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.
But did they do any better than not using blackface? Let's take a look at how they executed their potentially controversial tricks.