Friday, November 9, 2012

Cloud Atlas Review Part 3: Mixed race people save humanity

Here's the last installment of the epic 3 part review on the film version of Cloud Atlas.  I really want to stress that my critiques and observations in these reviews have been based entirely on the movie version and not on the novel by David Mitchell, which is epic and wondrous and luminous and the highest compliment I can pay this novel is that I couldn't put it down--I just wanted to live inside the novel for the time I was reading it.

If you want to read the first part of the review, click here, and you can also read Part 2 on the subject of Yellowface & Orientalism here.

Also, I'm going to be talking about the film in its entirety--so if you want to be able to either see the film or read the novel and not have any spoilers, then stop reading NOW.

OK, if you're still reading you either don't care about spoilers or you're familiar with the plot/structure/general narrative elements of Cloud Atlas.

[Aside 1: I hate to admit this, but even after all these years of blogging, I'm still tech-media challenged when it comes to certain things--for example, I can't figure out how to do that "Read More" function where you hide the majority of a post and readers have to click a link to read further.  Seems so smart, especially to prevent spoilers (sigh)--if there are any readers out there who can help me out in the comment section, I'd be most grateful]

Some people have asked me if I liked Cloud Atlas, and it's hard for me to say whether I enjoyed the film because there was such a richness to it in terms of things I wanted to critique and study.  Of course visually it's gorgeous, and the schmaltzy-sentimental part of me resonates with the theme of transcendent love that moves throughout the ages.  But most of all I was fascinated (and in some cases appalled) by the representation and handling of race and racial difference.

[click here for the website where I got this chart so you can see it in a larger scale]

If you look at the image, above, you will see that among the most "evil" characters are several who appear to be "white."  Certainly the characters that Hugo Weaving plays, with the exception of his Neo-Seoul persona, are all evil white men (and one evil white woman, and actually a green evil devil).

Whereas the characters in the film who triumph over their baser natures--who stand up and do the right thing, who put themselves in harm's way for another person, are often characters who are not white or who have some other minorizited identity (like being gay).

In the vignette that takes place in the 1970s (San Francisco) there is a scene where Luisa Rey (played by Halle Berry) and Napier (Keith David's character) are running away from the assassin Bill Smoke (played by Hugo Weaving).  They run into a sweatshop where they encounter a Latina woman (played in brownface by the Korean actress Doona Bae), who doesn't understand what they want until Rey speaks to her in Spanish (thus alerting audiences to the fact that Berry is playing a Latina woman or a woman with Latin American heritage).  Subsequently when Smoke comes looking for Rey and Napier, he encounters the Latina woman and he calls her a wetback before killing her dog.  So Smoke is both a racist and a dog killer.

[Luisa Rey & Napier about to flee from Smoke]

Smoke meets his demise at the hands of this unnamed Latina woman--who bludgeons him to death with a huge wrench, all the while yelling at him for killing her dog and then telling him that she doesn't like to be called a wetback.

The takeaway from this scene is that being a racist doesn't pay (or killing someone's pet).  And time and again, we see this--that there are people of color who will "save" others who are not of their "tribe" so to speak.  This happens in the mid-19th C. story on board a schooner where Jim Sturgess's character, Adam Ewing, is saved by Autua, a Polynesian slave.  And in the post-Apocalyptic story, Meronym (played by Halle Berry) and Zachry (played by Tom Hanks)--where both save one another (and Zachry's sister).

[Is Meronym making eyes at the one-eyed Zachry?]

The film is framed by an old and scarred Zachry narrating about his life to an unseen audience.  The last scene of the film has Zachry concluding his story around a fire to a group of young children, most of who are mixed race and multiracial, of varying hues and ethnicities.  One of them calls Zachry "grandpa" (or the post-apocalyptic equivalent--I can't quite recall now) and we realize that the light skinned (white?) Zachry and the darker skinned (black?) Meronym have married/mated/consummate their relationship in the Biblical sense, and have produced mixed race children and grandchildren--progeny that are the only remnants of humanity since the film concludes on a planet that is NOT earth.

Which means: mixed race people save humanity.


I mean, the filmmakers really want to go down the path of making mixed race people into the ultimate exception of exceptional narratives--that they are the racially hybrid answer to saving what's left of the earth's population?  That the Time magazine future woman could actually be part of the Cloud Atlas narrative?

I guess what I mean is that when I think about the kinds of narratives that we have about multiracial and mixed race people, particularly in terms of any futuristic accounts, it's that they are the saviors of humanity.  And what I think that fails to account for are the ways in which mixed race and multiracial people get to be people--should be seen for the humanity that they carry in and for themselves and not as the answer or antidote to apocalyptic scenarios or end-of-the-world crises.

But perhaps I'm too cynical and too analytical--would love to hear anyone else weigh in if they've seen the end of the film.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012


Despite what all my friends who follow Nate Silver's blog were saying, I was still nervous last night and couldn't settle down until after 11:00pm when all the major networks called Ohio for Obama.  And even then, I couldn't be sure until after Romney's concession speech.  And by that point, I was all in and had to stay up to hear President Obama address the throng of supporters in Chicago.  If you missed it, well, here it is:

Besides Obama's victory, there were many other things to feel cheered and heartened by if you are a liberal-progressive Democrat--the passage of gay marriage laws in Maine and Minnesota, the defeat of two different Republican candidates who made beyond tone-deaf remarks where rape is concerned, and the election of Tammy Baldwin, the Senate's first openly queer person.  The Atlantic's Ta-Nehesi Coates has an aptly titled essay, "Hippes wander into the lion's den, maul lions" that you should check out.

[UPDATE: 11/8/12:  A commenter, jestingjousts, points out that Minnesota did not pass a gay marriage law; they prevented a law from being passed that would have defined marriage between one man and one woman.  Also, Washington and Maryland passed laws that excluded same-sex couples from marrying--for more go to Freedom to Marry]

Finally, for a comedic take and some good old fashioned MC Hammer dancing, here's Key & Peele:

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

November 6--Election Day--VOTE FOR OBAMA

So it probably goes without saying that a blog called Mixed Race America is going to support President Barack Obama's re-election and wants to URGE anyone who has not yet voted to please GO VOTE FOR PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA.

As a dyed-in-the-wool-blue-to-my-core-Democrat, I am not going to bother rehearsing why I think voting for President Obama is the sane choice.  If you are a dyed-in-the-wool-Republican, I'm probably not going to convince you that he's the right choice.

But if there are any undecided voters out there, especially undecided white votes, then Chris Rock has a special message for YOU:

I'm hoping it's not a nail biter--I'm hoping we go blue again, even if (sadly) my own southern state changes to red (sigh).  LETS GO DEMS!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Cloud Atlas Review Part 2: Yellowface & Orientalism

So here's part 2 of my 3 part review of Cloud Atlas (click here for part 1).  Today's topic: the film's use of yellowface and other Orientalized aspects of Cloud Atlas.

There are many people who have written about the phenomenon of "yellowface," which is the Asian version of "blackface"--having white (although at times there have been black) actors and actresses portraying Asian and Asian American people in Hollywood films. has a particularly astute and thorough accounting by contributor Michelle I.  I recommend reading her piece, "Yellowface: A Story in Pictures," to familiarize yourself with the LONG history of yellowface in Hollywood cinema.  But I think this photo of Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's probably says it all:

As I wrote about in yesterday's post, there's a certain narrative logic that the filmmakers had in mind for putting their non-Asian actors in yellowface (including the African American actor Keith David in a role that reminded me of Laurence Fishburne in The Matrix, if they had taped back Fishburne's eyes).  One of the themes of the narrative (film as well as book) is a repetition or eternal recurrence of experiences, of relationships, of people with a comet birthmark who show up across space and time.  To connect these otherwise disparate narratives, the filmmakers chose to have actors and actresses play various roles in all six segments/stories of the film -- so Halle Berry has a throwaway minor role as a woman dressed in a sari (she's supposed to be an Indian woman in London) but in two other stories she has a major role (as a Latina reporter in 1970s SF and in the future as a post-apocalyptic survivor who has access to technology).  One of the stories takes place in 2144 in Neo Seoul, a dystopic "corporocracy"where "pure bloods" are consumers and "fabricants" are the cloned humans who serve them.  So that brings us to the white actors playing Korean or Neo Korean men:

Jim Sturgess playing a Korean commander

Jim Sturgess without the yellowface

Hugo Weaving playing a Korean enforcer

Hugo Weaving as himself

James D'Arcy playing a Korean archivist

James D'Arcy as himself

I'm not sure whether to say that the film's makeup and special effects department did a "bad" job in the yellowface department.  I mean, given their task, this may have been the best they could do, although one would think that if you could turn Eddie Murphy into an old white Jewish man, you could do a better job with Hugo Weaving.  I didn't really find the yellowface all that believable with these actors.  Perhaps because I had been seeing them throughout the film in their non-yellowface roles.  While I understand the impulse to want to use the same actors in all the segments of the film, there are things I wondered about, for example:

1) In the first segment, which takes place aboard a schooner in the mid-19th C., the Polynesian/aboriginal "slaves" are portrayed by African American and Afro-British actors.  It could be that the film decided to transplant African slaves into the South Pacific, but I wondered about why the filmmakers didn't just hire aboriginal/South Pacific/Maori actors to play these roles?

2) While it's true that the racial masquerade isn't just inclined towards yellowface--that there are Asian and black actors who are in whiteface--Halle Berry plays a German Jewish woman, Bae Doona plays a 19th C. lawyer's wife in SF and she plays a Latina sweatshop worker in 1970s SF--no one in the film is in blackface (which I am glad about).  My point is this: while it's understandable according to the logic of the film to put both black and white actors in yellowface for the scenes taking place in Neo Seoul, why wasn't that same logic applied for the scenes depicting Polynesian slaves--that not one white actor or Asian actor was put into blackface I think is a recognition on the filmmakers parts that to do so would have been to have ignited a (pardon my language) shitstorm.  But yellowface they figured they could get away with.

3) Did they have to do this racial masquerade at all?  I understand that they wanted to have the theme of eternal recurrence, but since they made such a big deal about the characters in all 6 vignettes having the same comet birthmark, it seems like they could have emphasized THAT feature in all of the characters that are said to "recur" in the 6 different segments.  And/or isn't it possible that Neo Seoul is a cosmopolitan place where there are white and mixed race people?  They didn't change David Keith's skin color when he played a Korean resistance fighter--they just taped back his eyes and put him in white robes.  Seems like they could have simply had him be a black man in Neo Seoul and/or they could have also just kept Bae Doona as the 19th C. wife in SF with Hugo Weaving as her father.  They do this in theater all the time--you just suspend belief because you know this is artificial so why strain things to make a character "look" like the appropriate "race" according to the narrative when s/he can just play that character?  I know, film is different than theater, but Louis CK has had different women playing his ex-wife, including an African American actress.  Seems like they could have been more imaginative in this department.

4) This last issue isn't a yellowface issue, it's an Asian vs. Asian American issue.  Since the characters in the Neo Seoul segment are all speaking in English (many with a British accent, for some reason), why did the filmmakers cast a Chinese and a Korean actress in roles that they could have cast Asian American actresses in?  I have nothing against either Xun Zhou or Bae Doona, but verisimilitude doesn't seem to be top on the Wachowski's agenda (see my above point about using African American actors to portray Polynesians) and if it was for the Neo Seoul segment, why cast a Chinese actress--why not find two Korean actresses?  There doesn't seem to be a clear logic in the casting decisions of which actors are playing which characters.

So leaving aside the problem of yellowface (and I do think it's a problem--as Anthony Lane says in his New Yorker movie review, the use of yellowface "sure as hell doesn't work here, inching beyond embarassment into insult" and others are also protesting the yellowface as well), the other issue I found disturbing in Cloud Atlas was its depiction of Asian women.  In the novel, female fabricants come in various "models"--there's a Sonmi model and a Yoona model.  They have the same face/body but are designated with different numbers: Sonmi-451 and Yoona 939.  I believe in the novel there are 3 different models who are servers at a restaurant.  But in the film, the actresses are actually played by different women who are made to look like they are cloned.  In other words, rather than using CGI to depict the women in the restaurant looking the same, the film used various Asian female extras, gave them the same haircut, put them in the same skimpy outfits, and then said that they were all the same.  

In other words, the film seems to be counting on audiences not recognizing Asian female distinction and difference--they are expecting audiences to just believe that different Asian female extras actually all "look" the same--look like one another.  And apparently websites describing the film are also confused about the distinctiveness and individuality of various Asian women since they have confused the film's two Asian female actresses with random Asian extras from the film.  For example:

This is the Chinese actress Xun Zhou who plays Yoona-939 (couldn't find a still from the film, but this is taken from the movie's premiere)

IMDB claims that this woman is the actress above, Xun Zhou, but it doesn't look like her.

Another website claims that this is the Korean actress Bae Doona...but as you can see below

...these women don't look alike (this is Bae Doona playing Sonmi-451 in the film)

Asian women do not need to be distinguishable from one another, either in the film or outside the film when talking about the actresses portraying cloned Asian women.  Also, while Halle Berry does have a love scene where you see her naked back in one of the vignettes (the one where she is in whiteface), the Neo Seoul segments show the female fabricants either naked or in very skimpy clothing meant to sexualize them.  This is a HUGE problem in terms of the Orientalization going on in this film because there is a LONG history of Asian women depicted as sexually available and sexually evocative in Hollywood cinema.  And I didn't really see the point of depicting the women naked--perhaps the scantily clad part I get, but the film only seemed to reinforce all of the pre-existing stereotypes that we have about Asian women, especially as they've been rendered in celluloid.

But don't take my word for it, see Elaine Kim's documentary, Slaying the Dragon: Reloaded for a history of the sexualization of Asian women that has taken place in the past and still takes place in the present, with Cloud Atlas as the latest entry in the Orientalizing of Asian women.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Cloud Atlas--the Film Review in 3 parts

So I just saw the film Cloud Atlas, which is based on David Mitchell's novel of the same name--a novel that defies easy categorization since Mitchell is Irish, the six settings of the six embedded stories take place across various geographies and millenia (in chronological order, the story starts in the mid-19th century and ends in a post-apocolyptic future time marked by the seasons rather than by a calendar).

[Aside 1: Movie posters are always a good indication of who is most important, character-wise & star-wise in a film.  Case in point: Tom Hanks's head is HUGE compared to everyone else's--Halle Barry comes a close second in terms of prominence, and then you can figure out the prominence of everyone else in descending order]

Cloud Atlas, the novel, has been on my radar for several years.  In fact, a friend of a friend handed me a copy and told me I should read it.  And the book sat on my shelf for years, until finally in a purge I (stupidly) placed it in a library donation box.

[Aside 2: It's not stupid to donate to a library--only stupid that I didn't actually read the novel before doing so, because when I finally DID read it, the novel BLEW ME AWAY]

That brings us to August 2012.  As some of you may (or may not) know, I am a guest contributor to an Asian American magazine, ALIST.  In fact, you can read my latest column about Patsy Mink here (although I'm sure regular readers will recognize it from an older post I did over the summer--I did think with the election coming up on Tuesday, doing a political piece seemed in order).  In August I read this guest post by Matthew Salesses, where he talks about the yellowface going on in the film version of Cloud Atlas.

[Aside 3:  Full disclosure: Matt is a former student of mine, dating back to the first ever class I taught at Southern U--a course on Asian American literature.  Matt is also a very fine writer (which I know from the essays I've read by him).  You can check out his work by going to his website.]

Of course once I realized that there was yellowface in this film, I knew I had to see it.  But I had heard good things about the novel, so I sat down and read all 528 page in 2 days (doing nothing else but--well, eating and sleeping obviously, but you get my drift).  It's a brilliant novel--I couldn't put it down.  And is very thought provoking and well executed, despite the misgivings by this New York Times review.

One might say, based on the complexity of setting, time, character, and form that this would be an impossible novel to film.  But that apparently didn't stop the Wachowski siblings (the folks who brought us The Matrix franchise) and Tom Twyker from deciding that they were going to try.  And some might say that it's an admirable task that these three directors have done, distilling the essence of the novel, particularly the theme of "eternal recurrence" (taken from Frederick Nietzsche).  In trying to whittle down a 500+ novel into a film (one that clocks in at nearly 3 hours) certain choices had to be made--and one of the devices that the filmmakers used to unify the six narratives was to have the main actors portray various characters, major and minor, in all 6 segments, which inevitably meant that actos would be portraying people of different races, and in some cases gender.

The above image of the actor, Hugo Weaving, is an excellent demonstration of the ways in which he crosses gender, race, and in the last case metaphysics to play a female nurse, an unidentified Korean enforcer, and the incarnation of a tribal devil.

There's SO MUCH to say about this film that I've decided I need to divide it up into 3 parts--an introduction (which is this post) and then two parts: cross-racial masquerade, most notably the use of yellowface and whiteface and mixing of races as the salvation of humanity.

So stay tuned--also, I'll be talking about the films in their entirety, so I'll be sure to put "SPOILER ALERT" warnings for those of you who want to watch the film.