Noah J Nelson on Thursday, Oct. 25th
The film adaptation of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas has been on top of our “most anticipated” list for a while now. Not only does it feature The Wachowski’s– creators of The Matrix– return to the realm of speculative fiction, this ambitious project also brought along Tom Tykwer director of the 90′s cult smash Run Lola Run.
It’s a total 90′s love-fest, one with a run time of 164 minutes and features an all-star, international cast who play multiple roles in this story that revolves around the idea of reincarnation. Men play women. Halle Berry plays a blonde white woman, and Hugo Weaving plays an Asian character.
And this is where we run right into a big cultural iceberg.
There is a firestorm brewing online about the film’s cross casting technique, with some calling the casting of Weaving and Jim Sturgess an example of Yellowface. This is something I’ve read or heard from people who both have and haven’t seen the movie and those who have. Being in the former camp– although I fully plan on seeing the film– I’m not in the position to judge. Some would say that because I’m a white male I’m never going to be in the position to judge and I accept that my opinion on the subject will never have value for people who hold that belief.
What is terribly interesting to me is that the cross casting goes in pretty much every direction. Take the central character in the part of the movie that has stirred up so much controversy: Somni-451. Somni-451 is the title character of that part of the book, a replicant played by Korean actress Doona Bae. Bae also plays a character who is white: Tilda Ewing, and the part of a “Mexican Woman”, according to the IMDB credits.
At The Good Men Project writer Matthew Salesses, a Korean-born Bostonian, pretty much eviscerates the casting of Weaving and Sturgess in Korean roles. One of his objections is that the film could have cast Asian actors in those roles and relied on the book’s “birthmark” narrative device to guide the audience through the reincarnation theme. He also puts the cross-casting Asian and Black to White in it’s historical context: we’ve never had a problem with actors of color playing white characters because racial politics inevitably have a dimension of issues of power in them.
The filmmakers were all born white males. One of them- Lana Wachowski- has since transitioned to female. Which throws an extra layer of identity politics into the mix.
My gut tells me that those who are focusing on the Yellowface controversy are missing the underlying theme of the movie as suggested by what the filmmakers likely see as color-blind casting. At the same time: the filmmakers have almost certainly underestimated the impact that putting white actors into makeup that will make them look Asian will have on a segment of their potential audience. It locks them right out of the story by tearing open deep scars.
Any dialog that the filmmakers intended to have with people who are offended with the decision to execute the story in this way has been completely eclipsed. That can’t be a good outcome.
Was there a way to keep the casting choices without evoking the specter of Yellowface? Maker knows that the Weaving make-up job touches a garish nerve. It just looks wrong. Beyond that it seems that the make-up for Bae and Berry when they play white characters doesn’t appear to do much more than alter their hair and skin tone. Does this all come down to the eyes?
Should there never be attempts at color-blind and gender-blind casting? This is something theatre does all the time. However there is almost never an attempt to alter the actor’s appearance. Has the demands of film to embrace verisimilitude undermined the intended themes?
It’s a charged, fascinating mess. One that the current evidence suggests the filmmakers were either being naive about, or acting as agent provocateurs with. I find it hard to believe that the people who would cast Professor Cornell West in a science fiction movie– as The Wachowski’s did in the sequels to The Matrix– are completely ignorant of racial politics. Unable to see the consequences of their choices, sure, but completely ignorant, no.
For the arguments that will ensue alone, Cloud Atlas remains on our must watch list.