I’m about to dive head first into a review of a movie that should, in truth, take days to discuss because there are a lot of really awesome things about it, and there are also a lot of really awful things about it. Cloud Atlas is a really long movie – it comes in at about two hours and fifty minutes, which we’ll just round up to three hours for a nice even number. I only got up to use the bathroom once.
The film is about reincarnation, and how people can make decisions in every lifetime that effect their own future lifetimes and the future lifetimes of others (wow, I actually did it in one sentence). There’s love and there’s violence and character growth and soul searching.
And then there are white people styled to look like Asians. This is a whole different can of worms. Movie, you’ve done a bad, bad thing. There is also an Asian woman made to look like a Hispanic woman, and later she’s made to look like a white woman – but absolutely nothing transgresses lines of propriety, race, and what are you doing than making Jim Sturgess look like a Korean man. Not only is the make up rather unsettling (and really bad), largely because the viewer knows that Mr. Sturgess is a white guy, but that’s racist. Like, it can’t really be argued against. Making a white man look like an Asian man is really, really racist. Now I’m sure some of the apologists will cry out, “But Cat! They made an Asian woman look like a Hispanic woman, too!” and I also think that isn’t okay. And then you’ll say, “But Cat! They also made the same Asian woman look white, too! And they tried to make Halle Berry white, too! And they made her Asian!”
Look apologists. I will explain to you the difference between making Halle Berry appear white on screen and making Jim Sturgess appear Asian on screen.
In an article on Cloud Atlas at racebending.com, Mike Le says: “The equivalent use of ‘whiteface’ cannot compare to the act, because there is no history of white exclusion from the American mainstream.” White characters have never suffered erasure in American media. However, it has repeatedly happened to people of color. Basically, making a woman of color appear white does nothing to harm the representation of whites on screen and it does nothing to harm white viewers. Because when I turn on my television or when I go to the movies, I don’t have to look hard to find characters who look like me. I am white and part of my white privilege is that I can identify with other white female characters. But if I am a filmmaker and I make a white man or white woman look Asian or black or any race other than their own – by making that choice, I am erasing a potential actor of color from the discussion. I am not offering that person the opportunity to portray someone of their own race in mainstream media. And I erase the race of the character themselves by choosing a white actor for the role. This is racism is a “post-racial” world, where the Wachowski’s can say that their intent is to look beyond racism and get away with poorly done eye prosthetics and what I call sheer laziness in not casting other Asian actors.
We have thankfully reached a place in society where blackface is considered tasteless and incredibly taboo (though that hasn’t stopped many people from doing it anyway – a group of students in New York just this month reenacted Chris Brown beating Rhianna; Mike Le at racebending.com makes a reference to an instance of blackface that Billy Crystal did at the Oscars this past year; Google the phrase “blackface” and choose the “news” tab on Google search and you’ll find that people have been writing about blackface controversies all year long) – however, we haven’t seemed to reach a place where having a white actor appear Asian is not okay. Or even Arab, for that matter (see: Jake Gyllenhaal in Prince of Persia).
There is absolutely no excuse for what is being done in Cloud Atlas. If you want some serious commentary from media critics who are Asian and look for these things all the time, I’ve posted the link to a few really fantastic articles. But here’s the what’s what: if you’re reading and you are, like me, white, the critiques of Cloud Atlas should not upset or shock you. They should open your eyes. I know, it’s hard to wrap your head around the idea that racism is still large and in charge in our society – after all, you might not be seeing it. But I’ll tell you something that a classmate recently told me when I noted that I hadn’t seen the tensions between students in one of my grad courses: “That’s because you’re white.”
You’re not going to see racial tensions or taboos because you’re not looking for them. Because it isn’t possible to commit racial transgressions against white folks. We aren’t living in some post-racial, colorblind world. We’re living in a world where racism gets talked over and ignored because it’s being done for the sake of art or because Barack Obama is president. What’s racist is racist and I’m telling you, the official review on Cloud Atlas is: it’s racist.
Sources and other information can be found at:
(please just check out racebending.com it’s a really amazing source – Mike Le does all the media critique stuff it’s brilliant)