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Cloud Atlas and Race

Struggling with critics of late, Cloud Atlas has been greatly misinterpreted — especially Laura Beck at Jezebel – for being racially insensitive. I was stunned to find this out, thanks to Matt Patches on Twitter. I guess folks need something to complain about because there aren’t enough bugs stuck up our asses it seems.

Beck writes:

Yes, in Wachowski Starship’s latest enterprise, a live-action telling of David Mitchell’s 2004 mindfuck multi-generational novel Cloud Atlas, we’re treated to a delightful dose of classic yellowface. Hugo Weaving and Jim Sturgess, white actors, play characters who in some lifetimes are East Asian. So, of course, they just had them perform those roles with their eyes taped to make them look, “Asian.”* I guess John Woo was busy and there are no other Korean actors in the world. Also, as of yet, nobody’s been able to successfully Frankenweenie Mickey Rooney, so there was literally no other way.

What’s wrong with this picture? What’s wrong with it starts in the Wachowski’s unheard of stroke of genius to cast lots of black actors and Asian actors, all of whom play multiple parts – you have black playing white, white playing black, Asian playing non-Asian and on and on it goes. By the end of the film it finally dawns on you that the whole point of that is the much-needed understanding that what we are on the outside is just details, baby, details. Our skin, our eyes, our hair – those describe how we look but not who we are. It is a revolutionary idea now stuffed into a hateful little jar of finger-pointing. You would think anyone would notice how rare it is for a mainstream Hollywood film to cast so many people of color in one film. You would think. But no. It is comments like these that keep Hollywood hamstrung and paralyzed. The end result of this means more movies with only white people in them because there is nothing to criticize. The Wachowskis have done something bold here. God help us if we listen to people like Laura Beck.

Meanwhile, for their part, the Wachowskis, who are a lot more patient than I am, told Christopher Rosen:

Andy Wachowski: Well, that’s good that people are casting a critical eye. We need to cast critical eyes toward these things. What are the motivations behind directors and casting? I totally support it. But our intention is the antithesis of that idea. The intention is to talk about things that are beyond race. The character of this film is humanity, so if you look at our past work and consider what our intention might be, we ask that those people give us a chance and at least see the movie before they start casting judgement.

Lana Wachowski: Their suggestion is that our tribes have to always remain separate. That the things that makes us different are essential elements to our representation and our identity. Why we were attracted to the book is that the book has a bigger perspective. The book suggests that there is a humanity that is beyond our tribe, our ethnic features. A humanity that is beyond our gender. A humanity that unites all of us and transcends our tribal differences. As long as we continue to build these intractable and insurmountable walls between us to make these distinctions, we will continue to have intellectual apparatus that allows us to make wars and that allows to dominate, exploit and destroy others. Because we don’t think of them like we think about our own kind, our own tribe.

Their intention rang loud and clear to anyone whose hearts and minds remain open.

30 Comments on this Post

  1. I haven’t yet seen Cloud Atlas, but I thoroughly agree with you here, Sasha, and the Wachowskis. Your point and theirs quite neatly reflect central elements of my personal philosophies.

    Also amongst my personal philosophies: Laura Beck can go suck ass!

  2. So this is the same Laura Beck that posted (in an article about a couple dealing with one partner transgender-ing): “It’s pretty fucking cool that a person can so be themselves with you that they’re able to open up about something so difficult to address in our culture. I hope that if my partner wanted gender reassignment surgery, that I’d be 100% on board, but I’m not sure I would be.”

    Love the no-thought, appearance-based superficiality here. With “supporters” like that, no wonder it’s tough.

    The same applies to completely missing the point in Cloud Atlas. Criticism based on the fact that actors portray a continuous being incarnated into a variety of different characters/races, in this case, is not PC (as she probably thinks), but comes off shallow and stupid.

    Makes me doubt that any critic who uses this approach was even paying attention. It’s like they now want to build a fence to prevent transmigration.

  3. I read this morning not only these but the bad bad reviews also. All I know is that I’ll be at the movie theater this weekend to see it. I understand the critics importance in molding public perseption. To a degree. But I never understood those who define what they want or, in a way, who they are by other’s opinions. I take the good and bad criticism in, an head myself towards the movie theater very happy.

  4. moviewatcher

    Sasha… I trust you to move heaven and earth to make people notice this movie and to counter the critics’ arguments (although I haven’t seen it myself, I’m pretty sure I’ll like it).

    It’s on you sasha stone… it’s on you ebert… and it is on you anne thompson. You all loved it, you must ALL champion for it.

  5. alan of montreal

    I’m going to reserve judgement until I actually see the film (which will be God knows when–oh to be done with school!). I do tend to be pretty critical of racial representations in film, particular Asian ones, being Chinese myself. Some would say it’s because I’m “looking” for them, but really, if you live inside this body and deal with what it often has to deal with, you don’t really have to “look” very hard. I would disagree with the statement that diverse casting necessarily solves everything, or that we need to look beyond race to see only humanity–the former because diverse casting does not necessarily lead to a racially sensitive film (and when I say “racial sensitivity,” that doesn’t mean that a film can’t portray racism or deal with racist subject matter and can’t be racially complex–I mean that it can’t be lazy or presumptive or ignorant) and the latter because race DOES exist and it does influence people’s lives in many, many different and complicated ways that even the most open-minded people can’t possibly imagine, and to believe that we are in a “post-racial” or “colour-blind” age is naive at best and, well, racist at worst. But, as I said, I’ve neither read the book nor seen the film, so I will see if the filmmakers are making a bold and brilliant statement or simply deferring to the Asian equivalent of blackface (both of which–meaning the slanty eyes and painted faces–still seem to be prevalent and even accepted in some media).

  6. I guess there are TWO people even more likely than Sasha to see racism where none exists — Al Sharpton and now Laura Beck.

  7. Julian Walker

    I can see how Jim Sturgess and Hugo Weaving’s costumes could cause some stir among Asians and other POC. They’re arguments are not invalid. However, I still might be seeing this film.

  8. . Debussy said it best- “A work of art or an effort to create beauty will always be regarded by some people as a personal attack.”
    Sorry critics but the story THe Cloud Atlas, will continue to inspire and it doesn’t need your approval, just a roof top.

  9. Curious how it tends to be white people who tend to talk about this supposed utopia where we can be ‘beyond race’, where it’s just “all details”.

    And of course the talk is centred on a hugely inflammatory Jezebel article so that the proponents of this movie don’t actually have to deal with the issues brought up by the movie – issues of race, casting, identity politics, artistic merit, deconstruction – in a nuanced manner. No one has to deal with the discomfort of even entertaining the mere momentary notion that there might have been nasty institutionalized prejudices at work in the construction of this movie. Instead, the polemicised nature of the Jezebel article means you can just be a reactionary and dismiss the whole idea in a nanosecond as a something stuck up the asses of the critics.

  10. “John Woo was busy” HAHAHAHA. She means John Cho!

    To paraphrase Kill Bill Volume 2:
    Guess that makes her a racist…
    Guess it does.

  11. I get the reference to Mickey Rooney (playing Japanese – badly – in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”), but why would it be necessary to do a “Frankenweenie” on him – he hasn’t died!

  12. Daveylow

    I loved Cloud Atlas but as an Asian American I did cringe at Jim Sturgess’s makeup during the Korea scene. It wasn’t good. But it didn’t hurt my enjoyment of the film.

  13. The book has characters recur in different incarnations, even as different sexes, etc., so the idea of using the same actors was really true to the spirit of the book.

  14. Uhh…. how did she know they were Asian? No one said they were Asian. Yeah they happened to be in what is now Asia, but so what? It’s the distant future. How does she know who their parents and grandparents were? I’d go more into it, but spoilers could happen, but there’s no reason to assume those characters that Sturgess, Weaving, and D’Arcy were playing were Asian.

    If anyone else wants to call it racist. I’ll be waiting in spoiler territory to fight them.

  15. chasgoose

    While I don’t think its a problem that they have non-Asian actors playing Asians (in general, not usually a fan of that or any non-minority characters playing a minority role, but here the concept makes me give it a pass). I don’t necessarily know if they needed to go so far as to put the actors in “yellow-face.” The message would have still gotten across without that and it would have been less distracting to just leave them alone then to use the cringe-worthy makeup they chose.

  16. Beck’s piece was dated the 7th of October, based on the trailer alone, and she made no reference to the multiple casting. Commenter SweetestPunch, who was one of the few who acknowledged the multiple casting, said it best: “This whole post [Beck's article] is somewhere in between bad journalism and bait.”

    I wonder if Beck we’ll ignore her knee-jerk reaction, double-down, or write a more thoughtful followup piece.

  17. alan of montreal

    Does it always have to be a “fight,” Antoinette? Can’t it just be an honest discussion?

  18. alan of montreal

    I also agree with chasgoose’s comment–again, I haven’t seen the film, but if they really are “Asian” in the film, then I’d prefer that they just be depicted as is without changing their features. Racialized actors are never made to look “white” (Look at, for example, Lucy Liu’s Watson on the TV show Elementary) so why isn’t the same principle applied in reverse?

  19. Profile photo of Ryan Adams

    You’ll understand when you see it alan.

    Racialized actors are never made to look “white”

    In Cloud Atlas, they are. Halle Berry is made to look white and Jewish in Cloud Atlas. Halle Berry is made to look like Vera Farmiga.

    Maybe you still won’t approve, but you should trust that it’s done with utmost respect, ok?

    (Not sure I understand the Lucy Lui comparison at all. You don’t mean Lucy is supposed to be a white Watson in Elementary..?)

  20. I love the show “Elementary”. If you had seen the film you’d know that’s a bad example. The only way to refute the racist claims is to spoil the movie. So we can’t have an honest discussion with you until you see it.

  21. Alan > There is yellow-face, black-face, white-face, Mexican-face, and MTF, FTM drag. The whole point of the movie was that we’re all interconnected and the filmmakers wanted to drive that point home through multiple-role casting.

    For example, Bae Doona’s primary role is as a South Korean farbricant in the future. Because she is one of the principal actors, they use her in a couple of other stories, few of which offer opportunities where it would have made sense to use an Asian actress. About the only one I can think of was 1973 San Francisco, where they have her play a Mexican woman in a sweatshop speaking what I think is Spanish. Now, I haven’t read the book and it could have perhaps been changed to a Chinese (?) woman, as the city has many, so I can’t defend that choice. But, she also plays a 19th-century abolitionist. She does white-face, and it seems pretty defensible.

    Also, Halle Berry does white-face as a 1930s Jew. She also does yellow-face/FTM-drag, and as a non-speaking role as a woman who is supposedly Indian. As far as I could tell her two main roles were non-racial. She also had a role as a Native Woman, I guess in the 1849 story, but I don’t remember her. Not sure if that meant Native American or what. But, from the sounds of it, it appears every role she did had little to do with her identity as a black woman, although I believe it added to her 1970s story.

    I’m white, though, so maybe that’s why I carry the opinion that I do and wasn’t bothered by Sturgess/Weaving yellow-face. I thought it looked strange, yet, dare I say, neutrally mesmerizing. Had they cast asians in those two roles, they would have had to find parts for them in an 1849 story about a budding abolitionist, a 1936 story about a European composer and a young English apprentice, a 1970s bay-Area story involving the upper echelon of a powerful industry ruled by white men, a 2012 English convalescent home, leaving the story set in the future that mainly focused on the relationship between Tom Hanks and Halle Berry.

    There aren’t a lot of Asian actors that run in the same circles as many of the principle actors. Ken Watanabe comes to mind. He could have easily worked in the Hugo Weaving role set in South Korea. But, then, Weaving was quite effective in three other roles. I guess what I’m trying to say is that it appears the filmmakers made an effort to be as multi-racial as possible considering the multiple casting and makeup transformations. But, yeah, every other actor in the repertory was a white guy. But, then, each one was so perfect in at least one role. They needed Tom Hanks for his name. On that tolken, you could argue they used Halle Berry for her name. Jim Broadbent and Weaving were just perfect in every role they placed, often making the biggest impressions. Ben Whishaw and James D’Arcy were also pretty indispensable. Sturgess was quite good in his yellow-face role, but, yeah, maybe they should have went with an Asian actor instead and made them up to look like a white abolitionist in 1849 America. Maybe Chinese actor Chen Chang. I don’t know. Is casting a Chinese actor instead of a Caucasian in a presumably Koren (though, it’s the future, so who can tell) role more PC?

  22. I just tried to refute the racist claims and I don’t believe I spoiled the movie. But, perhaps, I didn’t refute the racist claims either. I’m not sure what you are saying Antoinette.

  23. As far as Elementary, I don’t watch it, but I think Antoinette means to say that cast the Watson role as color/gender-blind. That’s different than if you’re making an 1849 story about an abolitionist or a 1936 European story about a composer and an English apprentice. It’s more difficult to use color/gender-blind casting in the past, if you’re going for historical accuracy. Elementary is a contemporary update that doesn’t require adhering to historic and/or literal accuracy. There’s a huge difference and he comparison doesn’t seem applicable.

  24. Profile photo of Ryan Adams

    About the only one I can think of was 1973 San Francisco, where they have her play a Mexican woman in a sweatshop speaking what I think is Spanish. Now, I haven’t read the book and it could have perhaps been changed to a Chinese (?) woman, as the city has many, so I can’t defend that choice.

    That climax in the sweatshop is all verbatim from the novel — unlucky dog, racial slur, everything — lifted intact from the book, word for word.

    But you’re right, Vince, if some of the more interesting themes of the movie involve explorations to deliberately blur the edges of diversity, it would make no sense to rewrite the role of the Mexican lady just for the sake of making a transformation that was less of a stretch for Bae Doona. Homogenizing the roles to fit any of the actor’s physicality would defeat the whole purpose — and take all the fun out it for the actors.

    (By the way, as far as I recall there’s no indication that Louisa Rey (Halle Berry) or Joe Napier (Keith David) are Black in the novel).

    Is it obtuse of me to think we should maybe put some faith in the judgment of the actors who chose to play these roles? They knew what they were signing up for. The makeup and prosthetics were not forcibly applied.

  25. Thanks for that Ryan. I had mild suspicion that the Mexican character was added to represent Hispanics somehow in an international-type film (only because it was San Francisco and there was a prime opportunity to include more Asian characters), but, based on what you just shared, my suspicions were unfounded.

    Ultimately, I trust the filmmakers and believe their intentions were in the right place. It would say a lot about Laura Beck if she held herself responsible for judging a film on a trailer and wrote a followup piece.

  26. alan of montreal

    thank you, Vince–I think that was a very helpful, sensitive, and respectful summation you gave. Like I said, I haven’t seen the film or read the book, and I was and still plan on seeing the film. I think that the studios should have done a better marketing job, perhaps, because the photo of Hugo Weaving is on a lot of anti-racist sites now, and I even used it as an example of orientalism in one of the classes I’m teaching. I think that is always the conundrum with film vs. literature–with the former, you have to represent it visually in some way, whereas with the latter, you can simply use your imagination. My comments, in any case, weren’t necessarily about Cloud Atlas specifically, although it became the context because of the thread. It’s more about the way in which we discuss race and representation as if it always has to be about “political correctness” to people who don’t have to deal with the discursive violence it causes in everyday life, as if racialized (or queer or other minoritized) folk are not even allowed to have the right to feel what they feel. I think, to that effect, Alice’s comment above is spot on. Cloud Atlas may end up being my favourite film of the year, or I may think it’s the most racist film of the year. But that’s entirely for me to decide when I see it. Having said that, I also think Alice’s comment applies to Laura Beck–those who think they defend us, but do so blindly, which becomes its own form of condescension.

    Lucy Liu as Watson was probably a bad example, but it was what came to mind at the time. It’s not like she hasn’t played up her Asianness in stereotypical fashion in films such as Kill Bill or Charlie’s Angels or TV shows such as Ally McBeal, but I often think that’s the lot of the Asian American actor. I was very happy to hear that she was cast as Watson, and glad that they went with race- and gender-blind casting for that role, which is very rare, indeed.

    Look, it’s not like I have complete tunnel vision. I think what Ken Jeong does with his character on Community is very funny, and I adore Margaret Cho and John Cho when they send up Asian stereotypes in their performances, but to me those kinds of performances are subversive ways of commenting on race. In this, I differ in opinion from that of my PhD supervisor, an Ismaili Muslim woman who can’t stand race based comedy because she believes that even if “insiders” get the jokes in all their nuance, non-insiders will not and, thus, will inculcate the representations as reified and justified stereotypes rather than as social and political commentary. I, on the other hand, think that many types of audiences, insider or otherwise, can get the joke. It’s when the depiction or representation is done earnestly that I start to put the brakes on and say whoa.

    All this to say, in my rambling posting at 7 a.m. with three hours of sleep ahead of me before I have to teach eighty 17 and 18-year olds for four hours straight about the different verb tenses and ZZ Packer’s short story Brownies, is that if I feel that films such as The Social Network and The Dark Knight are racist–which I feel they are–then someone else can’t tell me that they aren’t just because he or she doesn’t see it. I am perfectly capable of understanding what I see either diegetically or in the world around me. So that’s why your statement irked me, Antoinette–because I found it so incredibly patronizing and presumptuous. And with that, I leave this debate for now because I’m tired physically, mentally, and emotionally.

  27. We live in a racially and culturally sensitive time – there is no way that a true-to-the-original version of Huckleberry Finn would get made today, language intact, and if Blazing Saddles were released in 2012, it would be shunned with a major outcry for a number of reasons. To me, movies with yellow-face portrayals (like Breakfast at Tiffany’s) are ruined and remain unwatchable. I’ve always had issues with straight actors winning Oscars doing f**-face and native americans/arabs/latinos being played by darkened Caucasians. The issue with Cloud Atlas is very different.

    The book Cloud Atlas imagines a race-blind society where the discovery that separation of community was once based on “the quantity of melanin in one’s skin” is looked at with a raised eyebrow. This is a brave step, but how do you get that on film today without stepping on toes? I think the filmmakers gave the general audience more credit than it deserved in making the brave leap to where any actor could play any race or gender as we’re not “there” yet, but I support the decision to underline the main themes of the piece by keeping the same actors throughout. There is also the economic reality of nabbing bankable names to get the movie made.

    I heard an interview with Guy Aoki (Media Action Network for Asian Americans) on the CBC last week and his point is not that Cloud Atlas is racist or even an unworthwhile venture, but that the entire issue could have been mitigated by having an Asian American actor play one of the leads – and he makes a valid point.

    It’s Monday morning quarterbacking, for sure, and it would have been great to see someone like John Lone in one of the lead roles (where the hell did he go, btw?), but I think the important thing here is to accept the filmmakers best intentions on Cloud Atlas and use it as a stepping stone to create more opportunities for Asian actors in Hollywood.

    That’s the reality we’re currently stuck in – better than a few decades ago when this situation would pass unnoticed, but not the blind justice utopia where we are (hopefully) heading.

  28. Profile photo of Ryan Adams

    Vince, One thing so satisfying about that scene — in both movie and book — we get to see one of the most disadvantaged and seemingly powerless characters in the entire tapestry dispatch so efficiently with one of the most ruthlessly domineering and seemingly unassailable characters.

    alan, thanks so much for taking time to share your thoughts. I really mean it. I’m sure it’s exhausting trying to get a point across to hard-heads who refuse to be swayed. (Trust me, I know it’s exhausting.)

    Would it give your day any lift at all if somebody told you he’s ordered a copy of Drinking Coffee Elsewhere?

  29. Let me put it this way, I think the film actually has nothing to do with race. (But then again, neither do I.) However I can’t explain why without explaining the film. Because even people like Roger Ebert did not get what I saw in the film. He seems to still need the underlying plot explained to him. That’s why I’m not saying anything. It would be complete spoilers.

    But I still will say one more time that I don’t think those characters in that subplot are even what we’d consider Asian today. But I can’t explain that either until most people see it.

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