Friday, January 25, 2013

Controversial Cloud Atlas Part 2 - Cloud Atlas Isn't Racist

Ahem. Before I begin I would like to point out that this is Part 2 of a two-part post and that since writing Part 1 I've seen the film once more. Suffice it to say that my opinion hasn't changed. And so on we go with Part 2: Cloud Atlas isn't racist.

Left: "I'm starting to think this race-bending thing might upset a few people." Right: "We're over ten drafts in, goddammit." 
Naturally, when it was revealed that Cloud Atlas would be featuring non–ethnic East Asian actors in what has been dubbed "yellowface"(i.e., makeup meant to make non–East Asians look like East Asian people), there was quite a bit of uproar on the inter-web, especially among Asian-American communities. This is entirely understandable, as such casting and makeup choices harken back to an uncomfortably recent time in which Hollywood would have Caucasian actors play East Asian roles in their films. It was the belief of producers and studios of the time that no decent WHITE moviegoer — thought to be the majority movie-going demographic at the time — would have the slightest interest in seeing East Asians onscreen . . . on any screen, for that matter, TV included.

Bae Doona, first as herself, then in whiteface. 
As result of this, a lot of stupid stuff happened, such as David Carradine being chosen over BRUCE FRICKIN' LEE to star in the original Kung Fu television series — which Bruce himself helped create — because Bruce was thought to look "too Asian" (**face palm**). Anyway, it was a pretty shitty time to be an Asian-American actor in Hollywood . . . Oh, wait, it still kinda is. But that's another post for another time (seriously, I'll get to it). Anyway, this was likely one of the reasons why people weren't too happy about Cloud Atlas's "artistic choices" at first, including myself, but there were other arguments as well. Some said the makeup decisions in Cloud Atlas serve to highlight differences between ethnicities; others cited the race-bending makeup as insensitive, offensive, or just flat-out bizarre and said it didn't really work as intended. Regardless of the specific complaint, however, it seemed that most people had this idea in mind: that Cloud Atlas is racist. Fair enough, but I disagree. 

I'm going to be a smartass for a second and turn to the good old Merriam-Webster Dictionary in an attempt to define the term racism, which according to MW is defined as . . .

1.  a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race

2. racial prejudice or discrimination

Before anyone points out that this is simply one source, I checked five other dictionaries and they said more or less the same thing. I shall use these definitions as guidelines to illustrate how Cloud Atlas approaches race and why it is not racist. To that effect, let's look at the first definition.

Hugh Grant, sporting his racially ambiguous-but-probably-white cannibal face (right).
In Cloud Atlas the racial makeup is not meant to highlight any one character or to explain or justify any sort of behavior or character trait that any one character might possess based on their race or ethnicity. In other words, the film doesn't slap yellowface on Jim Sturgess, make him start speaking in a stereotypical accent, and go on about how "unscrupulous" he supposedly is because he's so gosh darn "Asian," and let's thank God for that. Nor does it make a big deal about how "German" Halle Berry's character is supposed to be, and "Oh, she's so white and European. Egad, we are so proud of ourselves, for we have transcended race!" No, there's none of that. The use of the racial makeup is actually pretty darn subtle from a cinematographic point of view. The film doesn't make a big deal about it, the shots don't linger longer than they have to on characters that have been "race-bent," the actors don't speak in stereotypical accents (except for maybe Tom Hanks as an English gangster — yeah, that happens), and their behaviour is not characterized by their race. The actors are simply present to fill whatever role they have been assigned in whichever story is being presented, however their ethnicity and, at times, gender have been adjusted to suit the needs of the character they are portraying. These characters and their behaviour are not characterized by their race (or gender). See the film and you will know what I'm talking about. 

So that's definition number one out of the way as far as I'm concerned. Now for number two.

The "old guy" in the back is not a real East Asian person.
The film does not discriminate: everyone is race-bended equally, with the exception of blackface, as it's pretty much a given that that would have made for a distribution nightmare and is just a really stupid idea, given North America's history. Honestly, though, I feel that even if they did have blackface I'd still be making this same argument. Anyway, back to the issue at hand. In Cloud Atlas we have black folks made up as white folks, white folks made up as East Asian folks, East Asian folks made up as white folks and, we can't forget, men made up as women and women made up as men. Now, I'm not stupid enough to ask the question "Hey, how come no one cares if Asian and black actors are made up as white people, HUH!? You don't see white people getting pissed off at that, so how come all those Asians are so pissed off, HUH!?" If you asked this question you're either an idiot or never took history at school in North America. 

Halle Berry, also in whiteface. 
My argument, which ties into the first definition of racism to some degree, is that whether the character an actor is portraying is a protagonist or an antagonist in their respective story, that role is not dependent solely on race. In other words, you don't see Bae Doona as an evil and fickle East Asian character in one story and later on portrayed as a perpetually angelic white character in another. Every time she is portrayed as anything other than white, she is not necessarily evil, and neither is any other character for that matter. To sum it up, the characters in Cloud Atlas are well written, not two-dimensional ethnic stereotypes whose characteristics depend solely on their race, and the race-bending makeup is not used to this effect (I may be repeating myself here, sorry). In this way I feel that the use of the race-bending makeup is not inherently racist; it simply serves to enhance the various settings of the film.

Despite this, however, I can't deny that the use of the makeup struck me as a rather peculiar idea initially. Why do it? Why risk upsetting entire ethnic communities in order to make a damn movie? These are perfectly legitimate questions. 

Xun Zhou, rockin' the whiteface.
So I've talked about what the race makeup isn't, so now I'll tell you what it is. The race-bending makeup in Cloud Atlas is meant to convey a theme that is central to the original story that the film is based on (i.e., the book), which is that feelings, emotions, ideas, and even souls and such spiritual stuff can transcend mortality. I haven't read the book yet (and I do mean yet, as it is only a matter of time now), so I'm not sure how it deals with these themes. However, the film attempts to use the makeup to differentiate between characters played by the same actors in order to hint at the existence of something akin to reincarnation, which is evidently indiscriminate of ethnicity in this story. For example, in one of the film's stories two characters may have a relationship, the nature of which is repeated in another story with two different characters, of different ethnicities, portrayed by the same two actors (confused yet?). This whole idea of life-transcending interconnectedness is a big one, to say the least, and so perhaps requires a big and perhaps too-gutsy-for-its-own-good idea to portray it, such as race-bending makeup.

"One of these things is not like the other."
The makeup is used as a tool for telling the story and exploring themes within, not solely to draw racial lines between the characters and their traits. Quite honestly, I don't see how else they could have done it, aside from using a huge cast of actors of different ethnicities and using flashbacks to tie them together or some such element, but do you really believe that would have worked as well? Would that have been as interesting? I mean, really think about it (that is, think about it until you agree with me).            

Thus I conclude that the race-bending makeup in Cloud Atlas is not racist, on the grounds that it is not intended to serve a racist purpose or to exploit race in itself. It is not used as a pretext to change or convey characters' traits — i.e., good or bad — based on ethnicity, and it is used nearly indiscriminately (with the exception of blackface, which I agree was probably for the best). It is used to explore a theme, a sort of life-transcending spiritual relationship between characters. Does it work? In some scenes better than others, to be sure. Sometimes it looks flat-out bizarre, but you know what? It's a new idea and not one that is without merit, as I feel it does add to the film. The Wachowski broth—, *ahem* siblings tried something new with Cloud Atlas, and I don't think that's such a bad thing. Cloud Atlas is all in all a pretty darn good film that is challenging, fun, smart, and very fresh indeed. Is it flawless? No. But what movie is? 

If you're one of those offended folks who has boycotted the film, this probably won't change your mind. But in any case, just see the damn thing; if you're afraid of supporting the evil racist Hollywood machine, then just download it, for goodness sake. If you have half a brain and are tired of the usual mindless Hollywood swill, then you owe it to yourself to see this movie.

Alex says, "Support good cinema, especially if it's mainstream, 'cause then they'll make more!" That is all.

Afterthought: Why the heck do we expend so much time and energy on caring about race anyway? Why don't we just measure people based on their individual qualities and merits? Oops, sorry. Got a little too progressive there . . . *cough, cough*.   

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