From time to time, Grantland racial issues correspondent Andrew Ti stops by to discuss whatever's been blowing up the inbox at Yo, Is This Racist? Today, the Cloud Atlas epic gets its reckoning.
One nice thing about the film industry is the fact that, no matter how offensive any idea was the first time around, if you wait long enough, there's always someone willing to give it another shot. So imagine the delight around Yo, Is This Racist? headquarters this July when the trailer for Cloud Atlas dropped, featuring a bunch of characters played by actors in, let's call it, "racial makeup." That is, in this sprawling, postmodern collection of scenes jumping back and forth in time (roughly speaking, pirate ship times to rocket-ship times and more!), most of the principal actors reappear as multiple characters, often of different races. As a filmmaking technique, it was likely meant to evoke some kind of loose version of reincarnation that is one of the story's main themes, but in practice, it comes off more like the most expensively assembled improv troupe of all time. ("OK, now you're in ... postapocalyptic Hawaii!")
It should be said at this point that the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer's decision to use all of this race-bending makeup was clearly made with an awareness that this could be a sensitive issue. Thankfully, no one is made up in blackface, but there are no prizes for meeting the bottom-most rung of decency in Hollywood.
James D'Arcy as The Archivist
Transformation: White to Asian
What They Did: Slapped on an extremely odd eye prosthetic to give the character an exaggerated epicanthic fold and maybe fiddled with skin tone a little bit to make it more ... sallow.
Did It Even Work? Holy shit, no. The Archivist looks mostly like a white guy with something weird on his eyes. One odd thing that happened with this, and many of the other race-bending portrayals in Cloud Atlas, is that, in an effort to make the racial characteristics relatively subtle, they oddly concentrate on the exact same differences in appearance that have been the basis of racial stereotype since people learned how to hate. So, rather than address something like facial structure, or, god forbid, getting an Asian actor to play this role, they elect to concentrate on the most obvious and craven characteristics that they perceive in Asian people, their slanty eyes and their not-quite-white skin.
Verdict: Nope, kinda racist, you guys.
Halle Berry as Jocasta Ayrs
Transformation: Black to white
What They Did: An unnerving combination of slightly paler makeup, colored contacts, a blonde wig, and a fake nose.
Did It Even Work? This actually failed on two scores, because the character looks so clearly like someone in heavy and odd makeup, while obscuring the fact that it's Halle Berry. Thus, the intended effect of implying something about reincarnation or how everything through time is interconnected, or whatever, is completely lost. It certainly doesn't add anything to the movie, and now we have to add this portrayal next to White Chicks in the tiny, tiny pantheon of whiteface.
Verdict: Yo, whiteface still isn't really a thing that oppresses people, but this was pretty terrible.
Xun Zhou as Rose
Transformation: Asian to white
What They Did: An even more unnerving combination of slightly bronzed makeup, colored contacts, a blonde wig, and a fake nose.
Did It Even Work? Arguably the least distracting race-bending portrayal in the film, though that might be due to this character being part of the postapocalyptic story line in which some kind of impossible-looking alien was slightly less out of place. But once again, by concentrating on some very basic signifiers of "whiteness," the skin, the blonde hair and fair eyes, while ignoring the basic fact of Xun Zhou's facial structure, the filmmakers and makeup artists have managed to create something that looks distractingly unnatural.
Verdict: While it's nice to see actors of color getting roles, there has to be a better way.
Doona Bae as Mexican Woman
Transformation: Asian to ... Mexican woman
What They Did: It's hard to say, exactly. They definitely darkened her skin several tones and added layers of latex to obscure her features.
Did It Even Work? Definitely a standout in terms of how outright offensive this type of exercise can be. It almost goes without saying that, in a movie with a humongous budget, if a character is named "Mexican Woman," there is almost no way that that portrayal is not going to be racist. And it goes without saying that the added layer of making this a Korean actress compounds it even further. The portrayal is a hugely ugly mishmash of an immigration gag and buffoonery, played for pointless, pointless laughs. [Note: Doona Bae as "Tilda" is pictured, which wasn't great, either.]
Verdict: Fucking yes. Definitely, yo.
Hugh Grant as the Kona Chief
Transformation: White to ... future cannibal
What They Did: Added a bunch of future-cannibal-style stuff to ole Hugh.
Did It Even Work? While not technically (probably) race-bending, it's depressing, but not that surprising, that a depiction of a cannibal leans almost entirely on the tropes and stereotypes of what a savage looks and acts like. The character, while not necessarily mocking a specific race, feeds into all of the portrayals of the dusky, subhuman other, which is always such a pleasant stock character in everything from racist propaganda to mere racist entertainments.
Verdict: Surely there is some new take on this kind of future savage, right? Someone has to think of something.
So, and this might not really surprise you, despite what were surely good intentions with their choices in race-bending, Cloud Atlas mostly fails in justifying the revival of all kinds of problematic parts of Hollywood's racist past, especially in service to some vague notion that this visual "echo" somehow makes the intertwined stories more effective. And, often enough, they managed to not even use the makeup sufficiently to make any kind of racial transformation look convincing. Which is not to say that they should have taken as heavy a hand with the race-crossing makeup as they did at other points in the film in changing their actors' gender and age. On the contrary, it really underscores the fact that it's potentially impossible for this type of exercise to do anything other than emphasize the differences between us and the stereotypes we've lived with for so long.
And it seriously looks fucking wack.