Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality
If there’s one thing that most fans of Star Trek will agree on, it’s the fact that Gene Roddenberry’s vision for the show — and, more optimistically, for human society — was predicated on the idea that all life is valuable, and that the worth of a person should not be judged by their appearance. Much of this was done through the old sci-fi trope of using aliens to stand in for oppressed groups, but Star Trek didn’t rely on the metaphor; it had characters who were part of the ensemble, important and beloved members of the Enterprise crew, who were people of colour. It had background characters who were people of colour. And, here and there, it had anti-heroes and villains who were people of colour … one of whom, Khan Noonian Singh, became well-nigh iconic.
And who is now being played by white actor Benedict Cumberbatch in the new JJ Abrams reboot movie, Star Trek: Into Darkness.
We’re all cynical and jaded enough to know the standard dismissal when it comes to matters of media representation: Paramount Pictures and most film studios are not interested in diversity or visibility, they only care about the bottom dollar. Star Trek as a franchise is too much of a juggernaut to affect with boycotts. There are too many people who love it, who love those characters and that world, and will go to see the movie. And for some of these people, this devotion to the idea of a future where even South and East Asian men get to pilot a starship and love swashbuckling, where Black women make Lieutenant on the Enterprise and actually get the boy, will be trivialized and eroded and whitewashed when the most formidable and complex Star Trek baddie becomes a white man named Khan.
It wasn’t perfect in the 60s when Ricardo Montalbán was cast to play Khan (a character explicitly described in the episode script of Space Seed as being Sikh, from the Northern regions of India). But considering all of the barriers to representation that Roddenberry faced from the television networks, having a brown-skinned man play a brown character was a hard-won victory. It’s disappointing and demoralizing that with the commercial power of Star Trek in his hands, JJ Abrams chose not to honour the original spirit of the show, or the symbolic heft of the Khan character, but to wield the whitewash brush for … what? The hopes that casting Benedict Cumberbatch would draw in a few more box office returns? It’s doubly disappointing when you consider that Abrams was a creator of the television show Lost, which had so many well-rounded and beloved characters of colour in it.
Add to this the secrecy prior to release around Cumberbatch’s role in the film, and what seems like a casting move that would typically be defended by cries of “best actor for the job, not racism” becomes something more cunning, more malicious. Yes, the obfuscation creates intrigue around and interest in the role, but it also prevents advocacy groups like Racebending.com from building campaigns to protest the whitewashing. This happened with the character of the Mandarin in Iron Man 3, as well as ‘Miranda Tate’ in The Dark Knight Rises, who ended up being Talia al Ghul but played by French actress Marion Cotillard. This practice is well in effect in Hollywood; and after the negative press that was generated by angry anti-oppression activists and fans when Paramount had The Last Airbender in the works, studios are wising up. They don’t want their racist practices to be called out, pointed at, and exposed before their movies are released — Airbender proved that these protests create enough bad feeling to affect their bottom line.
So the studio has now found a way to keep it secret and underhanded. Racebending.com was there for most of the production of The Last Airbender, and were even able to correspond with Paramount Pictures about it. This time, for Star Trek: Into Darkness, their hiding and opaque practices has managed to silence media watchdogs until the movie’s premiere.
As I said, this racist whitewashing of the character of Khan won’t affect how much money this Trek movie makes. And I’m happy that the franchise is popular, still popular enough to warrant not only a big-budget reboot with fantastic actors but also a sequel with that cast. I’m happy that actors I enjoy like Zoë Saldaña and John Cho are playing characters who mean so much to me, and that they, in respect for the groundbreaking contributions by Nichelle Nichols and George Takei in these roles, have paid homage to that past.
But all of that will be marred by having my own skin edited out, rendered worthless and silent and invisible when a South Asian man is portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch up on that screen. In the original Trek, Khan, with his brown skin, was an Übermensch, intellectually and physically perfect, possessed of such charisma and drive that despite his efforts to gain control of the Enterprise, Captain Kirk (and many of the other officers) felt admiration for him.
And that’s why the role has been taken away from actors of colour and given to a white man. Racebending.com has always pointed out that villains are generally played by people with darker skin, and that’s true … unless the villain is one with intelligence, depth, complexity. One who garners sympathy from the audience, or if not sympathy, then — as from Kirk — grudging admiration. What this new Trek movie tells us, what JJ Abrams is telling us, is that no brown-skinned man can accomplish all that. That only by having Khan played by a white actor can the audience engage with and feel for him, believe that he’s smart and capable and a match for our Enterprise crew.
What an enormous and horribly ironic step backwards. For Star Trek, for media representation, and for the vision of a future where we have transcended systemic, racist erasure.
Relativity Media is remaking the cult classic film The Crow (1994). Although this iconic story is being brought back to the silver screen, the breakthrough progress made by The Crow in terms of minority representation will not be brought back.
As part of development for the film, the studio appears to be throwing upcoming (affordable) young white male actors at the project in hopes that one of them will stick. Over the past three years, the lead role has passed through Mark Wahlberg, Bradley Cooper, Channing Tatum, Ryan Gosling, James McAvoy, and Tom Hiddleston, with the latest casting rumors floating around Alexander Skarsgard.
All of these failed casting attempts point at one direction: it looks like twenty years later, The Crow will be rebooted without a lead actor of color.
The movie version of comic book character Eric Draven was originated by actor Brandon Lee (son of legendary martial artist Bruce Lee) in the 1994 film The Crow. Lee tragically died in an on-set accident before filming was completed. Draven was later portrayed by another multiethnic Asian American actor, Mark Dacascos, in the 1998 television series The Crow: Stairway to Heaven.
The character of Eric Draven was not solely, if at all defined, by the ethnicity of the actor portraying him. This was significant to actors from communities of color, who must struggle to avoid racially stereotypic roles.
“Brandon Lee’s Eric Draven was recognizably Asian American without having a particular reason for being Asian American. Then — and now — Asian American characters in cinema often seem to require some excuse written into the script to justify their ethnicity, as if the character was only made Asian American for a reason…Sometimes it’s refreshing to see an Asian American character who can just be.” – Jenn, blogger at Reappropriate.com
In addition to Draven–easily the most iconic “Crow”–several characters of color have also assumed the “Crow” persona in the franchise, including Joshua, a Native American farmer of the Crow Nation, and Mark Leung, a Chinese detective. There have also been a number of female Crows (Amy Carlisle, Iris Shaw, Hannah Foster) in the comics and also some white male Crows in direct-to-video movies and in the novels.
[It's interesting to note that one of the Crows, Jared Poe from The Crow: The Lazarus Heart, was a gay photographer who becomes the Crow after he is framed for the murder of his lover. Poe then seeks justice with help from his lover's twin, Lucrece. When the plot of novel was adapted to a movie, The Crow: Salvation, all LGBTQ elements were removed, including the Crow's sexual orientation and Lucrece's identity as a trans woman. ("Straight-washing" didn't help the film, which was unceremoniously dropped by it's theatrical distributor and had to go to direct-to-home-video.)]
“While, no, the Crow doesn’t HAVE to be Asian-American, it was one of the few, if any, American entertainment series/franchise that had Asian-Americans playing the lead. There are no shortage of roles for white actors. But for Asian-Americans — especially Asian-American men — there are pretty much zero.” – comment on Racebending.com Facebook page
The Crow is a superhero persona that has been embodied by a broad array of chracters, and there is a lot of precedence for having a unique lead when adapting this diverse franchise to the movies. A studio wanting to make a The Crow movie could make a film starring a male actor of color, a woman in an action role (still pretty rare these days), or even a action movie starring a gay anti-hero with a transgender heroine–all existing Crow characters in the books.
Understandably, changes will be made to franchises as they evolve and new creative talents will emerge to play iconic roles. But it’s hard not to view the proposed casting of white actors–who already have more opportunities than non-white actors–as a regression, particularly given the significance of Lee’s casting twenty years ago and The Crow franchise’s continued willingness to break the mold with diverse characters.
Twenty years later, The Crow remake does not seem to be going against the Hollywood mold when it comes to casting. It’s a loss of opportunity and doesn’t do justice to the franchise. If the studio is having difficulty securing a white male lead to play The Crow, it should extend the casting net to a more diverse pool of actors.
Today is the release date of Olympus Has Fallen, an action movie that unfortunately reflects the Hollywood (and American) stereotype of white nativism: the assumption that American automatically means white.
“In this country, American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.” – Toni Morrison
Synopsis of the movie:
Disgraced former Presidential guard Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) finds himself trapped inside the White House in the wake of a terrorist attack; using his inside knowledge, Banning works with national security to rescue the President (Aaron Eckhart) from his kidnappers.
Pros (sort of):
Going back to the racial nativism piece though…
This is the second “yellow peril” film released within a year to feature white, non-American actors as Big ol’ American Heroes (TM) while casting [Asian] American actors as the evil, foreign invaders.
For example, Red Dawn(2012) features white Australian Chris Hemmsworth as the leader of the American resistance movement. He faces off against Will Yun Lee, an Asian American actor who plays a villainous North Korean invader.
There’s some sick irony when Hemmsworth declares to the resistance fighters he is leading–including Isabel Lucas, another white Australian actor–that Will Yun Lee’s character and the other Asian American-played North Koreans just don’t appreciate America the way they do: ”To them, [America] is just a place, but to us, this is our home,” barks Hemmsworth the Australian, describing the bad guys played by the American actors.
In the film Olympus has Fallen, white Scottish actor Gerard Butler plays the heroic ex-Secret Service agent who must save the day from Asian American actor Rick Yune’s duplicitous foreign terrorist.
By following this casting trope, Olympus has Fallen replicates the white nativist “perpetual foreigner” stereotype that “white” is default “American” while “Asian” (and by extension, Asian American) is forever foreign.
Hollywood is unconstrained in whether or not the American hero needs to be played by an American (a refreshing attitude) with the unspoken caveat that these American heroes must be white. This is why white British actor Andrew Garfield can be cast as Spider-man from Queens, New York while black American actor Donald Glover could not even score an audition. This is why, when Warner Bros. decided to “Americanize” Akira, they made a long list of prospective lead actors– some from the US but many from the UK–all of them were considered appropriate for the Americanization and all of them were white. “Americanizing” the franchise did not mean casting American (including African American, Native American, Japanese American etc.) actors.
Rick Yune was born in Washington D.C. How many Americans can boast about being born in our nation’s capital? Yet, he is playing a terrorist invader trying to destroy Washington D.C., rather than the American patriot trying to save it. The privilege of playing that American hero goes to a white actor– because Hollywood’s institutional culture posits that any white actor is still more “American patriot” than an Asian American actor.
Imagine an alternate universe version of this “Die Hard in the White House” film, starring Rick Yune as the hero:
Disgraced former Presidential guard James Kang (Rick Yune) finds himself trapped inside the White House in the wake of a terrorist attack; using his inside knowledge, [*cough* including his iffy second generation Korean language skills] Kang works with national security to rescue the President (Morgan Freeman) from his kidnappers.
What happens when a prominent adult film producer creates a homage to one of the few television shows with an Asian American character–and decides to depict that character in blatant yellowface? Guest blogger N’jaila Rhee takes on the subject of yellowface in the adult film industry.
[Age Content/NSFW Disclaimer: While the following article contains no images with nudity, it does discuss a recent high profile incident of yellowfacing in the pornography industry.]
Yellow Face isn’t okay, not on stage, not on Halloween and not in film–and yes, that includes not in porn. So if you are going to have any hand in creating a porn “parody” of smash hit show that has a fan favorite character who is Korean American, hiring a white actor taping his eyes back and smearing what looks like Cheeto dust on his face is just not going to sit well with people.
People will be upset because it’s racist mockery of Asian features–and if there’s one group that doesn’t have options when it comes to porn, it’s Asian Americans.
What’s great about free speech is you can be as tasteless you can muster, and there is no one too high or low for criticism. Pornography is not accountability free. This content doesn’t exist in a cultural vacuum.
Holly Black and Sarah Rees Brennan are two well-known, published authors in the young adult genre and proof that dedicated white fantasy authors can include characters of color in their works. Holly Black has written non-white and non-straight characters in her books since her first novel, Tithe: A Modern Faerie Tale . Two of her popular book series feature biracial lead protagonists, the Modern Faerie Tale series and the Curse Workers series. Sarah Rees Brennan has been praised for her non-stereotypical depictions of characters in her The Demon’s Lexicon and Lynburn Legacy series. The protagonist of her co-authored novel Team Human is Chinese American and was prominently featured on the book’s cover.
Racebending.com’s Gabrial Canada interviewed Holly Black and Sarah Rees Brennan about their experiences as allies and authors in the young adult publishing genre! Read on for their thoughts on advocating for diverse representations and the publishing industry’s approach to diverse characters.
NOTE: The opinions espoused by the interviewees represent their viewpoints alone, and do not necessarily represent the views held by the staff of racebending.com
RACEBENDING.COM: Starting off with Holly, will we see the same level of representation that we have seen with your modern faerie stories, other works, and Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series in your new collaboration, Magisterium?
HOLLY BLACK: We’re both committed to diversity in our work, so as we figure out the details of our world and of our characters, we’re trying to be very conscious of the decisions we’re making. I don’t want to talk about the world too much, because we’re still making big decisions and doing research, but I don’t think that a world without diversity makes any sense. If fiction is about telling the truth — and I believe that ultimately it is — then that just isn’t true. We live in a big, diverse world and that should be reflected in the stories we tell.
RACEBENDING.COM: Have either of you had difficulty in displaying the diversity within your books on the covers? You both have authored books with Justine Larbalastier. Did you actively seek out publishers you felt you could trust on this issue of representation because of her experience when publishing Liar?
SARAH REES BRENNAN: The process of publishing doesn’t quite work like that: publishing houses are so vast, and the policies of different editors in the same publishing house can be so different, and it is so massively hard to know who you can trust on these issues–covers go past editors, whole marketing teams, so many people the writer may never meet. You can basically only learn how a publishing house will treat you by working with them.
But I can’t say enough good things about Harper Teen, who Justine and I published Team Human with, and our editor Anne Hoppe. Anne made a pre-empt for the book (called and said ‘Here’s my offer and it’s great, I hope you say yes to me now and other editors snooze and lose’) and one of the very first things she said to me and Justine was that of course our heroine Mel, who is Chinese-American, would be accurately portrayed. Justine and I were lucky enough to be able to attend our photoshoot and meet the gorgeous model who portrayed the main character. We never even had to ask.
Racebending.com was invited to attend a red carpet screening of the new Warner Bros film, Bullet to the Head. The screening was sponsored by Warner Bros, KoreAm Journal, and Audrey Magazine in Koreatown in Los Angeles for the Asian American publicity and blogger community. Bullet to the Head stars Sylvester Stallone as a New Orleans-based hitman who decides to aid a straight-laced young cop from Washington DC on an investigation. Yes, it is one of those odd-couple movies with mobsters. Unsurprisingly, bullets get lodged in people’s heads.
The one feature that makes Bullet to the Head stand out–compared to the countless other films that share its genre–is the film’s diverse cast. Korean American Sung Kang, best known for his role in The Fast and the Furious franchise, is prominently featured as Detective Taylor Kwon. Persian American Sarah Shahi (Fairly Legal) is the film’s most prominent actress, playing Stallone’s daughter. The shadow villain, who for whatever reason is depicted hobbling around on crutches, is played by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Lost) and his beefy, cold-blooded enforcer is played by Hawaiian actor Jason Momoa (Game of Thrones). Stallone plays an anti-hero character named Jimmy “Bobo” Bonomo, a independent soul and soulful loner who drops product placement for Bulleit Whiskey. His fellow hitman is played by Puerto Rican American Jon Seda. Christian Slater makes a visit as the bad guy’s lawyer.
No 20 or 30-something young white male actors are featured, yet the film manages to amble right along without Hollywood’s bread and butter actor demographic. The film does everything you expect it to. Cue the obligatory hyper-masculine strutting and maximum voltage gun–plus melee weapon–violence. Begin the betting pool for when the female lead gets kidnapped as leverage against the male good guys. Will they simply succumb to the bad guy’s demands for a ransom? If anything, Bullet to the Head demonstrates that casting a diverse ensemble doesn’t destroy a film or make it impossible to tell the same old story. (Well, except this time, the villain’s malevolent plan is to gentrify abandoned buildings into condominiums.)
Stallone’s character racially “negs” on his newfound Asian partner, talking about “samurai” and calling him “Confucious” while Kang’s character twitches uncomfortably in the passenger seat. Even Christian Slater’s simpering baddie lawyer throws out a “Kato” glancing shot. At this Asian American promo screening, the racial jokes floated over winces and awkward silence. Was the expectation of the screenwriter that the audience would erupt into cackles at the word “fortune cookie”? It’s almost as if the film–in addition to being overly excited to show off nude boobies–is self-conscious about having an Asian American guy in the role of the heroic by-the-book cop.
It shouldn’t be self conscious, though. Through his performance in the film, Sung Kang demonstrates the ubiquity of this archetype. Originally, this role was to be played by white American actor Thomas Jane; Sung Kang was brought in only after executives decided to make the film more diverse. Aside from the forced quips painstakingly reminding the audience that “yep, this guy’s not white like Bobo, he’s Asian,” Taylor Kwon is one of those roles coveted by actors of color in Hollywood: He’s a police officer, he’s a smartphone addict, he’s got a thing for justice–he is not defined by his race (except for when the antihero named Bobo rags on him for being Asian.) It’s awesome to see Sung Kang move up to a higher profile role.
My hedging critique would note that casting an Asian American actor as the foil to Stallone’s beefy machismo does vaguely map to cultural renderings of Asian men as less masculine. The film–whether consciously or subconsciously–uses this to it’s advantage when encouraging the audience to cheer for Stallone’s unique brand of tough white-dude action hero. As a character, Taylor Kwan has the gender-neutral name, the long feathery sideburns, the aversion to brute torture and murder, and an ethnicity ripe for comment. He yelps while undergoing an anesthesia-free medical procedure while Bobo smirks. He ineffectively pleads with Bobo to stop killing people. He even sports a pastel-colored overshirt, which he climatically sheds near the end of his character’s story arc, leaving only his dirtied up white tanktop (The camera lingers on this long enough that I assume it’s symbolic.) He earns Bobo’s respect, and it’s clear the film intends for him to earn the audience’s respect, through becoming more like Bobo in his approach to taking out enemies.
While the story of Taylor Kwon becoming slightly more like bounty hunter Bobo and less like lawful good isn’t the most complex plotline ever, it is significant that this Asian American character is the only character in the film that gets a character arc. Taylor Kwon even gets the girl–although it’s another Romeo Must Die scenario where we don’t get to see him kiss her. It’s definitely progress to see films where the actors of color outnumber the actors who are white, even if Stallone is the one who gets the corny voiceovers. Without it’s unique diverse cast, Bullet to the Head would not stand out in any way. Bullet to the Head isn’t going to be a critical hit, and it’s not going to be the headshot that ends inequity in Hollywood casting. It does give audiences a glimpse of what’s possible.
Next Christmas, Keanu Reeves stars in 47 Ronin, a fantasy film based on the historical event known as Chushingura. In the early 1700s, a group of forty-seven Japanese samurai avenged the murder of their master. 47 Ronin is a major tentpole film and does provide an opportunity for actors of Japanese descent to be featured in a film that will be distributed in America (even if most of the actors are not Asian American and many Asian American actors are still locked out of their home industry.)
The compromise for hiring so many Japanese actors seems to be the addition of Reeves’s character, who is not from the original mythos–his character was created exclusively from the film. Reeves plays “Kai,” a half-Japanese, half-British “half breed” and “outcast” who joins the group of Samurai. His character was created solely for the film, even though the likelihood of such a character existing during the era of sakoku is pretty slim. (Did he replace one of the 47? Or is he 48? Were none of the original 47 worth depicting in the lead role?)
Reeves’s brand new character is considered so integral to the production, that the studio seized control of the production from director Carl Rinsch, reshooting scenes to place more emphasis on Reeves’s character–rather than, say, the titular forty-seven ronin.
“Universal opted to reshoot a major fight scene near the end of the film, as well as a few other scenes to sharpen the focus on Reeves’ character Kai.
“[Originally,] Kai was not even present in the final battle scene, whereas the new scene pits Kai against a supernatural creature.
“In addition, the studio added a love scene, close-ups and individual lines to boost Reeves’ presence.” [source]
Ben Affleck’s Oscar nomination for Argo, announced this week, reignited what CNN calls a “controversy” surrounding the film.
As we reported back when the film was announced in June 2011, director Ben Affleck decided that he would be the best actor to portray legendary American CIA agent Antonio “Tony” Mendez. The missed opportunity? Tony Mendez is part Mexican American and multiethnic. Under the guidance of director Ben Affleck, the role of Tony Mendez would have been a great opportunity for a Chicano actor to star in a stereotype-defying, heroic lead role. (Given so many other characters in the Argo story are white, Ben Affleck would have still had several opportunities to portray a white character involved in this historical event.)
Argo depicts Mendez’s ingenious plan to recruit Hollywood consultation in formulating a rescue plan for six American diplomats trapped in Iran, while taking more than a few creative liberties. The film has been criticized for making up a climactic action scene and for downplaying the role of the Canadian government in helping the Americans escape.
More recently, Affleck’s questionable decision to cast himself as Mendez has received more attention from Latino communities and the media.
Latino film producer Moctesuma Esparza writes:
Not only did a Latino actor not play Tony, who clearly in real life looks like a Chicano, but his ethnicity is stolen from the Latino community at a time when Latinos have been demonized. Our real Latino national heroes, if acknowledged, would dramatize our patriotism and contribution to the United States. The film actually goes out of its way to obscure Tony Mendez’s ethnicity. His name is mentioned only once and the character says he is from New York (Tony was born in Nevada from a mining family with six generations in Nevada and raised in Colorado). Nowhere in the movie does the viewer get that the hero is Mexican-American…
Instead, like with the story of Guy Gabaldon, whose extraordinary achievements in the WWII Battle of Saipan, capturing, by himself, 1800 enemy soldiers, more than any other American soldier in the history of our country, was similarly whitewashed as Jeffrey Hunter played him in the 1960 film, “Hell to Eternity.” But that was more than half a century ago, Argo is now. …In Argo we have yet another instance where the public has been denied an opportunity for all Americans to learn of an American Latino’s valor, talent and patriotism. This occurs because there has been no consequence to this behavior. It is time for a change.
Sure, Argo will get is slew of honors and rave reviews, but for us it will always be known as “The Really Strong Movie That Should Have Had a Latino Play the Lead Character, Who Is Latino in Real Life.”
While mindfully debating how rigid racial boundaries should be in casting film roles, CNN’s Ruben Navarette Jr. writes:
“Affleck should have tried to cast a Latino to play Mendez. That’s common sense, and it would have made “Argo” a better movie…before Latinos can be fully integrated into America and not considered outsiders, we have to take every opportunity to push for inclusion and fairness. And acknowledging that Latinos have the skills to play themselves is a good start.”
Kirk Whisler, President of Latino Print Network and board member of the National Association of Latino Independent Producers, writes:
“Films and television are the most common ways than many non-Latinos see the roles that Latinos are playing or have played within American society. When those roles are played by non-Latinos, major opportunities are lost forever.”
I can’t deny that I love the Wachowski Siblings. When I was a kid, I used to play The Matrix over and over again; as a teenager, I would reference the series as one of my favorite movie series. The Matrix was a groundbreaking film with its special effects and is hailed as one of the best science fiction films of all time. I especially enjoyed Speed Racer, in its neon-colored, campy glory–a film that still warms my heart to this day and makes my pulse race.
Cloud Atlas is no exception. It is a beautifully crafted film with beautiful colors and sounds, encompassing varied time periods–some in the future and in the past, and some in present day. But despite its beauty, many scenes in Cloud Atlas are filled with problematic layers that jolted me from the film and left me with a bad taste in my mouth as I left the theater.
Cloud Atlas is composed of six storylines, each set in different time periods, with the same actors being “reincarnated” into new roles. The film shows these different periods interchangeable, jumping from one storyline to the next. In the spirit of continuity, I will address each storyline discretely.
The storyline furthest back in the past is the one concerning Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess). Adam Ewing is a lawyer narrating his stay at Chatham Islands–a slave colony–and his return home to his wife. On his way home, a stowaway from the Islands wakes him and tells him that he’s an able seaman who can earn his passage. The stowaway, Autua, proves himself and eventually saves Ewing’s life from death. At the end of this storyline, Ewing changes his mind about notarizing the slave contract for the Chatham Islands and decides to go help the Abolitionists.
On the one hand, it’s an intriguing story about a black man who saves a White man and changes his mind about slavery. But on the other hand, Autua disappears from his storyline at the end, only there as a prop for Ewing’s moral turnabout, and thus doesn’t sit right with me: as one of the few people of color in the film, it feels like he should play a bigger role. While it does touch upon the issue of racism in a way that isn’t horribly offensive, it still perpetuates the idea that the only storylines worth telling about black people are the ones in which they are slaves who educate white people on how slavery is wrong, rather than expounding upon the triumphs and successes of black people. But in the other, it also illustrates the slave trade as a global trade system, rather than resorting to tried tropes of slavery in the south. But still, Autua is not as empowered in the story in a way that sits well with me. Autua can be so brazen and bold toward Ewing, begging Ewing to put in a good word for him, only because Autua has nowhere else to go. Ewing is the one with real, tangible power in the socially constructed society where White people have actual political clout.
It’s not that I don’t find these stories worth telling. They are worth telling–in sensitive, well-told fashions, ways that don’t run over old and offensive stereotypes of the physically aggressive black man.
The second storyline illustrates the life of Robert Frobischer, the amanuensis to composer Vyvyan Ayrs. This sort of unremarkable storyline becomes much more intriguing when the film reveals that Frobischer is in love with Ayrs and confesses his love to him as he plays the Cloud Atlas Sextet. The film unfortunately derails what could have been a non-stereotypical storyline about queer love by turning Frobischer’s romance into a tragedy. Ayrs threatens to ruin Frobischer’s career by exposing his homosexuality and implying that he is a prostitute. At the end of the timeline, Frobischer commits suicide and his implied lover, Rufus Sixsmith, comes rushing in just as he hears the gunshot.
This storyline can be considered, once again, appropriate to the time period, but it also reinforces the idea that the only kind of queer love that exists is the tragic kind. Many other movies have been made about tragic queer love, in which one or both of the lovers commits suicide due to a ruined career or fear of ostracization. This isn’t to say that these stories aren’t important, or that they aren’t valuable to the queer community, but when they are the only stories that exist representing the queer community, it affects the ways in which queer and gay love are perceived in everyday life–that is: queer love can only end poorly, when in reality, there are many relationships that do end happily.
The third storyline is the story of Luisa Rey, a black female journalist who is writing a story about a nuclear power plant. This story is rather unremarkable, in both its content and its character development. I found this story the least compelling out of all of them, although at one point Hugh Grant’s character does make a quip about “women’s lib”–a statement that goes, for the most part, unaddressed.
The fourth storyline is the story of Timothy Cavendish. Perhaps the most positive story of them all, it engages in the troubles of the elderly, who are often seen as child-like and puerile, constantly demeaned because of their perceived helplessness. Cavendish and a group of his friends eventually escapes the elderly home he is part of and learns to craft his own life independently without the interference of condescending nurses.
The fifth storyline, and perhaps the most troubling storyline, is the story of Somni-451, set in Neo-Seoul, the 22nd century.
I want to say this, first, before I begin: Neo-Seoul didn’t have to be so. It could have been anywhere else and it would have been the exact same story. As it is, Neo-Seoul draws up all the Asian stereotypes that have haunted Asian Americans in media since media has existed.
In Neo-Seoul, Papa Song serves up fast food and genetically engineered Korean woman to patrons. These Korean women are only slightly varied in appearance and features, being genetic clones of one another, easily manufactured and replaced. Not only does this reinforce the idea that all Asians are the same, but it also reinforces that stereotype of the beautiful lotus blossom, the beautiful Asian prostitute whose doll-like appearance allows her to be swapped for another person. The Asian women are stripped not only of their personal agency, but of their physical agency as well–they are predetermined from birth to look and act a certain way, to be used for the pleasure of men who view them as objects and consumer items. Somni-451 even says, “Honor thy consumer,” which sounds suspiciously like the Biblical saying, “Honor thy father” but also the Confucian ideal of honoring one’s family.
The film’s depiction of Asian women is not one of its only faults. The major problem I had with this whole storyline is, of course, the yellowface in which Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving, and James D’arsy are depicted. Their eyes are made to look narrow and slimmer and their noses changed. Jim Sturgess plays Hae-Joo Chang, a revolutionary who frees Somni-451 from her daily routine of being a fast food server. While this is a typical storyline in a dystopic story, its meaning becomes eclipsed in Hae-Joo Chang’s uncanny resemblance to Adam Ewing and the other characters Jim Sturgess plays because, unlike the other characters Jim Sturgess plays, Hae-Joo Chang is Korean while Jim Sturgess is not.
Make-up and 3D effects can improve film and television by leaps and bounds. What was previously impossible has become possible. That does not mean that filmmakers should throw all caution to the wind. Yellowface was offensive in The Good Earth, when White actors and actresses played Asian characters, and yellowface is still offensive now, when a perfectly good Korean actor could have played “Hae-Joo Chang.” It is even more insulting when one takes the other yellowfaced characters into consideration. The Archivist, the one interviewing Somni-451 as she recalls her life and involvement with Hae-Joo Chang, is played by James D’arsy. There is no reason why he couldn’t have been played by a Korean actor.
Hugo Weaving’s character, the Prescient, is even more troubling. His first appearance in Neo-Seoul is as a looming authority figure, robed in black. As a White man playing an Asian character, Hugo Weaving’s sinister role recalls Fu Manchu: tyrannical, menacing, and above all–evil.
In the film, Somni-451 says, “To know thyself is only possible through the eyes of the other.” She says this to unmask the truth of Neo-Seoul to its inhabitants, but it also unmasks the stereotypes of the film. Asian Americans watching the screen can only see themselves through the eyes of the White actor, which is to say–it is merely an illusion: a trick of the light, a brush of make-up here and there–and the movie has created an authentic Asian, with no actual Asian actors required.
Which only means–why Neo-Seoul at all? Neo-Seoul did not play a big role in the development of the story. Neo-Seoul could have been Neo-Manhattan or Neo-Los Angeles, and it wouldn’t have drawn up and reiterated the unfortunate Asian stereotypes that play out every day in other media. The only thing that Neo-Seoul added were the signs, written in Korean. Why then, couldn’t they set this part of the story in another city? That would have prevented the need for yellowface completely while still adding the same social commentary. The only reason that the movie seems to include Neo-Seoul is because of the way it presents an exotic world to the viewer, different and dark, complete with neon lights and signs in a different language. It evokes the desolate “East,” the Orientalism that painted Asia as a contrast to the Occident in the “West”–ironic because while we hope that these problems would be left behind, to the past, they come up again and again, in science fiction.
As for the last storyline, with Tom Hanks and Halle Berry in the Hawaiian Islands: there isn’t much I’m able to say. That is, I’m not sure if I can say anything. I’m concerned about the parallel between Tom Hanks’s tribe and Polynesian culture, but I’m not well-versed enough to speak on it. In some ways, I can see how the section reverses the gaze: Halle Berry’s civilization is more technologically advanced and in a way, superior. At the same time, it makes me uncomfortable that whenever two civilizations meet, there is always an inferior and a superior group, and that this message is often communicated by appearance/skin color.
Like I said before, I’m 100% sure that there are intellectual and academic approaches to looking at Cloud Atlas. It is one of those films you can study and analyze in a class setting, picking apart the theories that may have played into it. I’m interested in that field, too.
There’s no denying that Cloud Atlas is a beautiful film. It’s well-crafted and well-done. Still, beautiful films don’t exist in vacuums. There are still social implications that follow when actors are in yellowface, and this film tries to ignore that–but I can’t ignore yellowface. It doesn’t work that way, and to ask that of me and Asian Americans–to pretend that a White actor can play a Korean man more accurately than someone who is actually Korean–is an insult.
Britain’s esteemed Royal Shakespeare Company is producing the 13th century Chinese play, “The Orphan of Zhao,” with no British East Asain actors in principal roles. In fact, two of the three East Asian actors play a maid and a dog puppeteer, respectively. As a result, actors of Asian descent in the UK and around the world have spoken out and asked RSC to do better. Racebending.com is privileged to share the following guest blog from actor Daniel York, one of the hardworking actors leading the protest. York shares his thoughts on the controversy and his personal experiences as a RSC actor in the UK.
In Britain, the storm over the esteemed Royal Shakespeare Company’s casting of their production of the Chinese classic The Orphan Of Zhao can only be described as unprecedented. The reaction to this most venerated of theatre companies’ decision to cast this– the first Chinese play they’ve ever produced–with a cast of 17 mainly white actors and with only three actors from East Asian backgrounds (none of whom can be described as playing a leading role, in fact many critics have described them as “minor,”) has shaken the theatrical establishment in Britain to the core.
Much of the press coverage has been cursory, shallow and completely failed to take account of the wide scale of anger and hurt expressed from as far afield as Australia, Malaysia, Canada and the United States, where Tony award winning playwright David Henry Hwang described the casting as saying “less about Britain’s Asian acting community, than it does about the RSC’s laziness and lack of artistic integrity.” Asian American actress Janice Park moved me to tears with an open letter to the Company which said that their decision made her “not wish to act in the theater anymore, not wish to dream anymore because why should I dream so high when man can only achieve so little…”
The RSC defended its decisions on two counts. One is that they saw “lots and lots” of East Asian actors but in the end opted for “colour blind casting” and simply cast the “best actor for the role”. Generally, Joe Public is satisfied with this response, but a closer examination will reveal that the actors playing leading roles at the RSC are usually in the British classical theatre “circuit” which is very much a “no go zone” for East Asian actors.
East Asian actors can generally only audition for poorly written tokenistic roles, often in awful broken English and possessing not a jot of the wit, charisma and sex appeal of a Harry Hotspur, a Jack Worthing, a Hedda Gabler or even a Horatio. This makes it nigh on impossible for an East Asian Actor to build a track record that would make a company like the RSC feel secure in casting them in a lead role. I fully support casting “the best actor for the role” but only when there is a fully level playing field for the “best” to be assessed fairly. I also support “colour blind casting” but only as a mechanism for creating opportunities for actors from minority groups for whom chances are few and far between–not as a means of protecting those opportunities for the dominant social demographic.
The other argument is that as the play is in repertoire with two others–Pushkin’s Boris Godunov and Brecht’s The Life Of Galileo, plays set in Russia and Italy respectively– they could never have cast an “all East Asian” cast – something that I believe most of us would’ve accepted were even two or three of the leading roles played by East Asian actors. There does seem to exist in the eyes of the UK industry the idea that white British people can play literally any race but that “minorities” have to be more specific, particularly East Asians. (Though I rather think there are places in Russia where one or two of us Asians might look more at home than they do!)
There has been much anger about the fact that despite their protestations, we (as an admittedly small community) have only managed to locate eight East Asian actors who were auditioned, including the three cast. While I understand this, it is not my primary concern. Personally, I’d rather they auditioned six and cast five than auditioned forty and only cast two. For me, it’s all about the will to put people on the stage. You can hold all the auditions you like, but if the will isn’t there it’s immaterial, in my humble opinion.
Last year, when I cast my short film Mercutio’s Dreaming: The Killing Of A Chinese Actor (shameful plug!) which was recently nominated for four awards at the World Independent Music & Film Festival (more shameful plug!) I only auditioned four actors for the lead role owing to time constraints. The difference is that I was fully committed to casting an East Asian actor. Either way you look at it it’s clear that, for whatever reason, casting East Asians wasn’t terribly high on the RSC’s priorities. This comes as a shock from the same Company that recently gave us an all black Julius Caesar set in Africa and an all (South) Asian Much Ado About Nothing set in India. But as East Asians we’ve gotten rather too used to being the “forgotten minority”.
I’m going to come clean here. I was one of the actors who auditioned for The Orphan of Zhao. In fact, apart from the three actors who were cast, I’m the only one I know who was recalled to meet another director for one of the other plays in the season. This has of course led to accusations on various blog forums of my “sour grapes.” But I have to say that in a way, I am thrilled–after not having acted on stage in Britain for four years–to have been considered so seriously, after years of being excluded because I’m mixed-race, half-Chinese, and being told countless times I’m “not Chinese enough” for all manner of truly appalling television roles. Though of course, it’s mind–race!–bendingly frustrating to have a part you genuinely could’ve played go to someone who’s not remotely Chinese, simply because they couldn’t conceive of you being in a Russian or German play. There’s a very special kind of torment there!
The Royal Shakespeare Company. I first went there when I was an eager 19 year old student on a college trip to see Macbeth starring Jonathan Pryce (who would later to run into a “yellowface” storm for his portrayal in Miss Saigon.) This was in the late 1980’s when there was a whole debate going on in British theatre about whether black actors could play roles in theatre productions. One UK theatre director–I wish I could remember who!–was quoted in a newspaper as saying that black actors would struggle in Shakespeare as “it wasn’t in their culture”. The production I saw that evening featured two black actors: Hugh Quarshie as Banquo and (I think) Patrick Robinson as The Bloody Sergeant (and, evidently, Quarshie’s understudy). As a mixed-race fledgling actor from a “non theatrical” background, the significance of their presence on the stage was not lost on me. I looked up at them from my seat in the stalls wondering if my racial heritage would prove an impediment to my progress in the career I’d set my heart on.
It’s easy to forget that the last “blacked up” Othello in Britain was as recently as 1990 – the year I graduated from drama school (where my principal had told me I’d be “fine” when they remade Charlie Chan). At first, though I seemed to be doing okay. I played the lead role in Chay Yew’s seminal work Porcelain, which transferred to London’s prestigious Royal Court theatre where I was seen by Alan Rickman who recommended me to play Fortinbras opposite his Hamlet before I arrived at that most celebrated of institutions: The Royal Shakespeare Company. Though it’s fair to say I often felt slightly like a fish out of water–the company which has since gone on to give us numerous black and (South) Asian actors in challenging roles was then very much a white middle class haven–I enjoyed my time there.
There were awkward moments, sure. One was where–in my largest role as a character called “Tahiti” in Moby Dick–I was told by the director (not part of the RSC “establishment,” in fairness) to be more “inscrutable.” Another was when at a company meeting, Exec Producer Michael Attenborough spoke of a play they had in development–which has never surfaced–set in “Indo China” and the entire company turned as one and looked at me. But on the whole, my time there was extremely beneficial and I’d often hoped I might go back, though this looked further and further out of reach as, despite managing to play roles such as De Flores in The Changeling, Mercutio, and Tartuffe, as well as forging an eventually award-winning alternative career in Singapore (my father’s birthplace), it was clear my career was anything but “high profile.”
So, yes, The Orphan Of Zhao was a bitter blow to me, as it was to practically all British East Asian actors–even the ones who have remained silent. Bitter, because it often feels as if the UK theatre industry has sat back smugly congratulating itself on the increased number of black and South Asian faces on our stages while we remain marginalized, excluded and (in the words of one of the protestors at the recent La Jolla Playhouse Nightingale furor) “not good enough to play ourselves”. It sometimes even appears as if we’ve been cowed into silence by the very obvious double standards in the British liberal psyche which is happy to express outrage on behalf of black actors who are ever denied a role yet sneers in derision when East Asians have the temerity to raise the same concerns. Well, it seems this is no longer the case. We have spoken and we have spoken in number.
And it seems we’ve been heard. In my capacity as Equity Minority Ethnic Members Committee Vice Chair, I have attended meetings with both the RSC as well as the Arts Council (which funds the RSC to the tune of £15 million a year in taxpayer money), and the Society Of London Theatres, where there seems to at last be a very real and sincere wish to finally address the invisibility of East Asian performers on British stages. We are in the early planning stages for a series of events aimed at raising the profile and increasing opportunities for East Asian actors that are due to take place in London next year. A coalition “organisation” made up of UK East Asian performers called “British East Asian Artists” has been formed. Central to its remit will of course be to keep the issue of East Asian UK media representation very much in the spotlight. Already raised voices from a previously silent community have succeeded in getting every single theatre critic to make mention of the casting controversy in their reviews of Orphan Of Zhao, thereby keeping the issue “live” (no mean feat in regards to something that has simply been ignored time and time again, so little does it register in the consciousness of the typically white middle aged middle class UK theatre critic).
In my humble opinion, the RSC have been misguided and thoughtless rather than malicious. I hope–and I believe–they will take this opportunity to prove what a truly great company they are by integrating East Asian artistes onto their stages soon. It’s often a knee jerk reaction towards “disgruntled actors” to claim that they probably weren’t good enough and this is sometimes applied to our entire racial group. I can remember well that 25 years ago the voices of conservatism would try and argue the fanciful notion that black actors weren’t very good. 30 years before that it was working class actors. Actors need to be given chances.
I hope we will now get ours.