Yellowface in Cloud Atlas


In October of last year, a film called Cloud Atlas was released. The film takes place over several centuries and uses the same actors to play different characters in different time periods. This often involved actors portraying characters of different races, most notably White actors portraying Asian characters in the futuristic Neo-Seoul storyline. This modern example of yellowface angered many Asian advocacy groups like MANAA. The filmmakers argue that it was necessary to express the film’s theme of souls being reincarnated into new bodies, and point out that the film also used makeup to make Asian actors look White. However, MANAA claims that double standards were used in this process. According to an article in the Huffington Post, the president of MANAA Guy Aoki claimed that while putting actors in yellowface, the make-up artists simply changed the shape of the actors’ eyes, which is much less work than was put into making other actors look white. Aoki went on to say that “The message the movie sends is, it takes a lot of work to get Asians to look Caucasian, but you can easily turn Caucasians into Asians by just changing the shape of their eyes”. Despite the fact that the filmmakers claim it was absolutely necessary for the film’s plot, Aoki points out that the storyline involving slavery used only black actors as slaves. Referring to Gyasi, the film’s most prominent black slave, Aoki asks “You have to ask yourself: Would the directors have used blackface on a white actor to play Gyasi’s role? … I don’t think so: That would have outraged African American viewers.  But badly done yellowface is still OK”.

Having seen the movie, I have to agree with Aoki. I do see where the filmmakers are coming from when they try to argue that yellowface was necessary to the plot, but they knew better than to put a white man in blackface, so why is it ok to put white actors (and even a black actor) into yellowface? The roles were certainly not negative like Fu Manchu or Mickey Rooney’s role in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but as Aoki points out, there’s really a missed opportunity here of having a positive Asian action hero. The makeup was pretty unconvincing, as I was always aware that I was not watching an Asian actor (except for Doona Bae, who actually is Korean), but at other parts of the movie it took me a while to realize that I was looking at a non-white actor play a white character. I find it unsettling that as recent as 4 months ago, a film was released with actors in yellowface, with such little controversy.



One thought on “Yellowface in Cloud Atlas

  1. Connor–Great summary and reaction from your own viewing. How might this instance reflect more of the concepts we’ve discussed in class (e.g., controlling images of model minorities?).

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