Why Accusing Cloud Atlas Of Racism Is Missing The Point

By Katey Rich 2012-10-25 15:58:50discussion comments
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Today the Media Action Network for Asian Americans stepped into what's been a slow-boiling debate ever since July, when the first trailer for Cloud Atlas debuted online. Even in that jam-packed six-minute trailer it was hard to miss the sight of Jim Sturgess, a white British actor, with his eyes augmented to look Asian, in a section of the story that takes place in the futuristic Neo Seoul and which co-stars Korean actress Doona Bae. It was a jarring image, and many websites raised a flag of concern that, in overreaching to tell a wide-ranging story about multiple races and centuries, directors Andy and Lana Wachowksi and Tom Tykwer had stepped into some of the most pernicious and racist tendencies that date back to Hollywood's inception.

The term that's been thrown around is yellowface, in which a white actor's face is changed to appear Asian as opposed to casting an Asian actor in the role. The more familiar blackface has its origins in minstrel shows and has been absent in film for decades, while yellowface appears in films as beloved and recent as Breakfast at Tiffany's or David Carradine's kung fu movies-- it's nasty stuff, either way, and in the last few decades this kind of mockery of East Asian people has, thankfully, become as taboo as blackface.

And it's not that kind of parody that anybody is accusing Cloud Atlas of, which makes the yellowface term a little inaccurate-- Jim Sturgess's character, along with the other characters played by white actors in the Neo Seoul scenes, is not intended to mock Koreans. What the Media Action Network for Asian Americans is pointing out is a fair point: why not cast an Asian or Asian American actor for that role? As the group's founding president Guy Aoki points out in The Hollywood Reporter, "It would have been a great, stereotype-busting role for an Asian American actor to play, as Asian American men arenít allowed to be dynamic or heroic very often."

I can't argue with that, nor can I explain why the Wachowskis and Tykwer didn't cast an Asian actor in a major role, except that by making an independent film on a huge budget, they possibly had to go with the actors with the biggest names possible, most of whom are white, American and English. (That's a depressing reality of filmmaking far bigger than Cloud Atlas that we can't really get into here) But to pick on Sturgess's transformation specifically, as well as the alteration of other actors (Hugo Weaving, James D'Arcy, Keith David) to appear more Asian, is to miss the purpose of Cloud Atlas, a movie devoted to the idea that these lines between races, genders and generations are as immaterial as, well, clouds.

As you probably know, Cloud Atlas tells six individual stories that take place across centuries, with around a dozen actors playing multiple leading roles-- Tom Hanks is a doctor on a Pacific trading ship in the 1840s and a nuclear scientist in 1970s San Francisco, Jim Broadbent is that ship's racist captain as well as a book publisher in 2012 London, etc. Each of the actors transforms dramatically between the stories, and though the makeup varies in quality, it's a striking effect-- you know you're seeing Hugo Weaving as the evil nurse or as the actual devil, but the knowledge of his presence as an actor helps connect his story to the others before it. It's a way of linking these stories unrelated through plot, and of establishing the movie's overarching message that, regardless of gender or class or race or country, souls remain the same across time.
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