I don’t agree with the protest, mind you.
This isn’t like that production I just criticized for trying to put a white person in blackface for a black role.
Cloud Atlas is expressly a movie that has various races and genders playing each other.
That’s one of its main points.
So I didn’t find it jarring to see whites as Asians, Asians as whites, and many other permutations.
But the Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) feels the film is “business-as-usual in its exclusion and offensive yellow-faced renditions of Asian people.”
Here’s what the group has to say:
“A multi-ethnic epic spanning 500 years and around the globe, it’s an artistically ambitious approach to filmmaking. Unfortunately, it reflects the same old racial pecking order that the entertainment industry has been practicing for decades.
“One of the stories takes place in a totalitarian, mechanized Neo Seoul Korea in the year 2144. An Asian female clone (South Korean actress Doona Bae) is encouraged by another female clone (Chinese movie star Xun Zhou) to break out of her oppressive pre-programmed routine to serve men and become an independent thinker. The segment also includes White actors Sturgess, Weaving, and James D’Arcy as ostensibly Korean characters, using eye prosthetics to make their Caucasian features look more Asian.
“Cloud Atlas prides itself on its ‘multi-racial cast’, but that basically means White men and women of color, like La Jolla Playhouse’s ‘The Nightingale,’ which was criticized last Summer for using only two Asian American actresses but allowing five White men to play Chinese characters.
“Cloud Atlas missed a great opportunity. The Korea story’s protagonist is an Asian man–an action hero who defies the odds and holds off armies of attackers. He’s the one who liberates Doona Bae from her repressive life and encourages her to join the resistance against the government. It would have been a great, stereotype-busting role for an Asian American actor to play, as Asian American men aren’t allowed to be dynamic or heroic very often.
“But instead, they cast Jim Sturgess in yellowface. In fact, every major male character in the Korea story is played by non-Asian actors in really bad yellowface make-up. When you first see Hugo Weaving as a Korean executioner, there’s this big close-up of him in this totally unconvincing Asian make-up. The Asian Americans at the pre-screening burst out laughing because he looked terrible–like a Vulcan on Star Trek. It took us out of the movie. And Jim Sturgess and James D’Arcy didn’t look much better.
“In the modern age of movie make up, it is disturbing to see poorly done Asian eye prosthetics to make Caucasian men look Asian. The race-changing make-up totally disrupted the flow of the film. The old yellowface movie characters of the past like Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan looked more realistic than the characters in Cloud Atlas. Why couldn’t they have cast a handsome Asian American actor of mixed race to play the multiple roles in Neo Seoul and the other time periods? It would have made the movie more believable.
“It appears that to turn white and black actors into Asian characters (black actor Keith David was also Asian in the 2144 story), the make-up artists believed they only had to change their eyes, not their facial structure and complexion. In two scenes in other segments of the film, Bae and Zhou are made up to appear Caucasian. The filmmakers, Aoki said, “obviously took more care to make them look convincingly white. The message the movie sends is, it takes a lot of work to get Asians to look Caucasian, but you can easily turn Caucasians into Asians by just changing the shape of their eyes.
“In another story set in the South Pacific in 1849, Maori slaves are played predominantly by blacks, including Afro-British actor David Gyasi. You have to ask yourself: Would the directors have used blackface on a white actor to play Gyasi’s role? I don’t think so: That would have outraged African American viewers. But badly done yellowface is still OK.
“In any case, this was a lost opportunity to cast real Asian Pacific Islanders. Why weren’t there any real Asian male actors portraying any of the major characters in this supposedly racially diverse film? It’s a double standard: White actors are allowed to play anything–except black characters–and have the dominant roles; Asian male actors are non-existent. And Pacific Islanders are played by blacks.
“If, in the making of this complex movie, the creators of Cloud Atlas can make creative leaps in time, place, characters, race and gender, why can’t they also take a creative leap in the casting?”
Points taken, but for the most part, whatever you think of Cloud Atlas, they took more creative leaps in casting than any other film in years. And I bet it wins the Oscar for Best Makeup.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 26, 2012