When I first read about actor Jim Sturgess playing “yellowface” in the film, “Cloud Atlas,” I was reminded of something that happened my freshman year in college. I’d signed up for two theater electives, one was “The History of Film,” the other, “Theatrical Make Up.” I was very excited because both classes were being taught by a professor, Harvey Flaxman, who had important commercial credits as the writer and producer of the cult classic film, “Grizzly.”
In THoF class I was shocked to learn that old Hollywood used American or British actors to play all Asian parts in all films by making them up in “yellowface.” In the TMU class I learned how they did this in films. I won’t go into detail about this because I find it too insulting. And I have to admit that I was just as shocked to read recently that actor Jim Sturgess was playing a scene in yellowface in the film “Cloud Atlas.”
To be fair, there’s more to the story. “Cloud Atlas” is a film based on a novel by, David Mitchell, and it’s considered one of the most expensive, ambitious indie films ever produced. From what I gather, it’s a sci-fi genre film that covers various time periods, including scenes in the future. I also gather that Jim Sturgess plays multiple parts in the film and the yellowface scenes take place in a futuristic society. According to wiki:
The actors who were “made to appear Asian” play members of a new ethnicity in the future, referred to as the “pure breds,” and were not necessarily supposed to resemble real Asian people.
But they still made them up in yellowface. The Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) came out in protest and they only watched the trailer. The Vice-President of MANAA came out with this statement:
“If, in the making of this complex movie, the creators of Cloud Atlas can make creative leaps in time, place, characters, race and gender, why can’t they also take a creative leap in the casting?”
Frankly, I agree with this. It could have been done. As a fiction writer I know for a fact that anything can be done if it’s done right. And yet the producers of this film decided to use yellowface instead. Can you imagine how the film “The Help” would have been received if they’d used white actors in blackface to play African American characters? So I don’t see why Asian Americans didn’t get the same consideration with “Cloud Atlas.” As a side note, one I think is important acknowledge, two of Hollywood’s most liberal big mouths of all time, Tom Hanks and Susan Sarandon, star in this film with Sturgess. I didn’t hear THEM coming out in protest about the yellowface insult to Asian Americans. So I think that shows another example of celebrity fail, how insincere these celebrities really are, and it reinforces that my favorite scene of all time with big mouth Susan Sarandon was in the TV show, “The Big C,” where she got whacked by a bus and flattened like a pancake…pardon the bad simile.
Even more interesting was the way actor Jim Sturgess responded on Twitter. According to an article in Racebending.com titled, “Jim Sturgess is a Tool,” Sturgess said this:
In that same article it says this:
Jim could be a perfectly nice guy. He could be kind to his friends, he probably loves his family. He probably makes other jokes that people think are funny and don’t hurt anyone at all.
But he’s a tool in a direct sense, because through some combination of talent, hard work, and luck, he has become the go-to Hollywood guy to play Asian men. Before someone thinks to call John Cho, Dante Basco, Kunal Nayyar, or Archie Kao, Jim gets the first speed dial. Whether it’s replacing a real-life Asian American with a white guy or showing that Asian folks are really just reincarnated white dudes with awful prosthetic slant-eyes, Sturgess is your man.
I recommend reading the entire article in full. A few other insulted bloggers talked about it, and if you search for it you’ll find a few things, but the film was released and it all died down fast. And millions of Asian Americans were not only insulted, but dismissed and ignored. I have to admit that I really tried to remain objective while writing this post, but as you can see that’s not possible. I still can’t help remembering how sick I felt when I found out as a freshman in college that’s what Hollywood was doing to Asian Americans way back then.
It also reminds me of the way LGBT Americans are portrayed in films and on television. It seems that for some reason the most liberal of them all wind up insulting all people LGBT at one time or another. And let’s face it, we all know there’s nothing some people won’t do for a buck. At this point in my life, there isn’t enough money anyone could pay me to play yellowface, blackface, pinkface or even fucking pinkberry…I’m still trying to figure out what brand of WTF-ery Sturgess is talking about in that tweet…but it’s evident Sturgess didn’t feel the same way I do and he took his money and ran.
I actually wouldn’t be surprised to see a gay themed film with Jim Sturgess playing an offensive gay stereotype. I’m sure if they paid him enough he’d jump at the chance. I’m also sure he’d let the world know he’s NOT gay, and he would be vocal about it. They all do that. For that matter, Sarandon might do it too, because this film, “Cloud Atlas,” seems to be associated with insults to everyone. Another actor in “Coud Atlas,” Ben Whishaw, who plays a bisexual in the film states this in wiki:
Whishaw guards his personal life, having stated: “As an actor, you have total rights to privacy and mystery, whatever your sexuality, whatever you do. I don’t see why that has to be something you discuss openly because you do something in the public eye. I have no understanding of why we turn actors into celebrities.”
So here’s more WTF-ery coming from an entitled actor. And I don’t agree with him at all. As an actor you choose to become a public figure and when you do that it’s a conscious choice and you lose the same privacy and mystery people who are not in the public eye have. Plain and simple. Being that Mr. Whishaw has no understanding of this I figured I’d clear things up for him. And not all actors are in the public eye. Most are either struggling to get by on the road, or they can’t make a living as an actor at all. It’s a trade off, like everything else in life. You get to make a lot of money and get a lot of attention but you have to sacrifice certain things to do that. But I think what really bothers me the most about Whishaw’s comment is that like so many other self-loathing people who could make a difference, he chooses to ignore his sexuality altogether. And I don’t think being gay is just about sex, far from it. I think being gay encompasses a lot more than that. If Mr. Whishaw is gay and he’s not willing to admit it I can’t help feeling he might think there’s something wrong with being openly gay and out in public. I can understand going blank and not saying anything. I do believe coming out is a personal choice and no one should be forced into it. But saying stupid things like what Whishaw said makes the rest of us look as if we’re doing something wrong because we are open about being gay. And I don’t like that, Mr. Whishaw.
I don’t want to get into the issues revolving around gay actors playing straight parts and straight actors playing gay parts. I’m not even sure how I feel about that right now, and that would be another long post. Sometimes I think this falls into the category of it all depends on how it’s done. I do think Matt Bomer would be a great Christian Grey if he was offered the part (which I don’t think will happen). But in the same respect, when “Brokeback Mountain” was released I felt insulted that two straight men were chosen to play the leads. And that’s because it always seems to be the way it goes all the time. And then you have to listen to them tell the world they aren’t gay when they hit the talk show circuit…blah, blah, blah. I often wonder how many openly gay men audition for these parts and are turned down.
But I don’t think the issue about yellowface is all that complicated. Just don’t do it and the problem goes away. Just hire Asian actors to play Asian parts the same way they hire African Americans to play African American parts and that would put an end to one more thing that insults, sensationalizes, and diminishes people. There’s also something called Artistic License that could have been used in “Cloud Atlas” and yellowface could have been avoided altogether.