50 Shades of Racism: ‘Cloud Atlas’ Yellowface

English actor Jim Sturgess wears yellowface makeup to play an Asian role in the film “Cloud Atlas.”

“Cloud Atlas” represents one of the most ambitious films of the year with its six interrelated stories spread across a time period stretching from the 19th century to post-apocalyptic Hawaii in the future. So it’s a shame that the $100 million independent film is tainted by accusations of racism.

The film has already opened to modest box office numbers and a divided reception among film critics. But several news articles starting with The Hollywood Reporter piled on top of the film’s early woes by highlighting Asian-American complaints about the use of “yellowface” in the film’s futuristic Korea sequence — a storyline where a number of white actors play Asian roles.

To be fair, the film’s three directors — the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer — struggled mightily to adapt David Mitchell’s novel into a workable screenplay, enlisted an all-star cast and completed the film as a labor of love against the expectations of many Hollywood studios. One of their artistic decisions in adapting the novel was to have almost all the main “Cloud Atlas” actors and actresses playing wildly different roles across the film’s six stories as a way of emphasizing the theme of human souls living many different lives across time.

The film’s two Asian actresses, South Korea’s Doona Bae and China’s Zhou Xun, both play Asian and white roles in different stories. Halle Barry plays a white European lady in one story sequence. Hugo Weaving even makes the cross-gender leap and plays a crotchety Nurse Ratchet character.

Hugo Weaving wears yellowface makeup to play an Asian role in the film “Cloud Atlas.” He also undergoes an extensive makeup job to play a cross-gender role.

But the Media Action Network for Asian American, the main advocacy group behind the “Cloud Atlas” complaints, found several reasons to be unhappy despite the multicultural casting choices.

  1. The lack of male Asian actors in the Korea story sequence, and a “missed opportunity” to cast an Asian actor in the heroic lead role for that particular story.
  2. The idea that the film’s makeup artists paid more attention to making the two Asian actresses look white in certain scenes, but did a lazy job with making white actors such as Jim Sturgess or Hugo Weaving look Asian.
  3. The awkward fact that the film uses yellowface makeup but avoids putting any white actors in notorious “blackface.” (If you don’t know why you should be thankful that U.S. society has moved on past the infamous days of white actors wearing blackface on stage or on the silver screen, look up minstrel shows or the film “Birth of a Nation”.)

Full disclosure: I haven’t seen the film yet. But I have read David Mitchell’s novel, as well as the New Yorker’s epic behind-the-scenes writeup of what went into the making of “Cloud Atlas” film. And I can understand the reasoning behind why the Wachowskis made the choice they did to have their actors and actresses play different ethnic roles as a way of creating connective tissue among the six stories for movie-going audiences — although I suspect that may distract audiences from the film’s stories as much as it adds to the idea of a cohesive overarching story.

Let’s start with complaint #1. Yes, the Media Action Network has a fair point when it complains about the casting of Asian actresses but not actors. Hollywood is still far from ideal when it comes to offering diverse Asian roles in general, and Asian males in particular seem to struggle with American cultural perceptions of them being asexual and geeky (aside from the occasional martial arts master). The casting in “Cloud Atlas” certainly does nothing to dispel that trend.

But seriously, would an Asian male actor look any less silly wearing makeup to look white if he had to play many different roles in the film? Well OK, maybe the makeup jobs on Jim Sturgess and Hugo Weaving do look especially silly and awkward (complaint #2). On the plus side, the portrayal of Asians in “Cloud Atlas” is intended to be serious rather than a sideshow involving racist stereotypes of how Asians look or speak (I’m looking at you, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”).

The willingness to use yellowface but not blackface — complaint #3 — does raise a fair point about attitudes toward different races or cultures in both Hollywood and broader U.S. society. There are still plenty of cases today where Hollywood producers seem OK with casting white actors in the role of an Asian character, but I doubt anyone would dream of similarly lazy casting for a role that calls for a black person — especially because of the dreadful history surrounding the use of blackface to perpetrate racial stereotypes and uphold discrimination.

Should yellowface be any more acceptable to use than blackface? The most obvious answer is that neither should be used unless the filmmakers recognize the cultural and historical implications, and are willing to face up to those implications for the sake of making an artistic point with the story. For instance, Robert Downey Jr.’s character in “Tropic Thunder” wears blackface as a spoof of Hollywood actors going to extremes to transform themselves in certain roles … perhaps a familiar scenario for much of the “Cloud Atlas” cast.

By making the choice to have each actor or actress play many different roles, the “Cloud Atlas” directors created an awkward dilemma for themselves in choosing who to cast. The half-measure of avoiding blackface but using yellowface merely highlights the awkwardness — they might have saved themselves some unnecessary grief by being consistent in casting minority roles with actors or actresses who didn’t require extensive makeup.

Having said all that, I still plan to see “Cloud Atlas” to give it a fair shake. The filmmakers obviously didn’t set out to give off any awkward racist vibes, even if their choice to use yellowface does seem questionable. I’ll just try to ignore the makeup distractions and perhaps wonder how much better the film could have been if they had cast someone like Daniel Dae Kim.

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3 thoughts on “50 Shades of Racism: ‘Cloud Atlas’ Yellowface

  1. I guess the production would have saved face if they had cast an Asian-American actor for the role of Sturgess and just white-faced him for his other sequences to balance it out. I would’ve liked to see how Daniel Henney would do in a good meaty role… or maybe John Cho.

    Or maybe Daniel Wu, even though he’s not Korean-American. He would have the acting drama chops to do it. Great post :) I’m also eagerly waiting for the movie, despite the controversies. Big big fan of Doona x)

    1. Thanks! Yes, it would be interesting to know if the filmmakers actually considered an Asian male lead for the cast. I didn’t find this particular controversy to be insulting so much as awkward, but hopefully the film’s other merits lift it up. Definitely looking forward to seeing Doona’s performance after having first seen her in “The Host.”

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