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Boy, Is My Face Yellow: The Cloud Atlas Yellow-Face Non-Issue

Damn you, international release schedule! I really wanted to to weigh in on the whole Cloud Atlas “yellow face” controversy that was raging at the end of 2012, but thought it best to wait until I had actually seen the film to offer comment. That just seems like common sense, even if Spike Lee clearly doesn’t agree. Of course, by the time that Cloud Atlas was released in the UK and Ireland, the storm in a teacup had passed, but I still think it’s worth commenting upon.

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On a broad level, I’m sympathetic to the controversy. Placing actors in make-up to change their ethnic features is, generally speaking, a very risky thing to do. Particularly in America, where so-called “black-face” evokes a long history of institutionalised racism stretching back to the 1830s, only really disappearing in 1950s. Placing white actors in make-up in order to disguise them as members of another ethnicity has all manner of uncomfortable racial undercurrents, regardless of any justification that might be offered.

For example, the 1977 episode of Doctor Who, The Talons of Weng-Chiang, is quite difficult to watch because the adventure chose to cast John Bennett as Chang. Bennett is a fine dramatic actor, but he is not Asian. The six-part adventure features Bennett playing the only major Chinese character in make-up designed to make him look Chinese. There are any number of justifications that might be offered for the decision.

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For example, Chang may have been inspired by the historical figure Chung Ling Soo, born William Robinson. Robinson spent his career playing the stage magician Chung Ling Soo in yellow face. Indeed, the character appears in The Prestige. However, while casting Bennett as Chang might be an affectionate nod to that historical figure, there’s no context given in the episode, and the whole thing feels strange and uncomfortable. It is one of the reasons I don’t hold The Talons of Weng-Chiang in the same high regard as many of my fellow Doctor Who fans.

Indeed, on a few levels, the reaction to Cloud Atlas‘ decision to make up actors like Hugh D’Arcy and Jim Struges to look Korean makes sense. There aren’t enough Asian roles to go around. Hollywood tends to prefer Caucasian leading actors, and it is very tough for an Asian actor to establish themselves. Indeed, I’m the first to complain about Hollywood’s tendency to re-write history to marginalise Asian characters.

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For example, the decision to change the ethnicity of the characters in 21 from Asian to Caucasian feels like a cynical and calculated marketing ploy, as was the decision to cast Avatar: The Last Airbender without any major Asian actors… save the villain. You can see the same sort of casting issues with films like The Impossible, where the Spanish family from the true story are changed to be a British family on holiday.

It is something that is incredibly frustrating, and something that tends to lock non-white actors out of Hollywood. There are more diverse leading actors than ever before, but there’s still a very strong conservative bias in film production, to the point where the studios recently baulked at a meagre $5m price-tag for Soderbergh’s Liberace biopic – deeming it “too gay.” It is very telling that Forbes’ top 11 highest-paid actors are predominantly white or white-passing.

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So I can understand why people are sceptical of Cloud Atlas and the decision to make actors like Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant, James D’Arcy and Jim Sturges look Asian. However, I don’t think it’s fair to accuse the cast and crew of Cloud Atlas of engaging in racist behaviour or of being culturally insensitive. I’m naturally sceptical of a lot of Hollywood’s conduct in matters like this, but I think Cloud Atlas is actually quite clever and also quite sensitive in matters of race.

It’s interesting that the decision to put various white actors in roles of various ethnicities is brought up so frequently. The film also features the exact opposite scenario, which is seldom mentioned. Halle Berry, for example, spends the 1932 section of the film playing a white British woman named Jocasta Ayrs. Doona Bae plays the white American Tilda Ewing during the earliest story, set in 1849. She also pops up as a Mexican character in the 1973 section.

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This isn’t an attempt to suggest that somehow the two acts are equivalent – that one cancels the other. Obviously, there isn’t a cultural history of “white face” that carries the same weight of institutional racism behind it. However, this does go a long way towards explaining exactly what the maker of Cloud Atlas were doing. It isn’t that they cast a bunch of white actors and though that it would be amusing to have them appear in each of the six stories. Instead, the whole point of the film is that these same souls keep travelling from one life to the next, in step with one another.

Having the same actors involved is a way of underscoring that point. Hugh Grant is the same villainous figure whether he appears in 1936, 1973, 2012 or 2321. Hugo Weaving is the same voice of the establishment, from 1849 through to the end of recorded time. It doesn’t matter whether that soul resides inside a young body, an old body, a male body, a female body, a Caucasian body, an Asian body. It’s the same basic soul, travelling through time and space.

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If the movie insisted on casting exclusively Asian actors for that section, it would cast precisely the wrong message. As it stands, Cloud Atlas is about how people are people, underneath it all. If you strip away the details, Hugo Weaving is playing the same character throughout the film. It doesn’t matter whether that character is Nurse Noakes, Old Georgie or Beardman Melphi. To suggest that people are the same all over… except when they are Asian, would be a far more offensive message than putting actors in make-up.

After all, it’s not as if Cloud Atlas has an entirely Caucasian cast. The cast is predominantly white, and that probably represents an institutional problem with Hollywood, but the actors involved are reasonably diverse. Halle Berry, Keith David and David Gyasi are major parts of the ensemble. Doona Bae headlines one of the movie’s stories, and Zhou Xun is also a recurring player. It would be great if the ensemble had an even greater amount of diversity, but it’s still more diverse than the vast majority of American blockbusters produced within the last number of years.

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I can understand why the decision to use make-up to change the ethnicities of actors is a hot-button issue. Personally, I think some of the make-up effects are a little dodgy. However, I think that Cloud Atlas is the last film that deserves to be accused of cultural insensitivity. After all, a major part of fighting racism and prejudice is underscoring the idea that we are all fundamentally the same underneath it all – we are all people and not so different from each other. Cloud Atlas hits that beautifully, and it seems that to criticise it as racist is simply to miss the point.

2 Responses

  1. Some of the prosthetics just made me laugh 😀

    • Yep. that’s my biggest problem with it, but I forgive the dodgy white-face make-up and Asian prosthetics because the theme is more important.

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