Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality
The shock of watching the Cloud Atlas trailer, and witnessing white actors portray Asian characters, is that there is no shock. Because it is absolutely nothing new. It was part of the tradition of American entertainment long before Luise Rainer won the Oscar for The Good Earth in 1937. It was a torch passed on through the decades, from Charlie Chan to Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Unlike blackface, yellowface has never quite fallen out of vogue. And Cloud Atlas shows us it’s still in-fashion today.
So I’d like to make something perfectly clear: our concerns are not about the quality of the writing, the story, the special effects, makeup artistry, or cinematography.
Our discussion will be about social impact, culture, and politics. The nature of a multimillion dollar venture like Cloud Atlas is that it is shaped by culture and society. It is designed for the consumption of moviegoers. Millions of consumers will pay to see this film. The act of payment will encourage other films of similar cloth and make. The act of viewing will refine the viewer’s sense of pop culture, if only in a small way.
Ultimately, whatever the film’s grand aspirations (or achievements), my belief is that Cloud Atlas will eventually be viewed through the same lens as films like The Good Earth, Birth of a Nation, or even Dumbo. These are films known to have artistic merit, that tell engaging stories, with imagery both striking and iconic. They are also films that are, in one way or another, formed by the culture and politics of their respective eras. They are deeply embedded with concepts of race, interwoven with acts of exclusion and stereotype and prejudice.
Some will suggest that the racebending roles given to some of the actresses in Cloud Atlas mitigate or even forgive the use of yellowface in the film. This strikes me as tokenism of the worst kind. 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. The equivalent use of “whiteface” cannot compare to the act, because there is no history of white exclusion from the American mainstream. In the last decade, 71% of Warner Bros movies’ lead roles went to white men. All other demographics – black, Latino, Asian, Native American, women of any race – have access to one-quarter the leading roles as white men. (This lopsided distribution is remarkably disproportionate compared to the demographics of moviegoers; according to the MPAA, in 2011, women accounted for 51% of all ticket purchases, and people of color were more likely to go to the movies than white viewers.)
All too often in conversations about race in the 2010s, it seems that the racial conversation is all about performing the same racist actions but justifying them with new words. The use of yellowface, or even blackface, can be justified if the director uses the term “post-racial” or “colorblind.” But an honest look at statistics and demographics reveals that our society is anything but. We cannot enter a “post-racial” world by pretending problems do not exist, by pretending that lopsided representation is justified.
Acting as an apologist preserves the status quo in favor of those who already have the lion’s share of representation, who “don’t care” about race issues because they are fundamentally content with the system. If you can see your race and gender reflected in 80% of the faces that dominate movie posters, then it becomes meaningless to you. It’s worth nothing. It doesn’t damage your self-esteem, as it does for American children of any demographic other than “white male.”
For the rest of us, Cloud Atlas represents simply another film in the long tradition of Hollywood exclusion. It has been a very, very long road. We can only keep the discussion alive, despite how much further yet we need to go.