• February 27, 2015

Iowa State Daily

Stoffa: 'Cloud Atlas' is not really racist

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Posted: Tuesday, November 6, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 3:38 pm, Sat Dec 22, 2012.

Is it racist for a white man to portray another race in a movie nowadays?

Despite the wonderful story offered in "Cloud Atlas," the movie is being hit with mixed reviews; unsurprising given the fickle nature of critics. But some people of Asian descent are also none too happy with the film; specifically that white actors in the film were given Asian features for roles, and Korean accents when speaking English rather than speaking Korean.

In days gone by, Hollywood often used fairly demeaning makeup to put white movie stars into the shoes of Asian, black or other ethnicities. The reason? Well, most likely it was because most of the movies were catering to white folk that wanted white actors in the leading role.

Then you have the awful character stereotypes. Charlton Heston was supposed to be a Mexican in "Touch of Evil" because he had a tan and a thin mustache. Mickey Rooney as the Japanese neighbor in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" was beyond over-the-top. There are hundreds of other examples, both in hit movies and little-known blaxploitation flicks.

What it comes down to is racism exists for some people whether intended or not. Not intending racism doesn't make it any less racist when the racism is due to extreme ignorance.

But when are cries of "racist" really just lingering effects from past instances of real hate? When is "racist" really just light stereotyping because such generalizations tend to apply?

"Cloud Atlas" has two prominent white actors, Hugo Weaving and Jim Sturgess, don makeup to give them slanted eyes and other more Asian features to portray one of the six roles each actor plays in the movie. The plot takes all the characters through points in history as their various incarnations interact with each other to play out an epic story of love, violence and insight into the human condition.

This isn't the first time actors have switched races in the new millenium. To some, Sacha Baron Cohen was insulting and racist in "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan" and "The Dictator." I tend to give satire a pass for a lot of things because often-times the message is the opposite of the image presented.

But what about when it isn't satire? An actor's job is to play a character. In most instances, a director will cast someone that best portrays a role, both in mannerisms and appearance. But sometimes, as in the instance of "Cloud Atlas," actors play multiple roles.

Yes, the directors could have cast Korean men in the roles, but what would that change? Then two Korean men would be giving a "racist" performance.

Doona Bae is a Korean star in the film and plays a white American girl, while Halle Berry is a black star in the film and plays a white German Jew. Apart from some nasty racist folks out there with KKK mentalities, there is little complaint for what could be described as "white racism."

The directors did not intend for a racist performance, nor does the movie give off a racist tone. The purported "racism" is no worse than when in the movie one of Weaving's characters is a woman instead of a man. I don't see women up in arms about that being sexist.

What is going on is some people look for racism because they are themselves a racist to a degree they might not even recognize. The trick is knowing the difference between when someone thinks a race is superior and is being hateful, and when the simple use of bland stereotyping is involved in a thought process.

As "Avenue Q" pointed out: "Everyone's a little bit racist, sometimes." The way we stop real racism isn't by bitching about a movie that is obviously not remotely about being hateful and instead go to change the minds of people that legitimately hate.

"Cloud Atlas" and its actors are no more contributing to people thinking of Asians as less important than whites, as Shawn and Marlon Wayans were of contributing to blacks being more important than whites when they played exaggeratedly alabaster gals in "White Chicks." No race is more important than any other, these are fictional characters in fictional worlds meant to be viewed to escape from reality for a while.

There could have been more work to integrate the Korean language into the dialogue, but studies show subtitles are disliked by most movie-goers. The makeup could have been improved, so certainly call some of the folks working on "Cloud Atlas" imperfect or even a little lazy. But that is not racist.

Perpetuating a stereotype might not be ideal, but it is not racist, and it is how people think; this is not an ideal world. Stereotyping isn't going away any time soon because people look different, and people from different areas of the world act differently.

Until all people from across the globe have mingled enough to have little variation in skin tone, speech or social attributes — and let me tell you Bubba, that ain't happenin' — stereotyping will be a normal and not unhealthy mental function for folks when attempting to assimilate the events of the world.

I really do not know why there are so many white actors that are highly successful compared to lesser-known but possibly as talented nonwhite actors. Sure it could all be a racist conspiracy, or maybe the simple truth could be the world really likes paying to see certain actors, and many of those actors happen to be white. It is a slippery-slope discussion. But I'm thinking it boils down to simple marketing appeal and the ways of capitalism.

I am going to be told I am wrong, of that I have little doubt. People want to believe only what they want to believe no matter how much you make logical arguments to consider the options; some people just prefer to only hear their own voice.

But for the rest of people willing to listen, don't pigeonhole "Cloud Atlas," or any other movie, just because it has some risque material. Look at the message of a film to determine if it is hateful.

The message I took away from the movie is that race and background do not matter, that we are all connected and lead lives entwined throughout time, for better and worse.

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