Film still from “Cloud Atlas” (2012) (all images via

Last month, British actor Jim Sturgess sent a tweet to his 40,000 followers which read: “Yellowface? Blackface? Pinkface? Pinkberry? Blueberry? Strawberry? Bananas? Frozen Yogurt? All the toppings? … Lovely!” The message was Sturgess’s veiled response to recent criticism of his role in the upcoming science fiction epic Cloud Atlas. Sturgess, along with stars Halle Berry, Tom Hanks, Hugo Weaving, Ben Whishaw, and Hugh Grant plays not one but six different characters in the movie.

Directed by the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer, the film is based on the critically acclaimed 2004 novel of the same name by David Mitchell. It tells six interlocked stories spanning several centuries, from an 1850s missionary expedition in the Chatham Islands to a futuristic corpocracy where clones are bred as slaves. Most critics agree that it is very good, even great — one MSN Movies review declared it “full of passion and heart and empathy,” and “completely unlike any other modern film.” But since its premiere at the recent Toronto Film Festival, where Lana Wachowski called it an “experimental” movie that “speaks a lot about human courage” (it received a ten-minute standing ovation), a number of detractors have reached a not-so-positive consensus: Cloud Atlas is racist.

A handful of outlets including AngryAsianMan, Jezebel, and Ropes of Silicon have brought up the issue of race in the film — suggesting that it has discriminated against Asian actors and Asian people by using white actors to play characters in a futuristic version of South Korea. Folded into themes of reincarnation, fate, and (according to Mitchell) “the way individuals prey on individuals,” is an alarmingly bold use of yellowface. As Mike Le of Racebending observed shortly after the film’s epic four minute trailer debuted in August, the yellowface was following in a long tradition of white filmmakers granting themselves permission to “determine what it means to be Asian… while excluding the voices and faces of Asian American actors.”

Jim Sturgess promotional still from “Cloud Atlas” (2012)

Sturgess, who appears in yellowface for a large portion of the film, seemed to be addressing this in his tweet. His reaction, cryptic as it may be, is in keeping with the dismissiveness of an industry with a long history of blatant racism. It’s not entirely clear what Sturgess’s tweet meant, perhaps he didn’t know either, perhaps that’s why he deleted it. He might just really like froyo. Or maybe he was suggesting that those who are offended by a white actor portraying an Asian man should lighten up, that it doesn’t matter if you’re white, black, or purple — all of us, in all of our flavors, make up a “Lovely!” Pinkberry cup of unity. It’s a sentiment that’s essentially at the heart Cloud Atlas.

Comparing books and their film adaptations isn’t always illuminating, but the Wachowskis have made a key change that serves as the catalyst for the movie’s wrong direction. Mitchell’s novel presents reincarnation as a mere suggestion — a birthmark shaped like a comet that appears on the six protagonists of each nested story. In the movie, the elegant simplicity of this motif has been mostly abandoned, in order for the filmmakers to take up a heavy-handed brush to depict souls linked across time.

Instead of one actor playing the six main characters, each of the key protagonists plays an additional six different characters throughout the interwoven narrative. Sometimes, the parallels work. Mostly, though, each new part the actors take on in the decades-spanning stories is an arbitrary choice: Ben Whishaw, for instance, serves up a heartbreaking performance as a composer named Robert Frobisher in one major arc, then later cameos in a minuscule role as a record store clerk. There isn’t any real significance in this choice, except, I suppose, for the fact that Frobisher and the clerk share an uncanny resemblance and they both like music. The film entirely betrays itself by twisting its ideas of reincarnation and universality into a convoluted, inconsistent mess.

Hugo Weaving promotional still from “Cloud Atlas” (2012)

The appearance of the Asian characters played by Sturgess, Hugo Weaving, and James D’Arcy signals the moment the filmmaker’s good intentions go to shit. It is surreal. Their physical transformation is jarring, shocking, conjuring up a cinematic past that includes Mr. Moto, Charlie Chan, and Mr. Yunioshi. What the Wachowski siblings believe they are saying by putting these actors in black wigs and using tape and millions of dollars of CGI to make their eyes look Asian is that our souls are all connected, no matter our gender, age, or race. What they are really saying is that our souls have everything to do with the way we look. It’s a problematic message, one that sells the intelligence of the audience short — the only way for us to be invested in these characters, it seems, is to have the easily recognizable faces of our white protagonists just beneath the surface. That the Wachowskis and Tykwer were willing to funnel millions into badly done makeup and CGI rather than simply hire Asian actors, who are perennially misrepresented and underrepresented on screen, makes this all the more unfortunate.

Among the several characters she plays in the film, Korean actress Bae Doona does don blonde hair and blue eyes for at least two of them. Halle Berry, also, lightens her skin and eyes to play a white socialite in the 1930s. Of course, having a minority actress play a white character does not and cannot negate the legacy of racial discrimination inherent in the use of blackface. If anything, it just makes the whole situation worse. The filmmakers labor under the misapprehension that their work resides in some sort of vacuum, free of wider cultural context, or in that unicorn domain known as the “post-racial” society. This blissfully naïve understanding proceeds from the dominant point-of-view, the white point-of-view.

James D’arcy promotional still from “Cloud Atlas” (2012)

It is, I think, significant to note that in addition to racebending, the filmmakers also take the liberty of including genderbending: Weaving, in one storyline, plays the terrifying head nurse of a retirement home. For some, perhaps, the token whitewashing of Berry and Doona and the instances of gender fluidity justify the otherwise disturbing treatment of ethnicity. These flourishes of “blind casting” are, after all, what some champions of Cloud Atlas have praised. Variety described the notion of white actors playing Asians as “exciting,” suggesting that the Wachowskis “put the lie to the notion that casting — an inherently discriminatory art — cannot be adapted to a more enlightened standard of performance over mere appearance.” The irony of this declaration is overwhelming — praising a film for “enlightened” casting choices that merely replay old discriminatory practices.

The main issue here isn’t whether or not Cloud Atlas is a good movie; it certainly is. Nor is the question whether Cloud Atlas is a racist movie; it certainly is. The issue, really, is why the overall reaction has lacked any real discussion of the implications of its “colorblind” approach. Movie review aggregates like Metacritic show that even the mixed or negative reviews fail to apply critical pressure to its casting choices. Instead, critics showering early praise on Cloud Atlas are overly enamored with the film’s visual and thematic scope, relishing its “jaw dropping ambition” and lauding how “stunningly beautiful” it is; in this, they are complicit in normalizing the movie’s racism.

Mike Le distilled the problem in his Racebending piece: “The shock of watching the Cloud Atlas trailer, and witnessing white actors portray Asian characters, is that there is no shock.” Aside from Sturgess’s tweet, no one involved with the movie — not David Mitchell, Tykwer, Lana or Andy — has addressed this elephant in the room. It’s difficult to decide which is worse: that they haven’t divulged their thoughts on the issue, or that no one seems to care enough to ask them. On October 26, Cloud Atlas will leave its small cocoon of press screenings and movie festivals and come out nationwide. Hollywood analysts predict $30 to $60 million on opening week and there’s Oscar buzz — the film could be a major success, viewed by a worldwide audience. When thrust upon this wider stage, how will the discussion about Cloud Atlas change, if at all?

Zeba Blay is a culture and film critic born in Ghana and based in NYC. Formerly Senior Culture Writer at HuffPost, her words have also appeared in Allure, Film Comment, ESSENCE, the New York Times, Shadow...

28 replies on “Ethnic Cleansing: Colorblind Casting in Cloud Atlas”

  1. Well there should be more comments in this section. But racism is a topic that makes most people want to be quiet. You did a swell job looking at this film Zeba. Reincarnation is a fun idea and showing the the same souls across several time periods sounds like a cool premise for a movie. But the execution doesn’t live up to the idea’s potential. Aren’t there other creative ways that the director could have shown continuity and the revealed it was the same soul besides the tropes of a similar face and the same actor? Maybe one soul always liked red hats, while another made gardening a hobby in every time period. There are other ways to use poetic license and cinematography to tell this story. I want to give them credit for trying to be multi-racial but can’t given the yellow face. Blackface is only allowed in historical fiction that indicts the time when it was still acceptable entertainment. I don’t know why the same standard doesn’t apply to yellowface or its CGI special effects overloaded technological version today. The creative team drank way too much of the kool-aide, before they realized it was spiked with their own ignorance. They could have told the story better without yellow-face.

    1. I like your idea of revealing the soul’s identity through something that isn’t a similar face. I think it would’ve worked better for me than the alterations because I like a little hidden clues mixed in with my movies, a little subtle context. However, I don’t agree that this movie is racist. At all.

      Here’s a little English lesson for you if you’ll find a couple minutes: Racism (noun) – a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule others. Also, a policy, system of government, etc., based upon or fostering such a doctrine; discrimination. Also, hatred or intolerance of another race or other races.

      You can’t possibly be saying that by altering an actor’s face they wanted to show superiority of one race over another. How? How did they do that? By not hiring an Asian actor? Is that the problem? Because I think everyone is just confused here. You all do realize that if they were to hire an Asian actor his face would’ve been altered to fit all other needed roles? Meaning, he would’ve been turned (through the same alteration process) into a white male. Now, answer me, would that have been alright?

      If your answer is yes: Then, honey, don’t start bringing “yellowfacing” and “blackfacing” into this. Which by the way, are kind of awful terms that everyone seems to be using very liberally. Your problem isn’t with the alterations. It’s with the preliminary casting and that’s a whole different point entirely. In that case, the movie is not, in fact, racist but the production through which it went is. Similarly, you can call The Last Airbender movie or the Dragonball: Evolution racist since they’ve done the exact same thing, casting white actors to play a character who is of a different race. Where was all the commotion when that was going on? Why are the Wachowskis and Tykwer then racists and yet Shyamalan and Wong are not?? Call things their own names, for Pete’s sake!

      If your answer is no: Then, sir, you are in fact missing the point of the whole plot, aren’t you? True, all this mess could’ve been carefully avoided through what you have suggested using instead to indicate soul transgression. However, the thing one must understand about movies is that each technique has a different affect on the audience. Let’s take this a step further:
      The idea you’ve suggested (with objects and symbols): The transgression of souls becomes a subtle concept that may or may not be caught by the audience. As such it is like a riddle within the movie that will only reveal itself to those paying close enough attention. Subtlety is this techniques main affect.
      The idea they have used (facial alteration): The transgression of souls is much more evident and explicit, hitting the audience squarely in the face every time an already familiar face in the image of one character appears in the image of a new one. The audience may experience a certain exhalation in the recognition of characters. A triumphant moment can pass in the audience the moment everything clicks into place and the soul transgression, explicitly thrown at the audience, is grandly revealed.

      I know my explanations lack (I am merely a first year university student studying both Film and Sociology) but I hope the difference between the affect each technique has is evident.

      So, thing is, everyone should get their issues in order and decided what was the problem for them: the casting of the movie or the facial alteration. Do NOT mix the two up as they are NOT the same thing and must be dealt with separately. The facial alteration does NOT, in fact, comment on what blackwhiteasian person must look like. Say what you will, if you don’t see that it’s not then Merlin help you. The casting, does not comment upon the movie but rather reflects the society we currently reside in along with the values and concepts perceived and accepted in that society, in YOUR society. Problem? Fix it!!
      So which is it? Where does the main point lie? What is each person’s issue with this affair?

  2. I’m not sure if you are upset that the actors stretched their acting skills to try to depict a person of a different ethnicity (which happens with most actors, ask Tony Shalhoub) or if it because you think that more Asian or Asian-American actors should have been cast in this film.

    Just curious: Does this mean that people of color should not be cast in Shakespearean dramas because the characters depicted are European? Should all actors only portray characters of their own ethnicity?

    I remember the furor when Jennifer Lopez was cast in the movie Selena because she was Puerto Rican and not Mexican-American. Should casting be this narrow? Should a Chinese actor turn down a part if the character is Japanese?

    This kind of thinking is at odds with the ideals of acting, where actors challenge themselves by playing character who are unlike themselves (in personality, age, ethnicity, class background, nationality, etc.). Should we draw the line only at ethnicity? Or is it “inauthentic” for an actor from a rich background to play a homeless person?

    I can see you are outraged that white actors portrayed Asian characters but I’d just like to be clear where you draw the line on what is acceptable and what is unacceptable and why (for both actors who are white as well as people of color [a term I’m guessing you’ll also be upset about]).

    1. There is a huge difference between white actors having their features cosmetically modified to look like they’re of a different ethnicity and casting people of colour to play roles that are traditionally played by white actors. The former perpetuates asymmetrical power relations and the injustice attendant on them, while the latter works towards adjusting those relations in a way tending towards equality.

      1. bullshit – you also don’t mention anything about the Jennifer Lopez/Selena chinese/japanese question and just where the line is supposed to be drawn.

        ‘people of colour’? name Amal – yeah you’re living in the UK where the world revolves around ‘perceived’ racism and training individuals to think every single thing on earth that comes from white people is racist. There is not a HUGE difference. Frankly, I don’t want to see ‘people of color’ in ‘traditional white roles’ because those roles were not written for them and the characters were white. Why should ‘traditional white theater’ have to be changed to accommodate other races? I don’t see anybody telling Kabuki theater to hire whites or blacks. And as far as your ‘hiring non white actors’ adjusts those relations in a way tending towards equality is TOTAL bull. How does hiring an actor for a role that was not intended for his/her specific race have anything to do with ‘equality’. Equality means being free, unpersecuted and able work, go places, get jobs & simply live in the same manner as those around you and not be hindered for whatever reasons. Forcing whites to eliminate aspects of their own history & culture to accommodate you or anybody else does NOT foster equality, particularly when the reverse is not true. Particularly when even fictional stories, like Dickens & Shakespeare include aspects of our own history & culture within. THAT being the case, then ‘people of color’ should have no problem with white people portraying any of your historical figures. Maybe they could re-do ‘roots’ and have white people in those ‘traditionally black’ roles for the sake of EQUALITY.

        I also see that your complaint is in regards to WHITE actors only portraying people of a different ethnic group and apparently don’t have ANY PROBLEMS AT ALL with:
        –Black actors portray white, Korean, and Polynesian characters
        –Korean and Chinese actors portray white and Mexican characters

        which also occurs in the movie. But since you only hate & resent white people, of course you only target whites in your

        HEY how many white and black people play roles that are traditionally played by ‘coloured’ actors in Bollywood? Is it okay for non white races to portray ‘roles’ as in ‘fictional roles’ in stories written by whites about whites in white countries, or is having them portray actual non-fictional whites okay as well? Either way, that being the case, I still have this gut feeling that if a white actor was cast in a ‘role’ that is ‘traditionally’ played by black, Indian, or asian actors – you’d be outraged.

        Because you’re a hypocrite, and your complaints are about ‘asymmetrical power relations’ as they relate to indigenous white or white founded countries, and I guarantee you have NEVER said a word about ‘asymmetrical power relations’ in non white countries. Why is that, AMAL?

        For all you ‘multiculturalists’ you know there IS a world out there, and the clear majority is NOT multicultural, only white countries. Why is it then that only white countries, white movies, white actors ever receive this type of hypocritical attack?

        1. This is a pretty astonishing comment that seems to make a lot of assumptions about me based on two sentences. How am I hypocrite? What does my name have to do with anything, exactly? What makes you think I live in the UK? What in my two sentences of observation constituted a “hypocritical attack”?

          Also all 7 paragraphs of your reply seem to be premised on the idea that all people everywhere are already equal in every possible way and that to say otherwise is to hate white people and be a hypocrite. Is this an opinion you hold?

  3. Let’s be very clear. There’s a BIG difference between Jim Sturgess playing a soul reincarnated as a Korean in 2144 than Mr. Moto.

    Have you seen the movie, Zeba? I have, and the movie you’re describing and the one I saw, are two COMPLETELY DIFFERENT things.

    Most of the cast in the movie transcends the race/gender of the actor playing them–a lot more than you listed in the article…and there’s a point to it. Most of the complaints from the others bloggers, even at Jezebel, they haven’t seen the movie, either.

    1. Let’s be very clear “pp,” you completely missed the point. If the movie transcends race/gender, then WHY wouldn’t they simply hire under represented Asian actors to play characters who happen to be Asian at one point or another?

      Typical ignorant response here.

      1. because it’s vital to the story to communicate that the “same” person/soul/entity is being shown in different times/worlds/reincarnations. using korean actors for the korea parts JUST so they can be politically correct would be detrimental to the integrity of the story, and filmmakers are story tellers, not diplomats.

      2. Just a random question: Assuming Sturgess’s part would’ve been given to, as you have put it, an “under represented Asian actor”, would you have a problem then if this actor’s features were altered so he would fit into all of Sturgess’s other roles? Or would that be an “ethically correct” move on behalf of the directors?

    2. Let’s be very clear, “pp,” you apparently missed the point of the entire article. If the movie does in fact transcend race/gender, than WHY wouldn’t they hire one of the many underrepresented Asian actors to play these characters who happen to at one point or another be Asian?

      Stop trying to dismiss this as a non-issue.

      1. If you want to have a conversation about the lack of Asian actors in film(which I find deplorable), then we can have that conversation. I wouldn’t use that argument for Cloud Atlas–it’s just not going to get you anywhere with me, especially since I’ve seen the film, and I’m attending another screening at the studio this week.

        Those actors are playing essentially reincarnations of a soul throughout time…it’s part of the film’s story that Jim Sturgess is Korean, and it’s the filmmakers who want you to know off the bat that it’s JIM STURGESS not John Cho (whom I love).
        Then it’s your job as the film-goer to connect why/how he’s there and whom he’s connected to and how he ends up. More surrounds these incarnations than meets the eye.

        He’s not playing Korean for no reason nor is he or the filmmakers trying to tell the film-goer what it’s like to be Korean/Asian. That’s the truth. Halle Berry, David Keith, Jim Broadbent and others play Korean for a reason as well. It’s not because the filmmakers just didn’t want to hire Asian actors, which they fact did anyway.

        Is the issue just because they didn’t hire one Asian MALE in the main cast? Because from what I saw, I noticed a Asian dominated storyline and a couple of good Asian actors (Doona Bae is a focal point of the whole film fyi) who were seen throughout the film in various incarnations as their white counterparts.

        Nevertheless, if you decide to see the film, it will become clear to you as to why Jim Sturgess ended up Korean and it’s not purely because he’s Doona Bae’s love interest. Trust me on that.

  4. If an actor must change his or her appearance to portray another race, then it’s worth asking why that actor is playing a character of another race. Regarding the comment about whether European Shakespearean parts should be played by non-white actors, that’s a different point. Colorblind casting aims to ignore race, but Cloud Atlas seems to want to present specific images of race and have those images portrayed by actors not of that race despite the legacy of blackface and yellowface in film. Of course Cloud Atlas is not trying to be a minstrel show, and that isn’t the argument in this piece. Racebending does exist in a cinematic tradition that has some ugly and racist elements, however, and we need to talk about these issues. We can like an artwork while recognizing that it is problematic. We should not sweep these issues under the rug, and I think that is a point Zeba has made very well here.

    1. Sturgess played an Asian and Doona and Berry played whites because it is necessary. A black actor may be cast to put a spin on a Shakespearean role or because he is the best forthe role. A black Romeo and a White Juliet, I don’t care, its the story that matters. The Cloud Atlas story is people linked throughout the ages, how does the viewer see the connections between the protagonists without seeing the same people playing them? That’s one reason. The only reason that matters… If Sturgess was the lawyer and some other guy was the Korean in love with Doona, then someone else would have to play the lawyer’s wife. How else can they effectively portray the connection between Doona and Sturges without using them in those different settings? And maybe some dumb people are upset about the white face, but they’re dumb. So are people upset about this. This isn’t Mr. Moto or Sambo…

  5. I don’t think this was colorblind at all. Colorblind casting is where we get shows (albeit not artistically good shows) like Grey’s Anatomy. (I’m a com arts geek, not a fan of the show, so this is mostly book information about how it plays out.) In that show, you have prominent and well-liked roles played by actors of many different races. And apparently the lead was intended for a man, but was cast as a woman after auditions. That is colorblind (and gender-blind) casting, when people have an opportunity to play the roles that they are best suited for, regardless of race, nationality, or gender. Truly colorblind casting would have opened up doors for many actors, and would have been creative and exciting. Maybe we would have seen some of the major stars of Korean cinema, which would have been a thrilling opportunity in a Hollywood film. This is just appropriating the word as an excuse for whitewashing and casting the same actors that predominate many Hollywood movies. Also… they just look creepy. They don’t look Asian at all. I don’t know what they do look like. It’s just ugly, almost nightmare-inducing. At least in the horrible, horrible Last Airbender movie they didn’t try to make their whitewashed leads look Asian and Inuit. That’s probably the first and last time I’ll ever say anything good about that movie, though.

    1. I thought colorblind casting is why some are upset and crying racism? Also, how can you make the claim of whitewashing? Nearly half the main cast are People of Color and a lot of them are playing characters that are white in the book, especially by the Asian actors who were cast in the film. Jim Sturgess’ character wasn’t changed to white, either–he remains Korean. If the filmmakers were true dicks and were unmovable in casting Sturgess, they could have easily have just removed the fact that he was Korean and just had him play a white guy (which Hollywood is notorious for, especially considering the Korean segment takes place in a mixed-race 22nd Century) but I think people would have been mad at that instead.

      When you have Doona Bae, Zun Zhou and Halle Berry playing white, Latino, and in Berry’s case a Korean man as well, don’t you think that is considered colorblind casting? Jim Sturgess, Jim Broadbent and David Keith (who’s black btw) playing Korean? Jim Broadbent playing a person of color? The filmmakers thought enough of those actors regardless of their born ethnicity or born gender and had them play people who are completely outside their racial/gender wheelhouse. Why? The story in part, yes, but also because they’re great actors. All these people are considered true talents of their craft and not just in Hollywood.

      They could have easily have just cast Doona in the Korea section and be done, but they hired her and all the other actors of color to play up to 5 or 6 parts.

      Nevertheless, I can understand a complaint about the make-up, I think the filmmakers on the one hand wanted you to know it’s Jim Sturgess or Doona or David, but on the other wanted you to know that they were of another ethnicity as well; not just a white guy, an Asian woman or a black woman in a time period he/she “wouldn’t” be in. For that reason alone, the make-up didn’t bother me. However, when you’re trying to do both–it can equal a potentially strange looking result that might bother some people. I get that. However, I don’t think the filmmakers saw Jim Sturgess and went, “this is what Asians look like.” Besides, like I said in a previous post–since Jim Strugess, Hugo Weaving and others are in the other stories, there are specific reasons why they’re in the Korean section in those particular parts. They’re not playing random Koreans.

      I got what they were trying to achieve and it worked.

      Also–I have to keep stressing this: Cloud Atlas is not a Hollywood film. Hollywood didn’t fund this film–Warner Bros. only agreed to distribute it once it was completed, and some people are arguing that they’re not even doing a great job at that. The funding for this film came from Asian and German investors and from The Wachowskis own money.

      Now, this isn’t directed at you, but I really do wish some people would just admit there’s
      disappointment because for once there was an opportunity to use an Asian actor in a film with a action subtext AND a love interest in a supposed Hollywood film and a series of creative (not racist) decisions burned that hope out. I think that
      is the crux of the complaint with Cloud Atlas but most seem hell bent on screaming yellowface and racism and I’m not sure what one expects to accomplish by doing that. Holding one movie and three filmmakers responsible for the egregious actions of an entire industry just doesn’t make sense, especially after seeing the film and how diverse the cast is.

      Also, no one seems bothered that Halle Berry and David Keith are playing Koreans. No one seems to be upset that Doona Bae plays a Latina woman. It’s essentially the Jim Sturgess and Hugo Weaving parts. The male parts. Asian men
      are underrepresented even more than black men in films. And it’s a legitimate concern that never see that–I’m so on board with that. But this tone (some are right out saying it) that the filmmakers intentionally
      kept Asian men out of the casting process and just plain didn’t want to
      hire one at all is wrong and bizarre.

      People seem to either conveniently forget or are blithely unaware that actors are paid to be people they are not–even across racial and gender lines. It’s very common.

      1. Well said–I couldn’t agree more with the fact that the negative press comes from people with an agenda or axe to grind–this film, which I’ve seen twice now, and am about to read the book; is just brilliant story-telling and if you are hung up on all the today’s society political correct violations, then you’ve missed the heart of this movie’s premise.

  6. I agree completely with this article. It is a rather mindlessly literal decision that having the same actors portray the same soul and the promotion of this type of “stunt” racism in casting decisions is incredibly problematic.

  7. A very thought-provoking article, Zeba. Having read
    the other comments (of which there are surprisingly few), I feel like an
    important element mentioned in your article has been overlooked. The execution
    of the reincarnation is questionable. pp mentioned that this continuity was
    represented with the familiarity of the actor’s features. From what I
    understand, this is the justifying argument for not using actors representative
    of each race. Zeba, you make a poignant statement, “It’s a problematic message, one that sells the
    intelligence of the audience short”. The directors have
    exploited a theme to utter superficiality—with the Matrix duo, this is hardly
    surprising. We are spoon-fed the theme of reincarnation, and given a few
    appetizers, with not much chance to discover anything else. This not only sells
    the intelligence of the audience short, it sells out sensitive themes. Of
    course, being the movie industry, this is natural, but to what degree? Why not
    whack us a little harder over the head with pan, while they’re at it? Did they
    lack the creativity needed to depict the essence of reincarnation with international
    actors? I have a steadfast suspicion that they simply jumped at the concept
    without putting much thought into it. How this concerns actors of different
    nationalities is rather important. Another great point was made by Liz,
    concerning the limitations placed upon an actor. How can we determine an
    acceptable standard for actors who are not of a given race? How specific do we
    have to get? If it is acceptable in one direction, what do we do in the other? A
    lot of questions… On the other hand, is it not possible to re-examine the role
    of “place” in a film? We can easily identify with a place, given cues that it
    is “South Korea”, or “Peru”, or “Australia”, or “Mars” for crying out loud. I
    think more films in the future should explore conceptual space, as opposed to
    the physical, geopolitical. Given the ever-increasing multiculturalism and
    blurring lines between race and colour, there may be more relevance invested in
    exploring the human condition in a truly universal way. To remove the
    conditions implied with an identifiable place (and consequently, race), is something
    that could challenge and stimulate audiences much more than plastering actors
    into superficial roles and claiming innovation while stomping over old ground.
    Again, a really enjoyable article by Zeba, and the comments likewise!

  8. Are those promotional stills for real? I was on the fence about how I felt about this movie, but one look at the makeup on these actors and it’s “yellowface”. They all have identical eyes, because aparently there’s no diversity in the features of East Asians. At the very least, someone of EA background should have been around giving inout on how to do this so it works. The fact that there wasn’t is what makes this a case of yellowface.

  9. I have yet to see the movie but read the book and have closely followed every article, interview, and trailer that I could find about the film. I will definitely be seeing it on day one.

    I find it hard to imagine that the Wachowskis did not think deeply about the casting issue. The Matrix movies were extremely bold in crossing racial and cultural lines in terms of casting, characters, fashion and world-building. Cornell West was a councillor of Zion, for example. And one has to speculate that Lana Wachowski’s journey of personal self-discovery only amplified their already keen awareness of identity and how it is perceived by others. It is likely that the Wachowskis simply felt this approach best fulfilled their artistic goals. Perhaps they failed. That is for each viewer to decide. But it is a stretch to brand the whole movie — and by extension its creators — as racist.

    Zeba expresses dismay and puzzlement as to why critics haven’t voiced the same concerns over the casting and character makeup/effects. It is much more likely that instead of being “complicit” in this imagined racism, the vast majority of critics simply feel the movie transcends race through its scope and ambition.

    1. Just saw the movie last night and can confirm my conjecture that the film transcends race. Yes, several white actors portray Koreans in the future. But consider also (SPOILERS AHEAD):

      –Black actors portray white, Korean, and Polynesian characters
      –Korean and Chinese actors portray white and Mexican characters
      –Male actors portray female characters
      –Female characters portray male characters
      –In the earliest timeline, the main character becomes an Abolitionist
      –In the far-future timeline, the Prescients who save humanity are depicted largely as people of color

      It does a great disservice to this film and its creators to judge the entire endeavor as “racist” based on some publicity stills and a handful of negative reviews. To view the film through the lens of race is like viewing the Grand Canyon through a peephole. Do yourself a favor and see this film and judge for yourself.

      1. Wonder what is meant by ‘people of color’? I hate that phrase and different people use it to mean different things. Some people just use it to mean black, but in my opinion the entire purpose of it is the exclusion of whites & apparently we have ‘no color’ at all.

  10. Maybe no one is commenting due to the article’s over-development. While racism should not be dismissed in any way, this specific attempt to uncover blatant racism in movies comes across as a conflicted and somewhat forced issue.

  11. We don’t use CGI to make young characters look old in most films, viewers aren’t idiots we can figure out that this is such and such character twenty years later. In the book the characters had a birth mark. Thats straightforward, simple and easy to follow. Lots of effort was used to make the non white characters lOok white. every detail was assessed. The effect still sucked but the point is not nearly as much effort was made the other way around. I do understand what they were trying to do but there were much better ways to do it. I personally love the movie seventeen again and zac efron and matthew perry dont even have the same color eyes, but you dont really question it or even notice the first time you see the film because its the way they portray the character that shows the connection. I am asian in looks only. I was adopted as a baby by white parents and have lived my entire life in an essentially completly white community. I am american and nothing more. I dont consider myself asian, but i still feel bad for the asian community when a movie like this basically says all it takes to be asian is some black hair and almonf shaped eyes. The reverse of that is that to be white means to be blonde with blue eyes…..sound familiar? It didnt work out so well for Hitler. Just saying

  12. Given that the soul played by Jim Sturgess (as well as all the other male souls) had more white European incarnations than Asian –[ only one Asian incarnation for Sturgess as the Neo Seoul resistance fighter] — it would be much more sensible to hire a white European actor, rather than an Asian actor who would have to use heavier prosthetic makeup to look European in THREE other incarnations. Sturgess does look ridiculous as an Asian, but this happens only once, whereas the limitations of makeup would make an Asian actor look ridiculous or at the very least, stunted THREE times, which would totally distract from the whole movie. [The female Asian actors did look somewhat wooden in their white roles, but these were fortunately short one.] It was necessary to make the Asian makeup look bad enough to still allow the audience to recognize that this was the same soul as the lawyer in an earlier life. This makes it possible to look past the race to apprehend him as a soul that continues to liberate the oppressed and helps his soulmate (who was his white European wife in another life) to do the same. It took me a while to recognize Sixmith’s soul in the Korean interrogator, but the editing towards the end made this more recognizable. I think that the makeup for the wife of Cavendish’s brother was too good – Winshaw really looked like a woman — that I missed her as the gay composer’s incarnation. Seeing the movie a second time, I got to see the karma behind this incarnation — the old composer rebuffs the younger gay composer, who (of course) comes back as a woman to have an affair with him in the next life. I also am hard pressed to think of an Asian actor who could pull off a period European role, much less three European roles in one movie. If the book or story included a soul with three Asian incarnations and only one white European incarnation, then for this they definitely would have to use an Asian actor; to do otherwise would be clear racism and box office disaster. As an Asian from Asia, and very appreciative of the reincarnation motif, I very much enjoyed this movie: I quickly saw the rationale for the strange Asian makeup and had no problem with the casting of this movie. I will agree that the makeup in general could have been better, and that includes makeup on the aged white males. The movie was a daring endeavour, and no doubt, a remake 20 years hence might bring some improvements in this area.

  13. Just watched this film last night and loved it…

    Look- This film’s content chafed an exposed nerve in the Asian American community, but that was BEFORE the film was actually released… this was a criticism initially based on a two minute teaser of the feature film…

    I must say, it is quite painful to at this time, be reading a criticism of a film that is so clearly based on the unity of the human experience and the elevation of the individual, the self, the soul, above physical or social constrains.

    Twisted, it seems somewhat cynically, into the racist idea that:

    “What they are really saying is that our souls have everything to do with the way we look.”.

    However, the author, rather than pointing out why exactly he/she feels that this film elevates flesh above spirit, seems to only self-incriminate, repeating that yellow-on-white face is disgusting and insensitive, because whites are “dominant,” and no, society is not post-racial, and that art which IS POST-RACIAL, is not only off in Care-A-Lot, but is in fact, RACIST.


    Zeba, what are you saying exactly? Is this film racist, or is it just too unsophisticated in its view of the eternally pre and post-racial Human Soul?

    The bottom line is this, why in sweet sanity would this film’s directors hire DIFFERENT actors to play the same soul in various incarnations? Its just not rational. Not only would the audience have NO CHANCE of ever ever recognizing character’s essential identities-

    You would essentially be hiring two different souls to play one soul! And why?.. Because according to you, a soul in a white body cannot play a soul in a black body. (See your initial quote. Its ironic).

    Another thing to keep in mind is that each character has a main turn, and a few supporting turns in this film. In EACH CASE, the actor matches races with his/her character during their main turn, and puts on the raceface for each of his/her supporting turns.

  14. I don’t think someone who didn’t see the movie and read the books has the right to say it was rasist. Because Cloud Atlas was ANTI-racist, and if you look only on the cast and miss the plot and the idea of the movie, you are pretty ignorant. The cast was been chosen that way on purpose: the idea of reincarnation and connected lifes played a big role. It did not make any sense to hire different actors each time: it just caused irritation among the viewers.

    Casting the same actors as the reincarnated souls is a great idea and it underlined the motto ‘Everything is connected’. People concentrating only on casting search for reasons to call it rasist where aren’t any.

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