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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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 Mind, Inception, and Looper. They could have followed along just fine.
Photos: Warner Bros.