Cloud Atlas may be artistically ambitious, but it's also racially retrograde, according to a blistering new release from the Media Action Network for Asian Americans.
The new film from Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Twyker, based on the 2005 David Mitchell novel, weaves together six storylines, connecting them not only by theme and loose plot strands, but by often using the same actors for multiple roles. As such, in a storyline focused on the year 2144 in South Korea, multiple white male actors are given prosthetic makeup in order to appear Asian.
"Cloud Atlas missed a great opportunity. The Korea story’s protagonist is an Asian man--an action hero who defies the odds and holds off armies of attackers," Guy Aoki, MANAA's founding president, said in a statement. "He’s the one who liberates [a clone played by actress] Doona Bae from her repressive life and encourages her to join the resistance against the government. It would have been a great, stereotype-busting role for an Asian American actor to play, as Asian American men aren’t allowed to be dynamic or heroic very often."
Instead, it is Jim Sturgess who plays that role, while Hugo Weaving and James D'Arcy are also cast as Asian actors. Not only is the MANAA upset about the lack of Asian actors involved, but also at how little they believe was done to transform actors of other races into convincing Asian characters.
"It appears that to turn white and black actors into Asian characters (black actor Keith David was also Asian in the 2144 story), the make-up artists believed they only had to change their eyes, not their facial structure and complexion," Aoki said.
There is also anger at the reverse racial transformations. In pointing out scenes in which Bae and another Asian woman in the storyline, Xun Zhou, are made to look Caucasian, Aoki added “obviously took more care to make them look convincingly white. The message the movie sends is, it takes a lot of work to get Asians to look Caucasian, but you can easily turn Caucasians into Asians by just changing the shape of their eyes."
Other racial transformations in the film include Halle Berry playing a white woman, and Tom Hanks taking a spray tan and haircut to appear as a Brit of Southern European descent. The purpose of having actors take on multiple roles, they directors have said, is to portray the continuity of souls.
Still, the MANAA believes that double standards were used. In one plotline concerning black slaves, each slave was played by a black actor.
"You have to ask yourself: Would the directors have used blackface on a white actor to play Gyasi’s role?” asked Aoki, referring to David Gyasi, the freed slave in the film. I don’t think so: That would have outraged African American viewers. But badly done yellowface is still OK."