroically defending civilization from the monsters that lurk beyond – Indians, Africans, Arabs, Chinese, Iranians, Russians, Asians, Mexicans or Muslims; just like a buffet menu you can take your pic. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter anyway, as when viewed through the prism of American exceptionalism each have and continue to pose a threat to a people rendered blissfully ignorant by the propaganda that passes for entertainment in a nation cut off from the rest of the world by the walls of its own mythology.

John Wight is the author of a politically incorrect and irreverent Hollywood memoir – Dreams That Die – published by Zero Books. He’s also written five novels, which are available as Kindle eBooks. You can follow him on Twitter at @JohnWight1