The filmmakers labor under the misapprehension that their work resides in some sort of vacuum, free of wider cultural context, or in that unicorn domain known as the “post-racial” society. This blissfully naïve understanding proceeds from the dominant point-of-view, the white point-of-view.
It is, I think, significant to note that in addition to racebending, the filmmakers also take the liberty of including genderbending: Weaving, in one storyline, plays the terrifying head nurse of a retirement home. For some, perhaps, the token whitewashing of Berry and Doona and the instances of gender fluidity justify the otherwise disturbing treatment of ethnicity. These flourishes of “blind casting” are, after all, what some champions of Cloud Atlas have praised. Variety described the notion of white actors playing Asians as “exciting,” suggesting that the Wachowskis “put the lie to the notion that casting — an inherently discriminatory art — cannot be adapted to a more enlightened standard of performance over mere appearance.” The irony of this declaration is overwhelming — praising a film for “enlightened” casting choices that merely replay old discriminatory practices.
The main issue here isn’t whether or not Cloud Atlas is a good movie; it certainly is. Nor is the question whether Cloud Atlas is a racist movie; it certainly is. The issue, really, is why the overall reaction has lacked any real discussion of the implications of its “colorblind” approach. Movie review aggregates like Metacritic show that even the mixed or negative reviews fail to apply critical pressure to its casting choices. Instead, critics showering early praise on Cloud Atlas are overly enamored with the film’s visual and thematic scope, relishing its “jaw dropping ambition” and lauding how “stunningly beautiful” it is; in this, they are complicit in normalizing the movie’s racism.
Reading all this (do read the full post for more background), I don’t understand why the film makers chose to depart so very far from the original concept of the book – Mitchell’s one character in six incarnations becomes six characters interacting through those six incarnations. Sure, it gives all those A-list actors the chance to play 6 different characters in one film, but that’s just cinematic pyrotechnics that shouldn’t be fundamental to telling the story, surely? If the Wachowskis et al had stuck with the original concept they could have had six actors of various races and genders playing that one character and there wouldn’t have been any need for any identity-bending at all.
Image Credit for index/archive thumbnail: the soundtrack cover for Cloud Atlas (from promotional material)