Friday, October 26, 2012

Cloud Atlas Shrugged

This Monday evening I took advantage of a bookseller perk and saw the film Cloud Atlas as a preview before its wide release. I was looking forward to it. From the trailer I could tell it would be visually stunning even if whoever puts together the trailer ruined the point of the book in 30 seconds flat. But I really enjoyed reading the book and I like adaptations, so. Excitement.

I enjoyed the film in many respects, but found myself really bothered afterward by the use of yellowface in the film. I know the internet is blowing up with backing-and-forthing on account of it, and I'll let the critics speak for themselves. There is a really lucid argument by Mike Le over at the blog Racebending, and the Wachowskis speak for themselves in this NYT write-up.

In the world of cinema, I believe it is unforgivable for producers to ascribe roles meant for people of color to white people, agreeing with Le as he says, "we see that white creators and performers are permitted to determine what it means to be Asian." It takes power from a race to tell its own story. From the other side of the argument, the Wachowskis seem to intend a universalizing image of humanity that transcends race. Avoiding the intentional fallacy, all we're left with is what this film portrays. In Cloud Atlas, different actors of different races and genders portray many races (and other genders) throughout. Regardless of intent, novelist David Mitchell got across the theme of human connectivity using motifs of music and symbols purely, and not by addressing race in such blatant terms. The filmmakers could have employed these methods, and they did, but took the theme of connection and transcendence of time and place a step further by altering the race of actors.

Was race-altering necessary to tell this story? Or was it a lazy way of filmmaking that allowed for an ensemble cast without giving the audience any credit for the ability to follow multiple related plot-lines at once? In (perhaps) defense of the filmmakers, it wasn't just yellowface that they employed: as I mentioned above actors of many races were made up to portray characters of many more races. So perhaps, since the effect is not racially one-sided, it is clear to see that there is more below the surface. I definitely think the film is the sort of thing that people should see for themselves and open up to conversation about.

But all this makes me wonder: what experience is off limits to filmmakers and authors? Can a white author write another racial experience? Male and female authors can write the other gender with deftness at times (Jeffrey Eugenides and Virginia Woolf come to mind), but what about race? Can art be a vehicle for inhabiting another's skin, truly? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

No comments: