Why Accusing Cloud Atlas Of Racism Is Missing The Point
Jim Sturgess, in particular, has two important roles-- as Adam Ewing, an American businessman traveling on that South Pacific ship, and then as Hae-Joo Im, the Korean character that's gotten him in hot water. The two characters are consistently linked thematically, in that Adam Ewing is helping a former slave (David Gyasi) earn his freedom, and Hae-Joo is helping Sonmi-451-- a clone built for slavery-- earn hers as well. James D'Arcy performs a similar function, as the recipient of letters from one story's main character (a composer in the 1930s), and then as the interviewer to whom Sonmi-451 tells her story; he is, throughout time, the passive documenter of the lives of others, a touching character who also drives home the film's themes about the importance of storytelling.
The key to it all, I think, is Keith David, who appears briefly in the Neo Seoul scenes as the leader of the pro-abolition resistance group. David, who is African-American, has no alteration to his face beyond the eyes; there's no attempt to make his skin look less black, or to even pretend he is Asian. His presence, brief as it is, allows you to look differently at the white actors in these scenes-- their skin color has not been changed either, and the "slanty" eyes they've been given look nothing like the real Korean and Chinese actors in these scenes. Given that the Neo Seoul story takes place far into the future, with all kinds of perceived rules of culture and science changed, it seems safe to assume that races, as we know them, have begun to merge and lose meaning. In the book Cloud Atlas, Sonmi-451 even learns of the past and notes that "curiously," humans used to define social strata by "the quantity of melanin in one's skin."
We still live among those social strata, of course, and actors with more melanin in their skin than Jim Sturgess continually struggle to be represented onscreen, especially in large studio releases like Cloud Atlas. I also recognize that I am white, and have the white privilege of seeing my own race represented in virtually every film-- I empathize with the frustrations of moviegoers of color who don't see themselves onscreen, but I admit, I can't fully relate to it. The Wachowskis and Tykwer share that white privilege, and have furthered it by directing films that, by and large, starred white actors.
But whereas so many films have swapped the races of its characters to favor white actors without any justification, Cloud Atlas has a pretty good one, and though its earnest theme of transcending artificial boundaries between people may be naive, it's valuable too. We don't yet live in the race-blind society that Cloud Atlas imperfectly imagines. But by imagining it so boldly, and by asking many of its actors to transform themselves-- including Halle Berry into a white Jewish woman, and Doona Bae into a Mexican woman-- it makes a strong claim for us to get there. The white privilege of Hollywood has to end, but Cloud Atlas is a step toward the solution, not the problem.
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