Yellowface in Cloud Atlas

Sure, Cloud Atlas had an amazing score and tied the 6 storylines together pretty well. Sure, it was innovative to use the same 6 actors/actresses in the roles across the 6 different inter-connected stories. But let’s not skim over the fact that the directors had James Sturgess put on yellowface to become Hae-Joo Chang in the Sonmi ~451 plot. Putting make up on to entertain an audience in order to represent/act as a different race is not a recent phenomena.

In fact, the [now socially outlawed] practice of blackface has dated all the way back to the early 19th century with the traveling minstrel shows of the South. Of course, there are still the odd pictures that show up online of some stupid kids dressing up for a party, but I’d argue that blackface is no longer a conventionally accepted practice. We haven’t reached that point with yellowface yet. I mean, we have Mickey Rooney playing an uncomfortably stereotyped (angry, blind, terriblly accent, buck-toothed) Asian man in Breakfast at Tiffany’s–probably/hopefully because no self-respecting Asian was willing to accept the role, or Katy Perry’s awkward geisha performance at the AMA’s. I get it, Wachowski’s, you wanted to stick with the whole everyone-is-connected-through-space-and-time-and-our-actions-have-far-reaching-consequences theme from Cloud Atlas. But was it necessary? I mean, did the special effects department even look at Korean people or did they just try to make Sturgess have squinty eyes?

Then again, it wouldn’t be fair for me to complain about yellowface without making a comment on Doona Bae’s terrifying portrayal of Tilda (Ewing’s wife), who looks like a timid, make-up-less Red Queen from Tim Burton’s rendition of Alice in Wonderland.

 Red Queen

For a movie that’s about the long-term consequences of actions, I think the directors really need to reconsider their perpetualization of the notion that race is something that you can plaster onto your skin.



~ by nerdcamper on March 16, 2014.

2 Responses to “Yellowface in Cloud Atlas”

  1. I completely agree with the points you bring up in this post. While I did quite enjoy the movie, the yellowface was frankly disturbing and seemed fairly racist. The heightened element of reincarnation was a great idea – I quite enjoyed the fact that all the actors appeared as characters throughout time. However, I feel like it was not only unnecessary to include yellowface, but even then it was badly done and uncomfortable. Additionally, David Mitchell has said that he didn’t write it as a reincarnation story, so it wasn’t really necessary to portray each character that way.

  2. I think it is first worth noting that this idea in acting and directorial choices plays out well before the 19th century—just look at the theatre in Renaissance England. Women roles were not played by women, they were played by men in drag. This, of course, is terrible and is exemplary of the inherent sexism and marginalization of women at that time. And while I agree with much of what you are saying with regards to Cloud Atlas, and how creepy/poorly executed the makeup was, I don’t think it was either the Wachowskis’ or Tykwer’s (can’t forget him) intention to cast actors as characters outside of their race in order to be exclusionary. If anything, I thought they were trying to further up their motif of reincarnation and the fact that boundaries are conventions by showing how even these “boundaries,” these differences in race are merely conventions as well, and can, and ought to be (in my opinion, at least) eradicated. Race is a term we have invented to categorize and separate ourselves and yet what Cloud Atlas is trying to do is just the opposite—advocate for a humane and global community consisting of individuals who are all individual and together simultaneously, and not simply tossed into subcategories of what it means to be a human being. Now don’t get me wrong, I do definitely think that blackface is bad, but that is because such instances are trying to create a caricature of what it means to be a part of one particular “race.” I don’t believe this was Cloud Atlas’s intent (although I can certainly see why it can come across as insulting) though, and still believe that they (along with Mitchell and the original novel) were trying at least to be sincere in their artistic direction (except, perhaps, in how overly stylized the violence was, although that is an entirely different issue.)

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