One of the most striking features of Cloud Atlas (2012)—directed by Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski, and Andy Wachowski—is how its actors and actresses play across race with the aid of makeup and prosthetics. To discuss the portrayal of race in the movie, the Mediascape Blog convened a roundtable of two film studies graduate students. Their conversation can be read or listened to below, or downloaded in MP3 format.
Moderator: J.M. Olejarz
Mediascape Blog: Hi, and welcome to the Mediascape Roundtable. I’m Josh Olejarz, coeditor of the Mediascape Blog. Today we’re going to be talking about Cloud Atlas and its race issues, or maybe it’s more accurate to say the role and portrayal of race in the movie, and whether that is an issue. Before we begin, why don’t I let our other participants introduce themselves, and then we’ll get started.
Todd Kushigemachi: My name is Todd Kushigemachi, and I’m a first-year MA student in the [Cinema and Media Studies] program.
Olga Desyatnik: And my name is Olga Desyatnik. I’m also a first-year master’s student [in the Cinema and Media Studies program].
MB: All right. Todd, when we say the race issues of Cloud Atlas, what exactly are we talking about?
TK: I think the race issue is that we have several actors playing multiple roles across race, and those transformations are done using makeup and prosthetics. I know for me personally, as an Asian American, the first time I saw several actors in makeup to be, supposedly, Korean characters, it stopped me in my tracks. I didn’t know how to react to it; it was sort of shocking. But as the film went on, I found myself working through those feelings and seeing a tension between the horror of those images and the overall effect of the film. And I think it’s working through issues of race in a way that’s slightly more complex.
MB: Olga, what was your experience when you saw the movie?
OD: I think I was focusing more on the reincarnation aspect of it. I was a little bit surprised when Halle Berry plays a white Jewish woman, because it’s pretty clear that it’s her. And I think what—if I may speak to Josh’s experience—I think what Josh found disturbing about it was that the makeup was seemingly not done well. My position is more that whatever so-called flaws exist are there for a reason, and are interrelated with the themes that the Wachowski brother and sister are trying to portray.
MB: Yeah, when I saw the movie, I felt kind of uncomfortable with the fact that people were playing across race this way, especially because so many of the major characters and actors are white and they’re playing other races. But it’s been a couple of months since I’ve seen the movie now and I’m not sure exactly why I felt uncomfortable. I’m wondering what you guys think. Is it inherently a problem, can we say, to play across race that way? This is not a Hollywood movie, it’s a German production, but certainly in American movie history there are some really famous examples—Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer, or Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s—of the way actors play across race. Is it inherently a problem, or can it be OK in some circumstances? And what’s the deciding factor there?
TK: I think you bring up a good point about the idea of the history of Hollywood cinema and those sort of representations. I think the idea of whether it’s inherently offensive is a very difficult question to answer. You’re right, as with yellowface, there’s this history, so when we see these sort of representations, I think there’s a tendency for us to go, “How has this been used historically?” Well, it’s been to perpetuate negative, buffoonish stereotypes, as you mentioned with Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Or you have the desexualized other—I’m thinking of the protagonist in D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms. Yellowface also has the effect of erasing Asian and Asian American actors from the cast. Basically, all we see are white actors and actresses in the film. Interestingly enough, the yellowface [in Cloud Atlas] does not work in those ways. We don’t see, necessarily, those exaggerated stereotypes. There are Asian actors—actresses, at least—in this film, and so it’s a little bit different. I don’t know. It’s interesting.
OD: I think a salient aspect is there are no Hispanic or Latin American actors in the film. And that, I think, is one of the biggest criticisms. As far as African American actors, Halle Berry is a big name, so she gets a lot of attention in this film, and she partakes in every single sequence. The actor who plays the slave in the first sequence, for some reason, doesn’t show up again. That does make me question why they wouldn’t have utilized him more, especially if the film is a departure from the way that this reincarnation principle is depicted in the book. However, I do think that the variety of ethnicities that each actor portrays, including Halle Berry, who, yes, unfortunately, is the only African American actor in the film who plays a variety of characters—
MB: There is a black actor—I can’t think of his name. But he plays a couple of different roles, too.
TK: She’s the definitely the most prominent, though, I think, to play—
MB: Definitely the most famous, I think we can say.
OD: Right, OK. Wait, who is the black actor?
MB: Well, go on with your point. We’ll try to figure it out as we go.
OD: My point is just that—
MB: Oh, sorry, it’s Keith David. That’s who I’m thinking of.
TK: That’s correct.
OD: My point is that because there is a variety of crossing races for every person in the film, it equalizes to an extent. Certainly it’s not the same process that was occurring in blackface being used in The Jazz Singer, or Mickey Rooney, that you were mentioning.
MB: After I saw the film, I read an article by Michelle Dean that had a big influence on my early thoughts about the movie. She was essentially saying that she thought if the actors were going to play across race and get at the connectedness of all people, they should do without makeup—that that would be a braver choice than trying to put people in, especially bad, Asian makeup. What would you two say to that?
TK: That’s an interesting question: if we’re criticizing this, well, what are the alternatives? I think one of the difficult things is that although it was, technically, independently financed, it is a major studio release, I think trying to reach as broad of an audience both domestically and internationally as possible. And if we were to either have different actors in each period or have the same actors but without makeup, I don’t think that’s the sort of film that would do well. I think audiences would be even more confused. I feel like a lot of the response to this film has been, “I wasn’t sure what to make of it and it was confusing.” But I thought it was relatively straightforward. And just to imagine it with different actors, I think it would have been, perhaps, even more confusing.
OD: Right. And the other aspect of the confusion is that, for me, the most important thing is getting across the message of the film, right? In the thematic sense, the whole purpose is to talk about interconnectedness between human beings throughout different time periods. And the only way that they can represent that this is the same soul—because they are talking about souls, and actually the Wachowskis have made this comment in interviews, that they’re portraying souls throughout time. So, Tom Hanks is being reborn. Every time he plays a new character, he’s still the same soul. Cinematically, it’s impossible to represent that concept without having the audience recognize the actor. And that also plays to the fame of the actors. If these were not faces that we’re accustomed to seeing, then we might not get that point either. Which is why, for example, we weren’t able to name Keith David, or notice some of the other transformations from the less-famous actors. But, most importantly, this interconnectedness and reincarnation would be impossible to convey without having the same actor play different people who happen to be of different races. And I think the idea of a soul transforming its race in new rebirths is—what’s the word I’m looking for? It’s a unifying rather than a divisive concept. It goes against whatever critique we are making, sitting here, about the representation of race in the film. We’re saying that it’s marginalizing, whereas the whole purpose of using different races for each time a soul is reborn is to say that we are all the same. And so that’s really why I don’t view their use of race as critically as others do, because I think that it serves this thematic purpose.
MB: Todd, you had mentioned, before our talk, an Asian group’s response to the Asian makeup. Can you talk about that?
TK: One of the main things they talked about is that yellowface has this negative response. The organization was Media [Action] Network for Asian Americans, I believe is the correct name. Media Action Network for Asian Americans, led by Guy Aoki. His criticisms, of course, had to do with the yellowface. He believed that the yellowface makeup was the most poorly done of all the racial transformations, that when we see Doona Bae changed from an Asian to a white character, that makeup was done better than yellowface. I don’t know if I agree with that, but that was definitely one of the criticisms. Another thing that they brought up was whether or not this was an opportunity to have more Asian male actors. I think one of the big things about representations of Asian Americans is that Asian males are often desexualized. They’re generally not the heroes. Even a film like The Replacement Killers is a famous example where the action protagonist is an Asian male, but at the end of the story he does not end up with the girl. There’s this odd, almost asexual nature to these characters. I think that for the Neo-Seoul story that took place in the year 2144, a lot of them saw that as an opportunity to cast Asian actors into these heroic roles. My response is that I think that’s a good point. But I also wonder if—playing devil’s advocate—was the implication there that we would have these Asian characters then transformed into white characters in the other timelines? It speaks to this broader question: is this something that’s inherently racist? And I think that’s a tricky issue.
OD: I think that’s a really good point to bring up, if we could focus on Neo-Seoul for a minute? First of all, Jim Sturgess plays an Asian male, right? So, I suppose you could say that we could have cast an Asian actor to play that role. But, again, then you wouldn’t have the connection to his previous incarnations, right? So that’s my response to that. But—
MB: Can you say more? Why couldn’t an Asian person play a white character for the role?
OD: Why couldn’t an Asian person play a white character?
OD: That role is supposed to be an Asian man. What do you mean?
MB: Jim Sturgess, in terms of chronology, his first occurring character is white, and he has a couple of other white characters.
MB: And he also plays Asian characters. So why not just have it the other way? Cast an Asian character who is going to play white characters for the earlier timelines.
OD: That’s definitely a good point.
MB: Initially, when I saw the movie and I felt really uncomfortable, as a white person seeing these white people play so many more roles than the actors of other races, that was what I was thinking: Why are there so many white people? Is it just that there are famous white actors that they used or is there more to it?
OD: Right. Well, that’s something that we’ve all discussed, too: unfortunately, the nature of Hollywood is still such that we have a majority of white actors, especially ones that are famous. The reasons for that are a separate issue that we could talk about, but for the purpose of the film, if you’re looking to make a profit on it—if you’re looking to get a wide audience—then yes, you’re going to have actors that are recognizable, which happen to be, mostly, white people in Hollywood. And, well, you mentioned this is a German production, but I think we can agree that the Wachowskis are Americans. And the actors are Americans. It’s just a circumstance that they got German funding. They actually funded some of it themselves—$7 million, apparently.
TK: But we should also remember that Tom Tykwer did direct a number of the segments, and he is German, if I’m not mistaken?
MB: Well, I don’t want to let them off the hook just because it’s a German production. Certainly they’re very well-known filmmakers at this point in their career, as they’ve done a lot of big-budget movies, but I really feel strongly that the higher-profile you are as a director, the more responsibility you have to think about these things. One of the challenges of adapting this book from the novel was to figure out how to portray these characters who have connections to each other across time, and so they did this by having the same actors play different versions of the characters, or different incarnations, however you want to say it. Certainly the box office and recognizable faces are a part of it, but I feel like they could and/or should have done more to diversify the cast. I just can’t really get away from that feeling.
TK: I think another possible issue is—I think the Wachowskis and Tykwer adapted this well, but I think the original question, the original text, is, “Is the story of essential human-ness a Western story?” And I think that’s part of the reason why there are so many white characters in the stories to begin with. If we’re going to tell a story about human oppression throughout time, is it going to be the story of the slaves, and then you have a composer, and then you have a corporation in America, you have Jim Broadbent—these are all stories of oppression, but in Western civilization. So I think it’s another question of is the issue at the adaptation level, or was it our understanding of history in general that leads us to a very narrow focus?
OD: That’s actually a really good point. I did make this point before, that a lot of the earlier sequences take place in America or Scotland, like with Jim Broadbent, and they’re white characters. But I guess I hadn’t thought about the fact that you could have had other races playing those white characters. There’s also the crossing gender, with Hugo Weaving in Scotland, which is an interesting choice.
MB: And Ben Whishaw does it, too. That may be it. A couple of people do it, though.
OD: When does Ben Whishaw do it?
MB: He plays someone’s wife, I believe, in one of those stories.
OD: Interesting. So, if we’re talking about author’s intent, Lana Wachowski certainly wouldn’t have wanted to represent transgender people negatively—
MB: Let’s not necessarily attribute things to her that she may not agree with, but that’s certainly an angle on the story.
OD: I’m not attributing anything, I’m saying if you’re talking about intention, she would not have intended to denounce her own being, right? And that character is actually comedic, and kind of laughable, this woman that’s played by a man. So I don’t know what the intent there was, but…
MB: Speaking of intent, I want to get back to the narrative and thematic purpose of having the actors play across races. I don’t think anybody would argue that if there’s a reason for doing that, that that is not better than something like The Jazz Singer. But does that make it OK, I’m wondering.
OD: The question of “OK” is maybe the wrong question. Or, not really the wrong question—I think it’s a question that takes a position, which is to say, “Doing this is inherently offensive, but can we defend it?” And I’m not sure that that’s necessarily the perspective we should be taking. I think we should first ask whether it’s offensive, and in asking that we need to examine exactly how it’s done and whether it could have been done differently, as Todd pointed out. You actually made a great point about the fact that you could have had Asian characters in Neo-Seoul, Asian actors that would have played white people in earlier scenarios. My one comment for that was I defended that because I took the Neo-Seoul scene as representing—well, it is in the future. I have heard of this theory that we will become like Pangaea again in the future, and that all the races will mix and become one mixed race. There’s evidence that that’s happening. And so this “bad makeup” that they did for Jim Sturgess, for example, is actually, potentially, on purpose—they wanted to show him as a mixed-race person. And then Sonmi and all the clones are representative of what we know now as Asians. There are class questions there, because, obviously, that’s the lowest class in that society. And so, potentially, whomever they cloned wasn’t mixed race. Maybe it’s an older DNA pool. There are a lot of fantasy elements that we could interpret from the back story of that whole history, which is a fake history—it’s obviously not something we can pin down. So I think that there are reasons that can be invented for the choices they made there as well. I think for pretty much every choice, I could invent a reason for why they did it.
TK: I think it’s always tricky when we’re talking intent, you know? It’s always, how do we measure intent? And when we talk about “offensive,” does intent matter? And I don’t think so. I think representations can be offensive without intention. But Olga brought up the point earlier about Lana Wachowski’s operation, and she has talked about that in reference to the films and its themes. But, again, does that excuse a lot of the things in the film? I think that’s another question. But that’s the idea of intent. And I think some people have said that this is a film about how we are all one, and I think that’s part of it. But I think what I would just say was the takeaway for me, personally, it was about the persistence of human oppression throughout time. On a number of those occasions, it’s racial. There’s also oppression in terms of sexuality. There is also age. There’s—I don’t know how you would put it—in form of conception—whether one is naturally bred or cloned. But, regardless, there are these different forms of oppression and prejudice that take place, and I see that as the intent of the film. And one of the issues of race with makeup—particularly things like yellowface and all these other transformations—is that it denies race, or says it doesn’t matter, or it’s insensitive to the injustices that happen in each time. But I would like to say that the film at least indicates the persistence of those very oppressions of race. So I think it’s a film that, in essence, attempts to transcend race while still acknowledging the reality of oppression throughout time. So, again, here, that idea of intent, whether it justifies the yellowface and these other racial transformations, and how that plays out in the film. I don’t know.
OD: That was a point that we had discussed earlier, the persistence of oppression. For me, you have to divide the intent and the method, and again, unfortunately, the method that would be most effective for conveying a message is the one that draws the largest box-office sales, right? I don’t know if everybody would necessarily see this as a good defense for utilizing methods that aren’t in themselves transcendent of race. But you do get a better result by using these famous actors who happen to be white. That’s one side of it. The other side of it is the fact that we’re representing stories of oppression, in itself, villainizes the white people in those stories—for example, slavery or the ageists in Scotland—I can’t think of another example. But the point being that because the message of the film is one that denounces oppression of any race or of any group of people, that its methods are, then, a little bit more defensible, perhaps. I don’t necessarily think that there always needs to be a complete coinciding of form and function. In terms of activism, I think if you care about your message, then the most important thing is getting it out there the most effective way possible. And I think that it does carry a great message. To me, artistically, it’s more important whether the message gets across. Whether the work, within itself, achieves its purpose thematically, by conveying its morals—to dissect casting choices, in general, is always, I think, a little bit self-defeatist.
TK: That idea of getting the message out there is really tricky. For instance, I mentioned Broken Blossoms earlier. For those who don’t know, it’s a film essentially about the relationship between a Chinese man and a young white girl, played by Lillian Gish. The Asian character is played in yellowface, and this comes four years after The Birth of a Nation. I think the character in Broken Blossoms is played relatively sympathetically, as opposed to The Birth of a Nation, which is a film that is pretty universally rejected as racist and as an egregious representation. You see something like Broken Blossoms and it’s not as dismissed as widely, because I think it’s relatively progressive, or relatively racist. The question is whether that is a step up. Looking back now, we can still see Broken Blossoms as offensive in how it looks at the “Orient,” but it’s a question of, “If we’re still having to say it’s not quite as racist, is it still racist?” And I think that’s a question I’m working through myself.
MB: The idea of the film being a step up is a good one. In preparing for this talk, I was looking back at a lot of critical reactions for the movie, and I was surprised to find that not a lot of people seemed to think that the race makeup was that big a deal—more just that it was done badly, particularly with the white actors and the Asian makeup. But, again, I think the idea of the film being a step up is key, because I don’t think we can just dismiss this film. The idea of filmmakers—especially high-profile filmmakers like these—having a responsibility to think through these issues ahead of time—I don’t think it’s good enough to…well, the issue is that if someone doesn’t take a stand and try to do better than the people who came before them, then who is going to? This movie’s budget, I think, was $100 million. That’s huge. If someone on this scale can’t do better than what’s come before them, then how is anybody else going to? That’s my question.
OD: The fact of their budget—it’s true, it was a large budget, but they also almost got shut down many times. And apparently Hugh Grant signed on a couple of days before filming started. Anytime you’re making a film—and especially when you’re making an independent film—you need to secure those names, or you’re not going to have a movie at all. So I think it’s really difficult for people to judge their production process. You can plan lots of things ahead of time, but when you’re making a movie it’s really difficult for everything to come together just the way you want it. It’s also a casting practice now, in everything—in theater, on Broadway it used to be that theater actors were separate from film actors. Now every single Broadway musical has to have a famous film actor or nobody buys tickets. If they stopped putting film actors into the lead roles, would people still come back and buy tickets? I don’t know what the difference in their sales would be, but that’s the common practice now. And then we had a movie like New Year’s Eve that had 30 famous actors all in one film, and it was a terrible film, but people came to see whoever their favorite actor was. If you have 30 instead of two, then you have that many more people, that many more opportunities for fans. With a film like this, again, I can’t necessarily read this into the Wachowskis’ thoughts, but I think they were worried about getting it off the ground. And so the more famous actors you get, the better chances you have. Also because it’s such an, as everybody says, ambitious film, because it’s such an experimental way of storytelling, and it’s a fairly uncommon story, in itself, with these visions of the future. I don’t think that there was a certainly that it would do well without these names.
TK: Yeah, the idea of whether this is a step up, and the responsibility, the thing that makes this really difficult to characterize is there’s nothing quite like this film. There’s nothing we can compare it to. I would say that with most things, there’s a step up. There’s a precedent before that it’s either improving on or perpetuating or making worse. And Cloud Atlas, I can’t quite put my thumb on any other racial transformation that worked in this way, at least with the makeup and prosthetics, so it’s part of the difficulty of whether or not this is a progressive or a regressive representation. I think it’s difficult to characterize.
OD: Right. And isn’t that—you know, isn’t that an accolade in itself, to say that it’s a novel type of film, right? That they’ve created something original, which, artistically, again, is something that I think we should admire. Because it’s different, it’s given us so much to talk about. At the very least, we can say that it provides so much ground for discussion. And, problematic or not, we’ve agreed that it’s not completely egregious in its representation of various races. There are definitely issues with percentages and equal representation in the casting of different actors, but at the very least, the message that it’s conveying is a positive one, and the means are innovative, and that’s what we look for in what makes a film good, right?
MB: OK, I’d like to start to wrap up by bringing up the idea of a post-racial America. Or, since this isn’t an American movie, maybe just the idea of being post-race, or, somehow, past race, and what exactly that means, and how that fits in with Cloud Atlas and what it’s trying to do.
TK: I sort of mentioned this before. When I think of the term “post-race,” I think that means that, now, it’s post-race, we’re done, and there’s no more preference and there’s no conflict. And I think this is a film that at least stresses that conflict. It’s a film that strives towards a post-racial ideal, without being naïve about whether or not we’re there. And by suggesting that this is where we want to go, does that mean it’s just being naïve? By taking all these stories of social conflict and turning them into stories of individual character’s uplift, is that offensive? You know, I think it’s difficult. But overall, I don’t think this film fits into a post-racial mindset, as much as it strives towards that.
OD: Well, I think the entire theme—I keep coming back that word—of the film is the fact that they need to say that we are all one, the fact that they need to portray these stories of oppression in order to impress the viewer with some kind of obligation to act otherwise, to take Sonmi’s words—that message wouldn’t need to be conveyed were it true that we are in a post-racial era. I mean, nobody is claiming that we are. I don’t think the Wachowskis are claiming it, I don’t think Cloud Atlas claims that we are. I don’t think any of the three of us are claiming that we are. In terms of taking a step towards that, that’s my argument—you have to start somewhere. Although it’s not perfect, it’s better to take an imperfect step. But take some step, rather than denouncing any attempt at reconciling racial issues by saying that, “Well, it’s not good enough.” Because if we say that every time, we’re never going to make any progress. So I think that it should be lauded for its effort. And maybe it’s not an A for result, but it’s an A for effort.
TK: The name of the scholar escapes me at the moment, but in terms of Asian American representations, somebody once said if we want our representations of race to be nuanced and contextualized, similarly, our arguments about race need to be nuanced and contextualized. A lot of that is in considering past representations, production, and that speaks to Olga’s point of “Where are we going?” Is this a step, or—I just think it’s an interesting way of looking at this issue.
MB: All right. Any final thoughts, anybody?
TK: I will say that I’ve had, on Facebook, some pretty engaged conversations about this film, not only among cinephiles that I usually have conversations about film with, but with Asian and Asian Americans who were offended by this film, but also talking about these issues. It’s interesting just how this film has really sparked conversation. It’s polarizing in almost every single aspect of it, both in its quality and its racial representations. So I just think it’s interesting that people are really engaging with this film, and I think it’s something that deserves further study down the line.
OD: I think it’s interesting that what we talk about most with this film is makeup. If we’re talking about it misrepresenting various races, I don’t think there’s ever been such a big conversation about makeup before, with any film, right? You talk about the script. You talk about the acting. You talk about the directing, the lighting, etc. But makeup has never had such a big platform. And so, I wonder…I totally lost my thought. [Laughter]
TK: [Laughter] One thing I want to bring up also is on the idea of makeup. The one transformation that is missing from this is a white-to-black transformation, what we know as blackface. Some people have talked about if that’s an absence that speaks to just how offensive that would have been to lots of people. I just think it’s something that’s worth mentioning, the absence of blackface from this film. That’s an example where makeup really does matter, because the makeup was the issue.
OD: I just remembered my point as well. [Laughter] My question is whether we are actually criticizing the way the makeup was done—the fact that it was done poorly—or whether it’s the question of actors playing across race in general. If we had said that the makeup was done well, would we not be so offended by the actors playing across race? Or if we were saying that the makeup is not done well, asking was that intentional or not? I’ve probably expressed this position already, but I do believe that it was. For example, Halle Berry playing the white Jewish wife of the composer—I barely recognized her as it was, and her skin was still somewhat dark. If they had completely transformed her, would we have totally missed the point about her being the same soul? Because you have the lightning bolt scar, but if you just keep showing the lightning bolt scar, then that’s going to become tiresome. It’s going to be, artistically, visually, either uninteresting or annoying. So I think we need to understand the intention of the makeup in this film, where they’re purposely making us recognize the actors across time. I suppose that we can all agree that there could have been some better casting choices. But I think the makeup is intentional.
MB: All right. I want to thank you both for being here today. This has been the Mediascape Roundtable on Cloud Atlas.
Special thanks to Olga Desyatnik and Todd Kushigemachi for participating.
Olga Desyatnik is a Master’s student in Cinema and Media Studies at UCLA. She received her Bachelor’s from Cornell University in Comparative Literature, with minors in International Relations and Spanish. Studying film, for her, fits into a broader curiosity about dominant ideologies and how social and political zeitgeist come to be. Other interests include her work at the Center for the Study of Women and a research project on the Russian immigrant population in Hollywood during the first half of the 20th century.
Todd Kushigemachi received his BS in Journalism at Northwestern University, where he also minored in Film and Media Studies. He is currently a first-year MA student in Cinema and Media Studies at UCLA. With a background in entertainment journalism, he still writes features for Variety as a freelancer. His interests include the work of Woody Allen and trends of nostalgia in both classical Hollywood cinema and contemporary visual effects.
J.M. Olejarz is a film student at UCLA and a coeditor of the Mediascape Blog. He has written two books of poetry, had a letter to the editor published in The Amazing Spider-Man #588, and won a Vulture haiku contest whose prize was Season 3 of True Blood on DVD. For more of his thoughts on movies, TV, and a glut of miscellany, see mangetstowherehesgoing.tumblr.com.