Did Cloud Atlas Seriously Think They’d Get Away With Putting White Actors In Yellowface?

Jim Sturgess yellowface Cloud Atlas race Caucasian Asian eye prosthetics wtf racebending

I’m distressed to admit that even though the first trailers for Cloud Atlas came out several months ago, only now am I realizing the huge racial problem inherent in this sprawling sci-fi/fantasy/mindbending epic. That is, the fact that the producers decided to put their white stars in yellowface to portray Asian characters rather than, you know, hiring Asian actors.

Just in time for the film’s release this Friday, the Media Action Network for Asian Americans is leveling a complaint against Warner Bros. for such blatant racebending. Their main problem lies with the movie’s futuristic storyline set in Korea in 2144. Because Cloud Atlas is all about interweaving storylines taking place across centuries, and the idea that the same souls inhabit multiple lives, the producers decided to have actors like Jim Sturgess (above) and Hugo Weaving (below) embody the protagonists of the Korea storyline.

Cloud Atlas missed a great opportunity,” MANAA’s president Guy Aoki said. “The Korea story’s protagonist is an Asian man—an action hero who defies the odds and holds off armies of attackers… 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.” Instead, as you can see, Jim and Hugo were made to look Asian with the help of some eye prosthetics.

Hugo Weaving yellowface Cloud Atlas race Caucasian Asian eye prosthetics wtf racebending

MANAA’s members are upset not only because of the lack of Asian actors in dynamic roles, but also because the only thing the makeup artists changed was the eyes—as if that’s the only difference between a Caucasian person and an Asian one, as opposed to facial shape and complexion.

This is where I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t pick up on this controversy until now. I’ve seen the trailers, but I must have assumed that the Asian characters I saw were Asian actors. Looking at the photos now, of course, it’s clear what we’re seeing. I think that because Cloud Atlas promises to be such a mentally challenging film, even when just watching the trailer I was trying to keep track of the interweaving storylines and not the actual people therein.

That’s where I could see Warner Bros. making the argument that they wanted to keep the same actors throughout for continuity. Yes, it would be confusing if three different actors played the same role, especially if that happened five times over. But not impossible! The indie Palindromes succeeded in having eight different actors — men, women, black, white, young, old — play the twelve-year-old protagonist Aviva. And less challenging but equally impressive were the seven stars all portraying Bob Dylan in I’m Not There.

Even though it’s too late to change all this, it doesn’t help when the people involved with the production don’t seem to take it as seriously as the audience. When the racebending issue first came up in September, Jim Sturgess really put his foot in his mouth over Twitter:

Jim Sturgess yellowface tweet Cloud Atlas Asian racebending

What’s unfortunate is that I do think he was coming at it from an honest place. But even in his apology, he clearly didn’t grasp how offensive his yellowface in Cloud Atlas was. It’s not like he thought up the idea, but he went along with it. Also, as Racebending pointed out at the time, people were probably already sour at the fact that Jim’s protagonist in 21 was based on an Asian man but the character was whitewashed for Hollywood. Again, not his fault, but not a point in his favor, either.

Jim Sturgess yellowface tweet Cloud Atlas Asian racebending

And yet, going through the production photos and finding more racebending examples makes this whole thing even more ridiculous. THR mentions a scene where Tom Hanks’ only transformation to look South Asian is “a spray tan and a haircut”; I’m assuming it’s this photo below.

Tom Hanks yellowface Cloud Atlas race Caucasian Asian eye prosthetics wtf racebending

MANAA also took exception to the reverse racial makeup in the film. In one timeline, Halle Berry pops up as a white woman, and honestly, she’s almost unrecognizable.

Halle Berry whiteface yellowface Cloud Atlas race Caucasian Asian eye prosthetics wtf racebending

Aoki pointed out that the attention paid to detail means that it “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.”

It really is unfortunate that Warner Bros. decided not to go the extra step and hire non-white actors for certain portions of the movie. Cloud Atlas is clearly trying to lure in audiences who are already fans of complex films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless MindInception, and Looper. They could have followed along just fine.

Photos: Warner Bros.

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    • Sarah R

      Considering that Cloud Atlas is based on a novel (an amazing novel that everyone really really really should read) with several different complex storylines, I sincerely doubt that the Wachowski siblings were trying to copy any of the films you mentioned.

      That being said, having the same actors play all the main characters (the large majority of whom are not Asian) throughout the movie’s many plots is a way to hold the story together as one coherent film, and I think the movie would have definitely suffered had they not stayed consistent with that. It’s an artistic choice. Race is part of the different characters they have to take on. Perhaps all those offended should take it up with the author or the people who decided to try to make the book into a movie at all? Personally I can’t wait to see it.

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    • Allison

      I have seen the movie and think it is unfortunate that people are taking offense to this. Specifically against the film and the actors in them (who are simply doing their job). I think it is unfortunate that people are basing complaints off of a trailer and not the film itself, its themes, or the book which it is based on. You are also wrong in your Tom Hanks picture. In that picture he is playing a gangster named Dermot Hoggins whom I believe is of Irish descent. The film also has in the cast Doona Bae and Zhou Xun who are both korean actresses. Doona Bae even plays a woman of mexican descent in the film. Halle Berry plays a man in some scenes for crying out loud! It is the soul of the person that is important in the story regardless of race or gender. That is the point. If you are offended, I am sorry, but atleast base your opinion on the full facts and not just a trailer.

      • KnowWhatImTalkingAbout

        Why are you assuming MANAA didn’t see it? They did. If you read the full press release, it mentions a pre-screening and a whole lot of other points left out of the articles online.

      • Allison

        I was referring to the author of this article who has obviously not seen the film and admitted so in the article. Half informed articles shouldn’t be written. No one is complaining about males playing females and vice versa and no one is complaining about the race change ups if it goes from minority to majority like when Halle Berry plays a white woman. We have a woman of asian descent playing a mexican woman in the film and no one is complaining about that. Why not cast a mexican woman? Because the movie is about souls transcending time, race, and gender and there is a reason her soul was there in that person in that story. The film gives everyone a fair shake up when it comes to gender, race, and age. I feel sorry that one actor is getting singled out but the others get “exceptions”. He was just doing his job.

      • http://twitter.com/jordanranson Jordan Ranson

        I would say yours is the most reasonable response on this site. People are going to find a reason to complain about anything.

      • Nonsense

        You only sound reasonable to people who are oblivious (likely, but not exclusively, due to white privilege) to the politics of race. Its not that complicated. Now one cares about whiteface or manface because white people and men are fully represented in the media. From crackheads, to geniuses, to saints, to murders, the average folk, to superheros, you name it. The FULL spectrum of white people’s (and men’s) humanity and experiences are represented in media. And white (and male) actors have been given the opportunity to play out those experiences. That is why no one cares. Despite the few potential factual errors, the author has still captured the essence of the issue.

        Besides, how many great actors have faithfully played Hamlet? If many different actors across time and space have reasonably captured the essence of Hamlet, the character, I don’t see that couldn’t be done in one movie.

        Please, no one familiar with racial politics buys your pseudo-reasonability.

      • Allison

        obviously I am not the only person who thinks this is silly based on other readers comments below. I do not deny the fact that there is a lot of racial issues in Hollywood but the directors by no means set out to make a racist film. They had a very clear vision that they wanted to portray on screen and ultimately (since they put in a huge amount of their own money into their film) it was their choice. This movie was greenlit by people above Jim Sturgess’ head at studios and it isn’t fair to attack him or any other the actors specifically . This is a business. The actors are doing a job. The film was number 2 at the box office so it must not have pushed people out of their cushy movie theater seats too much.

        I am so sorry that you think the author captured the “essence of the issue”. Overall I don’t come to articles for “essence” or to get the “jist”. I am looking for facts and some of the authors facts are just wrong. Wrong information is a powerful thing and shouldn’t be tolerated. If you don’t have the information correct, don’t write the article.

        I also do not understand your comparison to Hamlet at all. Hamlet is one story. This movie is six interwoven stories in one. You are comparing apples and oranges at this point.

      • T. Paine

        Using white privilege as a crutch for dismissal shows you have nothing but outrage to lean on.

      • BunnyOle

        Shut up you arrogant, condescending and fully ignorant prick. ‘Pseudo reasonability’?

        Being represented in the media has nothing to do with whether or not one cares about whiteface, blackface, or yellowface. Being represented in the media is not what the complaints seem to be about, they are fully about the ‘offensiveness’ of using a white man to portray an asian or a black man, because whites are racist & we don’t like it! Idiots have to constantly complain about mean racist white people.

        OH I’M SORRY in a country, now 70% white, previously 80-90%, does it hurt your feelings that whites want to see other whites in movies?

        Neither the author nor you have caught any ‘essence’ of anything other than your own petty and chronic resentment. The full spectrum of whites experiences are represented in the media, because whites created that media and wrote those stories, in a country with 250 million whites and less than 42 million blacks. Do white people world wide REALLY have to constantly do whatever makes everybody ELSE happy? WHY? You sure as hell make no accommodations for me with all your bitching.

        If you were to move to say, Nigeria, you would find the full spectrum of blacks being represented across the board in all media – if you were in China, well believe me, there are virtually NIL whites or blacks in Chinese movies. So, please, explain to me why you are so pissed off that whites do the same thing when they have the means to do so?

        Why don’t you move to china and pull that shit, see how far you get. I am SICK of hearing about people complain over NOTHING every single damn day and trying to force an entire race (white) to obey the very demand and sob complaint any person who ever lived could think of. Here, go watch a nigerian movie.

      • Klarth F. Lester

        The only thing you got right was your username, Nonsense.

      • Seriously

        Zhou Xun is Chinese..

      • Allison

        you are 100% correct and that is my lack of knowledge on her. She is Chinese and I stand corrected.

    • Jenni

      I don’t get how people haven’t learned to make “it’s not racist jokes” on Twitter by now. Remember that writer from Girls who thought she was being clever? Now everyone hates her.

    • http://www.facebook.com/stephen.abbott Stephen Abbott

      What an idiotic thing to pick up on! The entire CONCEPT of the film is that these are the SAME PEOPLE being reincarnated in different ages! Guess the reviewer missed that. Also, that man above – the spurned writer who didn’t like the critic who trashed his book – is NOT supposed to be Asian, he’s a Cockney BRIT! Watch the film (or do it again) before posting a retraction, please.

    • http://twitter.com/BeckyNBeck Becky Nunnally

      I do not think this movie’s intention was to be racist at all…I think quite the opposite. In my opinion, everyone’s makeup looks “good” (certainly not always “convincing”, but good) while you can obviously tell it’s them underneath. I think everyone needs to just calm down about this. One of the main heroes in the film in Korean. And what do they do to make her look Caucasian? They put red hair and freckles on her.
      I like all of the character transitions in the film…transitioning…that’s the point.
      P.S. If anyone read Sturgess’ other interviews, they would know he was very hesitant to play an Asian character and questioned himself why they didn’t get an Asian man to play Chang.

    • ben

      Tom hanks ins playing a Scottish man in that scene!

    • Glad

      I think you missed the point as to why they used white people to portray Asian people … first of all you forgot to mention that they also portrayed an Asian woman as a white woman … and a black woman as white … these people were all reincarnated in case you haven’t noticed and each time kept some features of each soul … so I think your’e reading into what’s not there … besides, it would have been far more confusing if you couldn’t recognize the characters as they changed lives … it was confusing enough for the first hour of the movie and it warrants a second viewing for me since I missed things here and there … I thought it was an excellent movie and I think that one needs to look at this movie from a spiritual perspective as a well.

      • mmdir2005

        Nobody need time to look at spiritual aspect. Most people look at the physical aspect. Yellowface guys indeed looks ugly human being. He looks like alien but in the film he is Asian male. That’s what the first look audience notice. So the film is look at Asian they are ugly like alien creature. They did it purposely in order to demonize asian male. There is whole history behind Hollywood’s yellowface tradition. Your view is based on your race’s perspective that I don’t share with it cuz we certainly live in different experience as not having same experience as you have. This film certainly did not help us we are one but they purposely did it to reinforce Hollywood tradition of anti-Asian male depiction.

      • Klarth F. Lester

        You’re so ignorant it’s beyond belief.

      • mmdir2005

        Take a cold shower to calm down ok…

    • Amsterdam

      It’s so stupid it gave me cancer. Seriously, the point was that ONE actor plays different roles, different lives. different faces, showing how the SOUL is trasforming from one character to another. It was obvious that Warner Bros would take the western actors mostly for main roles such as Jim Sturgess or Hugo Weaving, because they are more popular and it has NOTHING TO DO WITH RASISM, for crying out loud! It’s the way of making a big movie, hire recognizable faces! And the film itself shows something quite opposite to rasism, shows that it doesn’t matter if you’re black, or white, or “yellowface”, woman or man, WHATEVER, it’s all about soul and the way you’re living as a person, as a human being, the way this one soul of yours can evolve into something more, something better or worse, and it all depens on you, on your values, on good or evil in you not on the goddamn SKIN COLOR! But of course, people can find a problem everywhere, every-freaking-where! Even somewhere where there is no problem AT ALL, and something entirely different, but sure, let them talk, it’s usual for people to talk before thinking.

      • Klarth F. Lester

        Amsterdam’s post right here ^ made more sense than this stupid, idiotic article. “Oh, I’m gonna write an article about a movie that I have not even SEEN and I’m gonna pretend that I know what I’m talking about”. Pathetic.

    • Perplexed

      The writer is entirely missing the point, the whole idea is so that the audience can recognise the actor as the same soul in a different time… the movie wouldn’t have worked any other way. Why is it less offensive to have Doona play a white woman at the end of the movie than it is for Jim to play an Asian man in the 2144 story? Have you even done the most basic research of watching the film before submitting this? This is one of the most multicultural large scale movies, if not the most I’ve ever seen, and yet you’re claiming that it’s racist?

    • Jmurata

      Jim Sturgess was brilliant portraying a Korean man in Cloud Atlas. I didn’t know the character was not Asian but in fact Jim until the end of film.. And I’m a Japanese / Chinese girl. It’s a good makeup, and Jim makes a good looking Asian guy. No offense taken!

    • Jose Paulino

      OMG, Doona Bae is Asian and playing a white lady on this movie! This is a agression to white actors? Why not use a white actress instead, you could ask? Even worse, Tom Hanks plays a bald guy in 2012 (the killer writer). Why not to use a really bald guy instead? I am bald and I am feeling deeply ofended!

    • Jermzzzy

      The controversy is stupid- the entire point of the movie is that these are the same people being reincarnated and that they’re all portrayed by the same actors. Casting an Asian man would DEFEAT THE PURPOSE. I honestly don’t know how people don’t get this. It’s pretty key.

    • Dylan Tang

      Oh man, is there a term for people that like to call others racist to find themselves a reason to self-pity themselves? And I mean… COME ON! Action movies are probably the only genre where you have Asian leading man (Jet Lee, Jackie Chan, Jay Chou etc.). It’s more of the serious movies and chick flicks that never has an Asian leading man.

    • CeeJay

      *sigh* I get so tired of this worn out discussion…I finally just watched this movie, and in looking into it a bit, I tripped over this article, read it, and just shake my head. I wonder why this author “forgot” (or willingly ignored?) to mention that the ASIAN actress was made up, more than once, to look CAUCASIAN? Natalie has issues with THAT, apparently, just issues with the reverse. I like to call that “selective indignation”; they perceived prejudice where and when they want to, while they blatantly ignore evidence in the same example that shows that there is no prejudice. Another example; the movie “The Lion King”; I remember the same types of arguments, that the “bad” animals (three hyenas) were played by a black actress (Whoopie Goldberg) and a hispanic actor (Cheech Marin), and yet those same critics failed to mention the third actor (white) Jim Cummings played the CRAZY BAD hyena (the worst hyena, in my opinion; he’s bad AND he’s crazy). They also failed to mention that the biggest and best character, the most powerful, good and principled Mufasa, is played by (black actor) James Earl Jones, and that the biggest bad guy, the worst of the worst, pure evil, is played by (white actor) Jeremy Irons. Really, it’s tiresome to listen to people that imagine they see prejudice where none exists.

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    • brokedownsystem

      I can understand why they decided to use the same actors throughout the difference sequences in the film. But I am disappointed that they decided to go this route.

      (I finally sat down to watch it last weekend).