The question of race-making in America begins broad, and grapples with giant academic fields from history to psychology, and beyond. To then reconcile that with cinema studies and film criticism is a daring task. Yet, the alternative, which is removing film criticism from its appropriate socio-political context, is generally how theory falls apart. Especially when considering Hollywood as both the maker and a product of the American culture, it is worthwhile to look at the ways people consume not just the contents of the film, but also the medium of cinema, which are two distinctly separate categories. This paper aims to use Cloud Atlas (2012) as a representative case for how Hollywood tends to perpetuate racism and the fallacious defenses which allegedly justify its wrongdoings to the public.
Structurally, this entails beginning the paper with a survey of Hollywood’s history with the so-called “yellowface,” which is a term used to describe typically white actors who put on makeup and alter physical features to portray Asians. And then, a critical analysis of the film and related press will reveal the consequences of these depictions as well as flaws in some of the industry’s strongest arguments in support of this form of racism.
The History of Yellowface in Hollywood
While most are acquainted with the term “blackface” and the tabooness surrounding the act, few are familiar with “yellowface,” a term deriving from the same actions but to portray Asians, and commonly the immigrants in early cinema. The history of the yellowface can be roughly sliced into three significant time periods, through which the practice has prevailed: the pre-civil rights era (1800s-1964) where it began and flourished; the post-civil-rights era (1965–1990s) where a clear ethical stands on race has been established; finally the twenty-first century where a new-found sensitivity towards race develops among Americans (2000s-). Stylistically, the physical manifestation on-screen is the same, most commonly made to have “slanted eyes”, although the earlier depictions tend to be more “racist” by today’s standards and send a more intentional racial message. Films that are more contemporary tend to be more subtle, and oftentimes a result of “accidental” creative decisions such as a desire to make characters appear more exotic, which, with poor taste and ignorance, may coincidentally allude to Hollywood’s history of the yellowface.
The earliest documented instance of the Yellowface began in 1915 with the silent film Madame Butterfly (1915), based on the famous opera which debuted in 1904 telling the story of “a young Japanese geisha who clings to the belief that her arrangement with a visiting American naval officer is a loving and permanent marriage.” The Japanese woman was played by a non-Asian cast, hence labeled a “yellowface” production at a later date. Notable performances by Luise Rainer in The Good Earth (1937) would even win her the Academy Award for Best Actress, and numerous other performances which led to other acting Academy Award nominations.
Part of the reasons for why Asian actors were not casted as main leads had to do with how the film industry operated, rather than racist intents. This included regulations in the film industry during that time period, like the Hays Code, which governed film distribution between 1930–1968. It entails “an array of requirements that were indicative of society in America, including the prohibition of any sexual encounter between actors of different races.” Should films wish to have an Asian lead, this could fundamentally change the way a story progresses. But more often than not, it was a calculation of box office and audience reception, where naturally white actors were more well-known to the audience, therefore the starpower needed to drive ticket sales would come at the cost of having yellowface on-screen.
In fact, there was no real public outcry in Hollywood until the mid-2000s, as until then, “actors saw chances to play different ethnicities as a challenge to be taken on and show their versatility, offensive or not.” It was not until 2018 when the celebration of Crazy Rich Asian’s all-Asian cast was able to shed light on the double standards in Hollywood and the perception of “racism” in the media when it comes to portraying non-black-and-white races.
Cloud Atlas and the Controversy
Cloud Atlas was released in 2012, and the issue of yellowface aside, it was an ambitious project which successfully resulted in the visually stunning and enjoyable film that we know today. Told in the form of six intertwined storylines from the past, present and future, it takes on a theological determinism framework to make a bold, romanticized statement on fate and how our lives are related to the past, present, and future. One of the most memorable lines of the film is recited by Sonmi-451 played by Soona Bae, which is “our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others. Past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.” This statement accurately captures the complexity of Cloud Atlas. Yet, the issue is in fact that the yellowface simply cannot be cast aside when evaluating the movie as a whole. On a literal level, the slanted eyes are hard to ignore in the Neo Seoul future scenes which take up substantial screen time (see figures 1–3), but more importantly, the act of doing so irregardless of artistic intent is problematic.
The controversy with this film is simple to understand — it is the question of why Asian actors could not be casted to play these characters, should their appearance seem to bear so much meaning for the directors? The Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) is one of the only groups in the US of its kind that monitors the image of Asian portrayal. The official statement says “in the modern age of movie make up, it is disturbing to see poorly done Asian eye prosthetics to make Caucasian men look Asian,” claiming it was done in poor taste. As the founding president also points out, “it would have been a great, stereotype-busting role for an Asian American actor to play [the main lead], as Asian American men aren’t allowed to be dynamic or heroic very often.” But this criticism also is not met without defense, from both the Cloud Atlas filmmakers and respected film critics.
As the directors and also now-Vanity Fair deputy editor Katey Rich would argue in her article for Cinemablend, to “accuse” the film for its use of yellowface “is to miss the purpose of Cloud Atlas, a movie devoted to the idea that these lines between races, genders and generations are as immaterial as, well, clouds.” The article turns out to be a fairly well-written defense from a literary perspective, yet as a film criticism, it misses out on essential components of the cinema and spectatorship. The argument could essentially be stripped down to be two very commonly used arguments to defend racism in the art and entertainment world: the creators did not intend to be racist, and it serves an artistic purpose. And therefore, it is supposedly fair to conclude that those who find racism where there was not are either misinformed, or hypersensitive. This is unfair to those who feel offended, to say the least, as the audience has a right to interpret the film, just as the filmmakers have a duty to convey their message clearly without the possibility of misinterpretation. Moreover, regardless of intent, the actors’ final portrayal in the film evidently resembles the yellowface stereotype of the past. However, if this debate were this simple, this again would not have been a controversy. Instead, there are more underlying cultural phenomenons that come from misunderstanding film as a medium, as well as the East versus West power structure, which results in this repeated offence.
The Cinema vs. The Film
This first tangent we must go on is on media studies, and the idea that there is “message, means, and agents” for every medium, an observation formalized by John Durham Peters. All three of these components exist as interrelated dimensions in any form of communication, and that applies to films, too. Under this structure of communication, the film itself can be seen as the “message.” But the film cannot be viewed by anyone unless there is a form of distribution to a larger audience. The “means” is hence the screen, whether that be a projected screen in a cinema, or a screen at home. And finally, the “agents” are those involved in this communication process, therefore the filmmakers and their audiences.
The mistake that Rich made in her analysis, which likely applies to those who subscribe to her argument and viewpoint, is removing the “means” from the medium. The film becomes stripped of the cinema to be evaluated in a vacuum, where art is independent from its social, cultural, and historical contexts, which are necessary to make meaning of the film. Especially as studio films are released in a tight theatrical window, during which it garners a majority of its viewership, the contexts of production and initial reception are vital to fully understanding the film. This is even more problematic with Rich’s defense specifically because it is done out of convenience to just void the yellowface argument. In fact, as viewers have pointed out, Cloud Atlas relies on a series of references and connections to successful films of the past to either pay homage or develop nostalgic aesthetics for cinephiles. This notably includes Neo Seoul in the film’s future segment which resembles Neo Tokyo in Akira (1988), and the explosive collars which resemble Battle Royale (2000).
Then, the argument on the depictions as artistic choices which intentionally represent racial diversity is equally as void, considering they missed out on a major opportunity to actually feature a more diverse cast, and furthermore the film was not received that way by a sizable population. The viewers have a right to interpretation for artworks released to the general public, especially with films entered into global awards in search of public recognition, like Cloud Atlas. Asking the audience to separate what clearly appears to be an Asian-ization of a caucasion actor from a long history of yellowface in Hollywood is by no means a reasonable request.
A History of Orientalism
The list of problems do not just end with a technical breakdown of what cinema ought to be, according to media scholars. The issue of mis-representing Asians, or using supposed Asian features to make something “exotic,” as Cloud Atlas has done with its future race and Neo Seoul, is a practice of Orientalism that can be traced back to the ages of colonialism. The true definition of the term is hard to put concisely, as Edward Said has dedicated an entire book to exploring the subject. But should I articulate the main argument correctly, it refers to a construction of an imagined Orient in the eyes of the West so different to the practices and cultures of the Occident that it can be seen as a moral opposite in an us-versus-them narrative. In a sense, it is a form of cultural hegemony where the right to interpret the Other is put in the hands of the West rather than the East itself. In Said’s words, “the Orient is a Western construct which is produced and exists in an uneven exchange with various kinds of power.”
One of the most disturbing depictions is the sexualization of its Asian female characters. Bae and Zhou Xun’s characters are both heavily fetishized, initially as entirely unclothed, submissive females who are ruled over by dominant caucasian men, while Asian men were mostly background actors and set dressing. They were both abused or harassed by customers, until Asian Jim Sturgess saves Bae. She then proceeds to follow him everywhere, fall in love with him, and have sex with him in one of the film’s most explicit and graphic sex scenes. Tying this back to Said, the film again uses the Orient as a distant subject to realize a dystopian future, which includes the more familiar caucasian characters as managers, and the more exotic servant race played by Asian women. The casting of which is perhaps justified by using a foreign subject to make their unique in-human characteristics believable, which if it were true, it also distastefully plays into the stereotype of Asian women being submissive.
Figures 4 & 5
This us-versus-them distinction is in fact what also makes double standards in the industry possible. In the same article, MANAA also raises the question “‘Would the directors have used blackface on a white actor to play Gyasi’s role?’… 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.’” Until we can overcome this archaic narrative, it may seem natural and matter-of-fact for some to employ a fluctuating morality in decision making. Sadly, this kind of double standard is something one must become accustomed to until Hollywood transforms into a more socially aware entity with consciousness and sensitivity coming from its major players.
Why this issue of yellowface is one that concerns all, and not just Asians, is one which we must turn to modernity to answer. The modern American believes in freedom of expression regardless of social, religious, and political background, and values all cultures the same. The acceptance of Orientalism only further exacerbates this unproductive power structure in place, which has its roots in the ages of colonialism. It jeopardizes not just notions of equality as we know it, but also the constructive dialogue we take towards race-making in America. Cloud Atlas may have been the focus of this paper, but it serves as a representation for all films that employ counterproductive colorblindness.
Perhaps filmmakers do have artistic freedom to construct a narrative they truly believe in and can be proud to exhibit. But at the same time, when their message goes to literally the world, a social and moral responsibility becomes the filmmakers’ burden which they must bear. The moment a film is released, the right of interpretation slips into the hands of every cinema-goer, and the harm is done, regardless of their initial intent. Filmmakers must remember that their products are no exception from the vast history of films that have come before it, which it will inevitably be compared to in order to make sense of the craft.