Yellowface Alive and Well in Wachowski Starship's Cloud Atlas


I went to see Pitch Perfect last night and during the previews, while I should’ve been preparing my vocal chords to harmonize with Anna Camp, I was thrust out of my movie enjoyment by an upsetting trailer that had me looking around the theater like, “You all seeing the same thing I’m seeing because EXSQUEEZE ME WHAT?”

Yes, in Wachowski Starship’s latest enterprise, a live-action telling of David Mitchell’s 2004 mindfuck multi-generational novel Cloud Atlas, we’re treated to a delightful dose of classic yellowface. Hugo Weaving and Jim Sturgess, white actors, play characters who in some lifetimes are East Asian. So, of course, they just had them perform those roles with their eyes taped to make them look, “Asian.”* I guess John Cho was busy and there are no other Korean actors in the world. Also, as of yet, nobody’s been able to successfully Frankenweenie Mickey Rooney, so there was literally no other way.

I think Wachowski Starship does some pretty fresh shit and my personal guess is that they were probably like, “It’s the same soul, so we need the same actor, race doesn’t matter!” That’s the issue with inherent bias, though. You’re not necessarily coming from a nasty place, but the end result is still pretty much garbage. Mike Le of the excellent further explains:

In watching the Cloud Atlas trailer, the parallels are clear. As with these other films, we see that white creators and performers are permitted to determine what it means to be Asian. It’s frustrating, because the trailer suggests a story that comfortably meshes with preconceptions and stereotypes of Asians: of a futuristic world of high technology and little soul, where the “all-look-same” vision of Asianness is directly translated into racks of identical, interchangeable Asian “fabricant” clones. It suggests a world where white actors (in yellowface) and Asian actresses enter into romantic trysts — while excluding the voices and faces of Asian American actors.

Demonstrative of the fact that the actors playing these roles really do not get it, Jim Sturgess got into some trouble on Twitter with his initial response to the issue of yellowface when it was raised earlier this year. 1) You’re a jerk-faced jerk; 2) what are you even talking about?; and 3) this has the potential to turn me off fro-yo for awhile, and that is unacceptable. Le really nailed it when he wrote, “Placing a white performer in yellowface is to put a megaphone to the lips of an A-list actor so he can announce ‘chink’ before an audience of millions.” MURDER!

Again, it all comes back to representation. Until there are types of humans other than white men who appear as the leads in pretty much every form of entertainment always, shit like this will be A-OK. I remember in Margaret Cho’s terrific memoir, I’m the One That I Want, she recounts watching white people on TV when she was a kid and waiting to grow up and become white. (That might not/definitely isn’t verbatim as I read the book in 2001 as part of my “Ladies in Comedy” bookclub that lasted for two months.) Reading that was heartbreaking, and it’s not the only time I’ve heard that sentiment. Until more people of color are on our screens playing all the same roles – every lead, every supporting role – now reserved for white people, this shit will continue, and this shit is ugly, lazy, and inexcusable.

*I guess? Or whatever the equivalent of how Gwyneth Paltrow looks in Shallow Hal — not exactly fat but more like, a bag of ball pit balls stuffed into a Fat Albert sweatsuit.

The Cloud Atlas Conversation: Yellowface, Prejudice, and Artistic License [Racebending]

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