Cloud Atlas presents race as a non-issue

I should be writing about horror movies today, but there’s something more pressing going on in the film world than ghouls and ghosts and paranormal activity. The role of race and identity in Cloud Atlas takes precedence.

Stay with me — I know this sounds like a communication/film term paper, but race has long been a point of controversy in film and remains worthy of discussion.

Tow Tykwer, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski worked as the writers, directors and producers on the film, which is based on David Mitchell’s novel of the same name. In the wake of filmmaker Lana — formerly Larry — coming forward as a transgender in late July with a promotional video for the film, identity has become a major point of discussion in relation to the movie and, in turn, informs the way we should view the film.

Cloud Atlas follows six narratives (with many actors playing six to seven roles) that illuminate how our actions affect the past, present and future. It’s a story that transcends time and shows how a soul is shaped from a killer to a hero, and how an act of kindness goes on to inspire a revolution over the course of many years.

A film with multiple storylines that crosses generational boundaries sounds complex as-is, but almost every character switches their race, age and sometimes gender, making the film controversial as it plays with these themes to make a greater point about modern perceptions of identity. The film has received a downpour of backlash as a result.

Specifically, the Media Action Network for Asian Americans recently responded to the portrayal of Asian-Americans in Cloud Atlas.

“Cloud Atlas missed a great opportunity,” said MANAA’s founding President Guy Aoki in an interview with Asian Week. “The Korea story’s protagonist is an Asian man — an action hero who defies the odds and holds off armies of attackers. He’s the one who liberates Doona Bae from her repressive life and encourages her to join the resistance against the government. It would have been a great, stereotype-busting role for an Asian-American actor to play, as Asian-American men aren’t allowed to be dynamic or heroic very often.”

Aoki goes on to attack the casting of Jim Sturgess in “yellowface.”

MANAA isn’t wrong. The film undeniably lacks the presence of leading Asian men. But though this is true, the ultimate goal of the movie is to make a greater point about race and identity, not to reinforce racism. Almost every actor plays a different race to show how a soul evolves over time, not to offend audiences with (what some might call) poorly rendered makeup.

This is not a film about race, but it touches on racial constructions and ideologies to make a point about how the soul of the person transcends time, going beyond physical limitations.

White actor Jim Sturgess transforms from an American businessman (who helps a black slave earn his freedom) traveling through the South Pacific to a Korean revolutionary (who frees clone Somni-451 so she can go on to become the leader of the revolution) in a futuristic Neo-Seoul set in the year 2144.

When the viewer sees this they are supposed to think about the person his character is and how that character develops over time, rather than his superficial, physical attributes in each individual time period.

The same goes for Asian actress Doona Bae, who plays a Korean revolutionary, a white wife and a Latina factory worker, among many other roles; and black actress Halle Berry, who takes on the roles of a German-Jewish wife, a black journalist and an old Asian doctor, to name a few.

There’s no denying that Hollywood is dominated by white leading men and that there is a clear lack of representation of minorities in leading roles. Though I agree with MANAA, in that there could have been more Asian men cast in lead roles, by singling out an issue with casting decisions, we are missing the greater point of the movie.

Looking at this film through a narrow lens only blinds audiences from seeing the ultimate message: We are defined by our souls, not physical attributes.

Accordingly, the film plays with the notion of switching races so that we really notice it and see how it works to make a greater statement about identity. It does not reinforce racist tropes but rather challenges them.

By having the same actors play many races, ages and genders, we see their transformation; we recognize the actors in each era so we can track how their soul transcends time.

Viewers need to focus less on how race works in Cloud Atlas and look at the film as a whole to fully understand its message. There are simply too many messages in each subplot alone to focus on these specific details. And when we focus so intensely on superficial elements, our analysis of the film in turn becomes superficial.

So, yes, MANAA stands correct to a certain degree. White men are significantly more represented than Asian men in Cloud Atlas, but the film is not racist. We need to think big picture, and the big picture is: Who we are is defined by the person inside;  physical attributes are irrelevant.


C. Molly Smith is a junior majoring in communication. Her column “Keepin’ it Reel” runs Wednesdays.

3 replies
  1. shush
    shush says:

    if it is not about race then how many of the white guys played black characters? I mean obviously there had to a few if race was truly something they did not care about. so how many

  2. g1i1ch
    g1i1ch says:

    What about the Korean leading lady? Does she not exist? Her role is one of the biggest roles of the movie, without her the whole story falls apart. She’s even worshiped as a god in the post apocalyptic story. Her character could be the most important within the whole story and has a presence even into the next story.

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