Ethnic Cleansing: Colorblind Casting in Cloud Atlas

Film still from “Cloud Atlas” (2012) (all images via

Last month, British actor Jim Sturgess sent a tweet to his 40,000 followers which read: “Yellowface? Blackface? Pinkface? Pinkberry? Blueberry? Strawberry? Bananas? Frozen Yogurt? All the toppings? … Lovely!” The message was Sturgess’s veiled response to recent criticism of his role in the upcoming science fiction epic Cloud Atlas. Sturgess, along with stars Halle Berry, Tom Hanks, Hugo Weaving, Ben Whishaw, and Hugh Grant plays not one but six different characters in the movie.

Directed by the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer, the film is based on the critically acclaimed 2004 novel of the same name by David Mitchell. It tells six interlocked stories spanning several centuries, from an 1850s missionary expedition in the Chatham Islands to a futuristic corpocracy where clones are bred as slaves. Most critics agree that it is very good, even great — one MSN Movies review declared it “full of passion and heart and empathy,” and “completely unlike any other modern film.” But since its premiere at the recent Toronto Film Festival, where Lana Wachowski called it an “experimental” movie that “speaks a lot about human courage” (it received a ten-minute standing ovation), a number of detractors have reached a not-so-positive consensus: Cloud Atlas is racist.

A handful of outlets including AngryAsianMan, Jezebel, and Ropes of Silicon have brought up the issue of race in the film — suggesting that it has discriminated against Asian actors and Asian people by using white actors to play characters in a futuristic version of South Korea. Folded into themes of reincarnation, fate, and (according to Mitchell) “the way individuals prey on individuals,” is an alarmingly bold use of yellowface. As Mike Le of Racebending observed shortly after the film’s epic four minute trailer debuted in August, the yellowface was following in a long tradition of white filmmakers granting themselves permission to “determine what it means to be Asian… while excluding the voices and faces of Asian American actors.”

Jim Sturgess promotional still from “Cloud Atlas” (2012)

Sturgess, who appears in yellowface for a large portion of the film, seemed to be addressing this in his tweet. His reaction, cryptic as it may be, is in keeping with the dismissiveness of an industry with a long history of blatant racism. It’s not entirely clear what Sturgess’s tweet meant, perhaps he didn’t know either, perhaps that’s why he deleted it. He might just really like froyo. Or maybe he was suggesting that those who are offended by a white actor portraying an Asian man should lighten up, that it doesn’t matter if you’re white, black, or purple — all of us, in all of our flavors, make up a “Lovely!” Pinkberry cup of unity. It’s a sentiment that’s essentially at the heart Cloud Atlas.

Comparing books and their film adaptations isn’t always illuminating, but the Wachowskis have made a key change that serves as the catalyst for the movie’s wrong direction. Mitchell’s novel presents reincarnation as a mere suggestion — a birthmark shaped like a comet that appears on the six protagonists of each nested story. In the movie, the elegant simplicity of this motif has been mostly abandoned, in order for the filmmakers to take up a heavy-handed brush to depict souls linked across time.

Instead of one actor playing the six main characters, each of the key protagonists plays an additional six different characters throughout the interwoven narrative. Sometimes, the parallels work. Mostly, though, each new part the actors take on in the decades-spanning stories is an arbitrary choice: Ben Whishaw, for instance, serves up a heartbreaking performance as a composer named Robert Frobisher in one major arc, then later cameos in a minuscule role as a record store clerk. There isn’t any real significance in this choice, except, I suppose, for the fact that Frobisher and the clerk share an uncanny resemblance and they both like music. The film entirely betrays itself by twisting its ideas of reincarnation and universality into a convoluted, inconsistent mess.

Hugo Weaving promotional still from “Cloud Atlas” (2012)

The appearance of the Asian characters played by Sturgess, Hugo Weaving, and James D’Arcy signals the moment the filmmaker’s good intentions go to shit. It is surreal. Their physical transformation is jarring, shocking, conjuring up a cinematic past that includes Mr. Moto, Charlie Chan, and Mr. Yunioshi. What the Wachowski siblings believe they are saying by putting these actors in black wigs and using tape and millions of dollars of CGI to make their eyes look Asian is that our souls are all connected, no matter our gender, age, or race. What they are really saying is that our souls have everything to do with the way we look. It’s a problematic message, one that sells the intelligence of the audience short — the only way for us to be invested in these characters, it seems, is to have the easily recognizable faces of our white protagonists just beneath the surface. That the Wachowskis and Tykwer were willing to funnel millions into badly done makeup and CGI rather than simply hire Asian actors, who are perennially misrepresented and underrepresented on screen, makes this all the more unfortunate.

Among the several characters she plays in the film, Korean actress Bae Doona does don blonde hair and blue eyes for at least two of them. Halle Berry, also, lightens her skin and eyes to play a white socialite in the 1930s. Of course, having a minority actress play a white character does not and cannot negate the legacy of racial discrimination inherent in the use of blackface. If anything, it just makes the whole situation worse. The filmmakers labor under the misapprehension that their work resides in some sort of vacuum, free of wider cultural context, or in that unicorn domain known as the “post-racial” society. This blissfully naïve understanding proceeds from the dominant point-of-view, the white point-of-view.

James D’arcy promotional still from “Cloud Atlas” (2012)

It is, I think, significant to note that in addition to racebending, the filmmakers also take the liberty of including genderbending: Weaving, in one storyline, plays the terrifying head nurse of a retirement home. For some, perhaps, the token whitewashing of Berry and Doona and the instances of gender fluidity justify the otherwise disturbing treatment of ethnicity. These flourishes of “blind casting” are, after all, what some champions of Cloud Atlas have praised. Variety described the notion of white actors playing Asians as “exciting,” suggesting that the Wachowskis “put the lie to the notion that casting — an inherently discriminatory art — cannot be adapted to a more enlightened standard of performance over mere appearance.” The irony of this declaration is overwhelming — praising a film for “enlightened” casting choices that merely replay old discriminatory practices.

The main issue here isn’t whether or not Cloud Atlas is a good movie; it certainly is. Nor is the question whether Cloud Atlas is a racist movie; it certainly is. The issue, really, is why the overall reaction has lacked any real discussion of the implications of its “colorblind” approach. Movie review aggregates like Metacritic show that even the mixed or negative reviews fail to apply critical pressure to its casting choices. Instead, critics showering early praise on Cloud Atlas are overly enamored with the film’s visual and thematic scope, relishing its “jaw dropping ambition” and lauding how “stunningly beautiful” it is; in this, they are complicit in normalizing the movie’s racism.

Mike Le distilled the problem in his Racebending piece: “The shock of watching the Cloud Atlas trailer, and witnessing white actors portray Asian characters, is that there is no shock.” Aside from Sturgess’s tweet, no one involved with the movie — not David Mitchell, Tykwer, Lana or Andy — has addressed this elephant in the room. It’s difficult to decide which is worse: that they haven’t divulged their thoughts on the issue, or that no one seems to care enough to ask them. On October 26, Cloud Atlas will leave its small cocoon of press screenings and movie festivals and come out nationwide. Hollywood analysts predict $30 to $60 million on opening week and there’s Oscar buzz — the film could be a major success, viewed by a worldwide audience. When thrust upon this wider stage, how will the discussion about Cloud Atlas change, if at all?

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