CLOUD ATLAS: Yellow Facing Racism?

By Dr. Craig D. Reid

Now before everyone get’s all wowee-zowee with the make up jobs, where each main star plays 4-6 characters (which is actually rather neat), or gets confused by a typical Wachowski sibling (Lana and Andy) writing and directing event (yes Larry and Andy’s Matrix was cool but even the actors didn’t get the script) or gets taken in by the few not too well created fight scenes, consider the racial ramifications of Cloud Atlas. Apparently the Wachowskis and main cast didn’t bat an eye, firmly believing that what they did was fine.

Hollywood has often cast Caucasian actors for Asian characters: Sidney Toler as Charlie Chan; Marlon Brando in Teahouse of the August Moon (1956); Luis Rainer in The Good Earth (1937), Tony Randall in 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964) and Hollywood’s greatest Hall of Shame…John Wayne as Genghis Kahn in The Conqueror (1955). It’s more unfortunate than you think. While shooting Conqueror in Utah, Wayne contracted cancer from fallout produced by nuclear tests at Yucca Flats in Nevada.

So what will be the fallout from this film? I’m thinking most readers are thinking, “What fallout can you possibly be thinking about?”

Here’s the “oh-no-they-didn’t do that” racist skinny on it. Granted that the nature of Cloud Atlas, at least in the minds of the filmmakers and actors, rightfully allows for Caucasian actors to don the yellowface make up and look Asian. But when you watch the film no white actor does the old Al Johnson racial “Mamie” switcheroo or the Black and White Minstrels, where white singers black shoe-polished there faces and seemingly had magnificently white teeth.

So why are there no Caucasian or Asian actors playing black characters yet black actors are playing  Caucasian and Asian characters? Let’s first take a look at the film.

Cloud Atlas is a pretty ambitious yet stilted attempt to bring British author David Mitchell’s 2004 bestselling novel to the silverscreen (oh, let’s be politically correct and also add in the goldenscreen).  With it’s $100 million “are you kidding me” price tag (it does look a much more expensive film), the Wachowksis have weaved a multi-genre, time/mind travel, reincarnation-riddled saga of disjointed magma that does have its occasional eruptions of eye candy, glee and spree.

Granted it was once written that for anyone to try make this film from a book composed of multiple stories stretching over multiple time period from the past to present to future and back again would be nuts…in step Lana and Andy Wachowski, who in real life have led erratic lives and personal choice manifestations that certainly came with high risk emotional consequences for family, friends and themselves.

The technique used to pseudo-meld logic with time continuum sense to bring the multifaceted thematic devices into a neo-history born and not born, the cast ends up playing different character reincarnated through the six time eras the film takes place in.

Cloud Atlas nimbusly opens with a tattoo-faced, droopy eyed old man named Zachry, seemingly pining the past. But what past is that? Ay, there’s the confusing coherent rub as the time machine clicks into place and we’re off on an adventure where life is about past lives and how these lives intermingle, connect and deja vu us, where we learn that there’s a darn good chance you’ve married your spouse several times over the centuries. I know I have.

Anyway, the epochs extolled in this cumulus opus include from past to present: An 1849 Pacific sea voyage where a seemingly well off sickly seaman is being cared for by a deceitful doctor, the life of the seaman being in the hands of an escaped slave; a young homosexual composer battles an aging Franz Liszt look-a-like music maestro bent on stealing the work of the young composer creating it, in 1936 Cambridge; a 1970s streets of San Francisco savvy security man, a tandem of conscientious nuclear scientists and a Watergate-minded reporter battle a nuclear power plant chief (BTW, the plant looks a lot like the San Onofre Nuclear Generation Station 45 miles north of San Diego); and a 2012 comedy sequence about a London book publisher/editor’s run in with the mob, his brother and a nursing home

The future features a Neo Seoul era where it looks like Korea has had a “Career” change, where an indentured wage slave and the butt kicking scientist rebel who rescues her, try to change the Soilent Green-ish grollies of 2144, and the 24th century-set tale of brutal tribal warfare finds the superstitious Zachry hooking  up with an alien explorer to find a groundbreaking, planet-shaking discovery. (Did anyone else have a hard time understanding the “English” spoken during this time period?)

And what is the discovery we are finding in this film? It’s okay to only have Asian characters played by white and black actors but not to have black characters  played by Caucasian and Asian actors.  And why is that?

If the latter occurred, the NAACP would be on the filmmakers’ butts faster than white on rice. Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and Spike Lee would be up in arms and pounding the proverbial racist podium. However, since traditionally Asians have never voiced any negative reactions to seeing yellowfacing in past films…it must have been okay…right?.

The problem has been that Asian Americans are splintered into 15 or so major different cultures lumped into one group, and there is little unity among these groups…language being one of the major walls.  Furthermore, Asian-Americans are quite, peaceful, and don’t like to riot or rock the boat. On a positive note, the various Asian American film festivals in the USA do a good job uniting these various Asian American cultures in their cities. San Diego undoubtedly being one of the most successful.

Just as the film thematically demonstrates that regardless of the time period our souls are the same, we must fight for freedom, and history repeats itself, so too must our souls continue to fight for equality for all races. Let’s get rid of yellowfacing racism once and for all. Maybe what this country needs is an Asian-American president…I nominate Jackie Chan…he seems a bit more morality minded than Aaaaaarnold….rats Chan isn’t an American citizen. Besides he can’t be Asian in real life…he’s not good in math or computers.

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