Sunday, October 28, 2012

Cloud Atlas: On the Subject of Skin

I just saw "Cloud Atlas", and while I don't intend to review it just yet or really talk about the film itself, I do want to talk about the elephant in the room first.

Yes, in the movie, a number of Caucasian actors are made-up to "appear" Korean. This has stirred up a lot of anger and understandably so.

The most common response to this is that it's OK because they do it for everybody. Black people play white people, men play women, Asians play Mexicans, etc. The idea, they claim, is that the human shell does not matter. It is the soul that is important.

While I do agree with this sentiment, I do not believe it is a suitable defense. If this were indeed true, then they should have been able to cast a majority of Asian-American actors and actresses instead of Caucasian ones.

However, I think that saying "it doesn't matter" is not the true point. If that were the point, then they wouldn't have needed to keep casting the same actors as the same fundamental characters throughout the film.

No, the point is that it DOES matter, but that the physical form, like a cloud, is changeable while still retaining  its essence.

To help make my point, let's talk about another elephant in the room in regards to the directors.

The Wachowskis (known primarily for "The Matrix") are two siblings, Andy and Lana. Back when they made "The Matrix", they were known as the Wachowski Bros. They were very private people and for a long time it was rumored that the reason was that one of the brothers, Larry, was a transsexual  While PR people and producers would often deny it, eventually it was proven true  as Larry came out to the world as Lana while promoting this film.

I will confess, understanding transsexuality was difficult for me, but over time I believe that I am coming closer. And while I know that most people who go see "Cloud Atlas" won't see it knowing about Lana's personal history, when I saw actors changing form throughout the movie's six stories, I felt like that was Lana speaking to the audience.

It's not that the surface doesn't matter. If that were so, Lana would not have undergone surgery. It's that the surface is only a reflection of the times and circumstances of who we are. The idea that we can't or that we shouldn't change that is the sort of thing that Lana has likely faced while going through her transformation. And it's also the same sort of idea that is on all sides of racism, sexism, etc. The idea that making Hugo Weaving look like a woman is demeaning to him or the idea that making Halle Berry white is shameful or the idea that making Jim Sturgess Korean is taking an opportunity away from an actual Korean... these are all parts of what make the barriers that keep us apart stronger.

It's not about forgetting that these barriers exist. It is important to acknowledge that race and sex have meaning within the context of society. It is as much a source of pride and community as it can be a tool for hate and bigotry. But if we say that only Asians can play Asians, then that limits Asian actors as well. I'm not saying that it's not important for diverse people to have a greater presence in the media, but it is important that they can be present as any character, not just "Asian" characters.

The reason Jim Sturgess's Korean character could not have been played by an Asian actor, at least not while achieving the same result, is that the audience knows it's Jim Sturgess behind that makeup, and they know he is a white person. However, part of that story is his relationship with Sonmi-451, and like all other stories in this film, it is about two people of different races coming together. While they are both "Asian", in the story, Sonmi is genetically engineered. They are of different races, and by having Jim Sturgess play Hae-Joo, that message comes across visually.

Additionally, if he had been played by an Asian actor, it would have been an Asian actor in the first story, which would have been problematic for the visual message of that story as well since it was about abolitionism and Jim Sturgess' other character transcending the racism of that time.

The biggest problem with this film's portrayal of "skin" is that intent isn't enough to make a message. I believe that a lot of people who agree with the message of this film will feel that the approach of the film is harmful and offensive. And the truth is, if they feel that way, then that is in fact the case.

However, I don't think that's what's important. These people already believe in equality. The question, to me at least, is whether or not this film presents a negative message about race and sex to people who don't already understand it. I honestly believe that it doesn't. I honestly believe that it is impossible to take away a negative message about race and sex from this film without distorting it and completely ignoring half of it.

The reason that casting a white person as a Korean is a problem is because there aren't a lot of Koreans in film, or even in this film which partially takes place in Korea. Yes, the person playing Sonmi-451 is Korean, but she's one of very few speaking actors who is Korean. This under-representation is a problem, so when a Korean character (particularly one that transcends stereotypes) is cast with a white actor, it feels like a wasted opportunity.

I think the issue is not the portrayal within the movie, it is the context of the world the movie is fitted to. The problem is with us and our world and the fact that the movie, which is very much anti-bigotry, does very little to remedy it.

For these reasons, if you believe that this film is racist, or at the very least offensive, I will not disagree with you or tell you you are wrong. However, I hope you will forgive the fact that I do not feel the same way and that it does not lessen my immense and overwhelming appreciation for this film.

EDIT: Having discussed it and thought about it more, I do want to make one more distinction.

Yes, the process of making the white actors "appear" Asian is inherently racist. This does not make the film racist. This does not make me racist for loving this movie. But the act itself IS racist and the fact that they used this practice for a movie that's very much ABOUT how racism is BAD is super-problematic. I really do wish that they had found a way around this that didn't diminish the power of the film. The use of the same actors for the same group of characters and the same "core" roles does give the movie a lot of power, but the fact that they use yellowface as a part of that is just awful and I absolutely wish they hadn't. So I guess I want to sum this up in two points:

1) This film is not racist and does have a good reason for using the same group of actors and actresses throughout the film.

2) Just because the film is not racist does not mean that its use of yellowface is also not racist. Yellowface is racist and will ALWAYS be racist no matter how it is used. This does not make the film bad, but its use of yellowface can and should be criticized and the people who do so should not be labeled as Social Justice Warriors or whatever.


  1. You pulled a Kankri on me here Pat (if you're not that far into Homestuck I apologize, ask c-line who he is if you don't care about spoilers). You say having Asian people only play Asian parts limits them and is wrong but Caucasian people playing Asian parts is racist? Isn't that a double standard? I mean maybe I need to see the movie but this whole post just confused the hell out of me. I don't really know what you are trying to say here. I'm just super confused =/

    1. It's not really a double standard because Caucasian actors have no shortage of roles they can play, at least compared to Asian actors. It's the same logic regarding Idris Elba playing Heimdall in "Thor". It's fine for a black guy to play a traditionally white role but it's not OK for the reverse simply because there are WAY more white roles than black roles. In a vacuum, it's a double standard, but in the context of society it is not.

      But I guess what I'm trying to say is that while I personally understood why the directors decided to use a practice that is inherently racist in order to make a point about societal constructs using visuals and also to give the movie a more cohesive narrative, it doesn't change the fact that the racist practice will offend some viewers and there's no sense in saying that they just "don't get it" or whatever.

      Maybe I'm trying to have my cake and eat it too. I don't want to say that the movie is worse because of these decisions because I do believe that those decisions made certain aspects of the movie more powerful and poignant and challenging, but at the same time I don't want to defend the practice itself because, well, it IS inherently racist and if a person is offended by it or feel that it sends the wrong message, then I can't really disagree with that.

      However, blackface is also inherently racist, and yet the use of it in the film "Tropic Thunder" is often lauded. Granted the context is very specific in that film, but that's kind of my whole point. It's important to understand WHY the practice was used rather than just obsess over the fact that it WAS used.

      I mean, it's very easy to make a movie about how racism is bad. But by using yellowface, intentionally or not they are inviting a much more heated discussion about how race affects character. I think that a lot of the people who are criticizing this film based solely on the trailer are far too quickly dismissing a discussion that I believe needs to be had and that this film has provoked.

      Yellowface is a racist practice. This is not really up for discussion. Because of the baggage it carries, simply using it drudges up racist imagery, regardless of intent or the eventual outcome. The far more compelling question, at least to me, is whether or not using the racist practice makes "Cloud Atlas" a weaker film and whether or not the practice itself makes the FILM racist regardless of intent. That's basically what I'm trying to examine in this post.

      Maybe I'm being a little wishy-washy, but I believe it is a complicated issue and art is inherently subjective, so it's pretty much impossible to find a legitimate universal truth about it.

      All in all, I do think it would help if you saw the movie (and the movie is absolutely worth seeing), but I also understand why you're confused, mostly because I'm admittedly confused myself. Or at least, I'm of two minds on the issue.

  2. It is definitely a complicated issue, and I think I understand a bit better what you were going for. I think I will definitely have to see this movie to really understand it all though. Thanks for responding!

  3. Interesting, thoughtful blog post. . .I found it off Google while doing a search for "Cloud Atlas" and "racist," as this is also an issue I've been thinking about. It sounds like you really liked the movie but feel bad because it used yellowface, and you're trying to reconcile these two opposing ideas in your head. I think I might understand where you're coming from. These sorts of conflicts between what one appreciates as art and one's social conscience can be very difficult. For example, I had been a long-time fan of the band Modest Mouse and learned about a year ago that the frontman of the group, Isaac Brock, had a woman file a rape charge against him in 1999. It's a lot harder for me to enjoy their music now, but since so much of their music is so good, it's unfortunately easy for me to sometimes wave away the rape charge in my head.

    Anyway, I guess I'll give you my take on the Cloud Atlas yellowface issue. First off, I haven't seen the movie, just read reviews of it and seen the trailer. I am a little hesitant to see it because I don't know if I will be able to enjoy myself, knowing what I know. I consider the use of yellowface to be extremely offensive, especially given the historical context of Hollywood. In the popular Charlie Chan detective movies, for example, Chinese-American detective Charlie Chan was played by a Swedish guy in yellowface. . .all of the main characters in The Good Earth (a movie set in China) were played by white actors in yellowface, and this wasn't a marginal phenomenon either. These were huge movies in their day. This has been a practice that has prevented Asian actors from being able to get leading roles in Hollywood and perpetuated negative stereotypes about Asian people for a long time.

    And I think it would have been easy enough for the filmmakers to make the film in a way that this offensive practice wasn't used, especially considering that it sounds like they already took considerable liberties in adapting the movie from the book. I actually think the use of this practice undermines the intended anti-racist message of the movie, which is unfortunate.

    One final thing I will say. I'm actually a transgender woman, just as Lana Wachowski is. That makes this whole situation particularly disappointing for me. Before I'd been aware of the yellowface issue, I had intended to see Cloud Atlas right away in the theaters to support Lana in the release of her first movie since coming out. The visibility she's bringing to transgender issues by being out of the closet is so important; she's easily one of the most famous trans women on the planet. So that she used a racist practice in her movie is very, very disappointing to me, and I don't think her being trans justifies it at all. Race and gender are not the same thing. The relevant thing to consider about Lana in relation to her including yellowface is not that she is transgender, but that she is white. This is very much white privilege at play (not to single out Lana. . .Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer also have white privilege and they are also responsible for this racist practice being in Cloud Atlas).

    Anyway, just my thoughts. I appreciate your discussion of this important topic.

    1. First of all, I would highly recommend that you see the movie.

      Second of all, the issue is not quite the same as your Modest Mouse example since Isaac Brock's rape charge does not in any way positively affect his work.

      The thing that makes the makeup choices in Cloud Atlas so challenging is that I genuinely believe that the decision to make all of the characters played by the same group of actors makes the film better. The problem is that in doing so, they had to cast white people as Future Koreans, and as you said, the unfortunate history of this practice provokes images of racism regardless of the context of its use within the film.

      In that regard, within the context of the film, it makes perfect sense. In this version of Korea, the fact that everyone speaks English and refers to traditional Korean as "subspeak" implies a forced Westernization, and the advanced technology also implies that the so-called "Purebloods" have undergone either plastic surgery or some sort of gene therapy to appear more "Western", and while I haven't read the book, I'm told that this is very much consistent with that version of Korea as well. If anything, the use of Yellowface in the film casts an inherently negative light on the "Purebloods" as betraying what it means to be Korean, which could be partially intentional and provoked through the use of makeup. Casting actual Koreans or Asian-Americans in these roles as racist oppressors might have been more offensive depending on how you perceive it.

      Third, the reason I brought up the transgender/Lana Wachowski thing was less to "justify" it and more provide a counter-argument for the people claiming that the movie's point was that these physical features "don't matter". I don't believe that is the message Lana is trying to convey, and I believe that understanding her situation provides an interesting perspective on the makeup techniques used throughout the film.

      So what I'm getting at is that while I understand that the use of Yellowface within the film will (for valid reason) turn a lot of people off and make them dislike the film. But speaking for myself, I loved this movie and while it upsets me that the Yellowface will keep a lot of people from seeing it and/or enjoying it simply by existing, I personally think it works and the inherent cognitive dissonance it provokes brings the viewer's baggage regarding the strained relationship between East and West that makes that story as well as the film in general far more visceral and personal.

      Intent alone is not enough to justify something if the intent is not clear within the context of the work. But it's up to each individual viewer to decide whether or not the intent is present within the film. That is why I feel it is unfair for people who haven't seen the film to judge or criticize it.

      Anyway, I hope you do see the film and make up your own mind on the subject. I can't guarantee that you will agree with me, but this movie absolutely deserves to be seen.

      I also recommend that you read my other article on this film where I post my full "review". While I wrote this post directly after seeing the film while I was still sorting out my feelings, I wrote my review the following day when my feelings were a lot easier to articulate.