Cloud Atlas “Yellowface” Vs. “Transcending Tribal Differences” – Is There A Gray Area?


Hugo Weaving in Cloud Atlas

This is one of those fascinatingly debates that is so complicated, I’m going to count myself among the undecided voters, especially since I haven’t seen Cloud Atlas yet. If you simply showed me stills of Caucasian actors Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess and James D’Arcy playing Asian characters, yes, I immediately side with the Media Action Network for Asian Americans. The group issued a statement condemning the film for A) not casting Asians in those roles, and B) simply slanting the eyes of said actors and thinking that counts as making them look Asian. That’s some messed up Andy Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffanys ish. What’s more, directors Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer were sensitive enough not to put any actors in blackface in the movie but seemed to think it was OK to do yellowface. Insensitive, racist, enough said.

Except, there are a few details making this more of a conversation than a round of name-calling. There is a narrative reason the three directors say they chose to cast Sturgess, Weaving and D’Arcy for those parts, in a storyline that takes place in the year 2144: They are the reincarnated souls of characters that were white in their previous lives. OK, so that’s kind of interesting. Except, as Crushable pointed out today, plenty of stories (like the Bob Dylan biopicĀ I’m Not There) have successfully used multiple actors to portray the same person or soul, so you could expect the audience to make a leap with you.

Jim Sturgess in Cloud Atlas

The Wachowskis talked about the issue with the Huffington Post recently, and almost have me convinced of their logic: “[The critics’] suggestion is that our tribes have to always remain separate,” Lana Wachowski said. “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.”

Doona Bae and James D'Arcy in Cloud Atlas

OK, that makes sense, especially coming from Lana, who has managed to transcend gender herself. But it would have been a stronger argument if they had also cast Asian actors in some of the Caucasian roles (the olden times storylines).

Again, I haven’t seen the movie, but I have a third point to make: In the year 2144, will any races look like they do today? As a person of mixed race myself (white, Latina and some Chinese from way back), who lives in a town full of mixed families in a country with a mixed race president, I’m pretty confident that the future is one of blended features and skin colors. You’ve got Halle Berry there, but maybe it would have been a good time to call Keanu Reeves and SirĀ Ben Kingsley, or (gasp!) discover some new talent.

What do you guys think? Is there a hard line to be drawn here, especially given the dearth of roles for Asian actors in general? Or does this a gray area worth discussing? Sound off!

[Photos: Warner Bros.]

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