In the upcoming movie Birth of the Dragon, the martial arts icon Bruce Lee plays sidekick to a white guy named Steve. Shannon Lee, the late actor’s daughter, authored a long Facebook post decrying the movie as “a step backward for Asians in film” and the portrayal of her father as “inaccurate and insulting.” Other unhappy fans took to IMDb to voice their disappointment, saying that it’s a “disrespectful appropriation of Bruce Lee” and “Hollywood racism galore.” But that last accusation can’t be exactly right: The film was financed by the Chinese company Kylin Pictures for $31 million.
Major American movie studios have recently been under fire for degrading minority characters and whitewashing roles. For example, the decision to cast Scarlett Johansson as the lead in the upcoming Ghost in the Shell adaptation. The cause of Asian-American representation has been championed by stars like Aziz Ansari and Constance Wu. But that dialogue isn’t occurring in translation. Kylin Pictures U.S. Representative Leo Shi Young told Variety that the movie was meant to be a “Chinese-themed film that would attract a U.S. and international audience”.
Don’t assume that the white lead was there for the benefit of the American audience.
China’s box office numbers show that the country’s audiences are eager to spend money on movies starring white male actors. Given that Captain America: Civil War and X-Men: Apocalypse were hits on the mainland, it makes sense that Kylin Pictures would try to recreate that success.
Additionally, some Chinese fans have also praised the Asian actors in the movies even though they get put on the back burner. Quartz points out the buzz about the movie on the Chinese social media network Weibo. One user wrote, “This is more Bruce Lee than the real Bruce Lee” about actor Philip Ng’s portrayal of the legend.
A similar dynamic has developed around the upcoming Matt Damon flick The Great Wall. When trailers were first released, it sparked more conversations about Hollywood’s whitewashing. But the The Great Wall’s Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou defended his project. He told Entertainment Weekly, that “Matt Damon is not playing a role that was originally conceived for a Chinese actor … I have not and will not cast a film in a way that was untrue to my artistic vision.”
The vision was of a white man fighting demons.
The people skewering Birth of the Dragon are right about it being an example, but, like The Great Wall, it’s a more complicated exampled because the whitewashing is a product of racial fetishization, not racism. It’s a small distinction but an important one. The only way audiences can lobby for movies to better represent reality is if they understand why they currently don’t