[IMAGE: In a promotional still from Cloud Altas, Asian actress Bae Doona cries as she is snuggled by Jim Sturgess in yellowface]
If you don’t understand the controversy around Cloud Atlas, then in all likelihood, you are focused on the film in terms of its artistic quality. What you appreciate about the film is its grand vision: the sweeping soundtrack, grand special effects, universal concepts of reincarnation and rebirth, adventure on the scale of centuries or millennia.
So I’d like to make something perfectly clear: our concerns are not about the quality of the writing, the story, the special effects, makeup artistry, or cinematography.
Our discussion will be about social impact, culture, and politics. The nature of a multimillion dollar venture like Cloud Atlas is that it is shaped by culture and society. It is designed for the consumption of moviegoers. Millions of consumers will pay to see this film. The act of payment will encourage other films of similar cloth and make. The act of viewing will refine the viewer’s sense of pop culture, if only in a small way.
In watching the Cloud Atlas trailer, the parallels are clear. As with these other films, we see that white creators and performers are permitted to determine what it means to be Asian. It’s frustrating, because the trailer suggests a story that comfortably meshes with preconceptions and stereotypes of Asians: of a futuristic world of high technology and little soul, where the “all-look-same” vision of Asianness is directly translated into racks of identical, interchangeable Asian “fabricant” clones. It suggests a world where white actors (in yellowface) and Asian actresses enter into romantic trysts–while excluding the voices and faces of Asian American actors.
All too often in conversations about race in the 2010s, it seems that the racial conversation is all about performing the same racist actions but justifying them with new words. The use of yellowface, or even blackface, can be justified if the director uses the term “post-racial” or “colorblind.” But an honest look at statistics and demographics reveals that our society is anything but. We cannot enter a “post-racial” world by pretending problems do not exist, by pretending that lopsided representation is justified.
Acting as an apologist preserves the status quo in favor of those who already have the lion’s share of representation, who “don’t care” about race issues because they are fundamentally content with the system. If you can see your race and gender reflected in 80% of the faces that dominate movie posters, then it becomes meaningless to you. It’s worth nothing. It doesn’t damage your self-esteem, as it does for American children of any demographic other than “white male.”
For the rest of us, Cloud Atlas represents simply another film in the long tradition of Hollywood exclusion. It has been a very, very long road. We can only keep the discussion alive, despite how much further yet we need to go.