Friday, July 12, 2013


Cloud Atlas is an interesting case - Not since Michael Mann's Public Enemies have I seen a movie get so much hype and then suddenly disappear in to thin air as if it never happened upon its release. Normally when that kind of thing happens to a film its rediscovered years later and becomes a "cult classic" but something tells me The Wachowski's latest sci-fi tale wont see the same fate.
Last year when I made my second appearance on the Inside The Phoenix podcast upon returning from the Toronto Film Festival I could tell Warren Anderson (a contributor to this site) really wanted to get in to this movie but I chose to watch Takeshi Kitano's Outrage sequel instead. Had I known Cloud Atlas brought up all the issues in this write-up, written by first time PINNLAND EMPIRE contributor; Chris Robisch, I would have certainly watched the epic sci-fi adventure over Kitano's violent art house blood bath. I'm sure I wouldn't have liked the Wachowski's latest film but it would have brought about some serious dialogue for Warren's podcast.
But in all honesty I don't think I know ONE person, besides Chris (a fellow turntablist/cinephile/Inglorious Basterds hater), whose seen Cloud Atlas so I don't feel that bad.

This is an excellent read and I've been sitting on it for quite some time.


I finally buckled under the surmounting pressure building within my Sci-Fi addicted brain. I knew there would undeniably be some disappointment. Films that are so heavily hyped rarely satisfy my inner-nerd. Even with these misgivings towards watching it I decided to sit through Lana and Andy Wachowski’s unnecessarily long film, Cloud Atlas. My initial fears were justified. At times it was boring and extremely convoluted, as it made loose connections to stories that were supposedly inextricably linked. However, this wasn’t the real problem. In fact, I was mostly unsettled by the film’s message, as it attempted to present itself as anti-racist while wrapped in deeply racist ideologies. 

Antiracist While Perpetuating Racism

It really is hard to take any film seriously that wishes to promote anti-racist story lines like the character Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess), a white ally overcoming a white supremacist perspective to ultimately join the abolitionist movement, while simultaneously bombarding the audience with uncomfortable depictions of white actors made-up to look Asian. It seems completely counter intuitive to combine anti-racist sentiments with racist imagery, and this is precisely why the film’s narrative fails miserably.
My main contention with the film was not so much the racist “yellowface” displayed by white actors—which has already been written extensively about on sites like Racialicious.

Why did the directors choose to incorporate "Yellowface" but not "Blackface" into their film? Apparently they only find one to be racist

Nor was it the Orientalist semiotics and countless stereotypes interwoven into the supposedly anti-racist message.

is your room too blank and bland?
with the flip of a switch the Wachowskis will project their favorite Orientalist images on to your walls, floors and ceilings. The future sure is racist!

Racist stereotype: Orientalist Imagery coupled with Asian women as a sexualized objects can be found throughout the film
Racist Stereotype: the character simply called; "Mexican Woman" (Doona Bae) is a racist representation of Latina identity, flattening Latina-ness to elderly women with non-, or limited, English speaking capabilities.
The Wachowskis white imagination certainly went all out on this one by also making her the stereotypical sweatshop worker

It wasn’t even the way that the Wachowskis' used their racialized-makeup as cutting edge—I mean this is like one of the main special effects and story devices employed by the filmmakers and is utilized like Eddie Murphy in a fat suit.

"I'm cutting edge, Mr. Anderson!"
"What he said!"

No. None of these got under my skin as much as the way the film presents a combination of the above offenses with racial mixing. Lana and Andy attempt to convey this message through actors crossing racial boundaries. The idea of crossing the color line takes place not only in their relationships, but also by actors taking on the role of different races. By blurring these lines through a combination of ways, such as dawning “yellowface” or other racialized faces and having narratives of racial mixing, the directors are blending two very different elements dangerously close together. The Wachowskis constantly infuse their narrative of race mixing with the actors shifting races, presenting the act of crossing racial lines through an increasingly problematic, complicated, and uncomfortable lens creating numerous racist outcomes. The worst of which forces the audience to believe that  white actors in “yellowface” should be viewed with the same amount of acceptance as interracial relationships and multiracial families.

I'm pretty sure any ethical human being knows that interracial relationships and multicultural people...
...are not the equivalent to racist "Yellow-face" representations

Had Lana and Andy decided to use numerous actors of color as opposed to the race shifting methods in their film, the message of blurring racial difference through mixing would not have been lost in such troublesome racial politics. As a Chicano and Anglo male, I am open to narratives in film that discuss bi- and multi-racial identities—especially, when most films create distinctly rigid racial boundaries and continue the same-old discussions of racial purity that have plagued countries like the United States for centuries. However, the Wachowski narrative of multiracial people being the ultimate solution in race-relations can be viewed as an equally racist and offensive trope.

Not Really Breaking Barriers:
Trading One Racist System For Another

In response to the mounting criticisms surrounding the film Andy Wachowski explained to the Huffington Post, “[t]he intention is to talk about things that are beyond race. The character of this film is humanity.” Lana went further with the intent to move “beyond race” by stating:

“[T]he book has a bigger perspective. The book suggests that there is a humanity that is beyond our tribe, our ethnic features. A humanity that is beyond our gender. A humanity that unites all of us and transcends our tribal differences. As long as we continue to build these intractable and insurmountable walls between us to make these distinctions, we will continue to have intellectual apparatus that allows us to make wars and that allows to dominate, exploit and destroy others."

While the sentiments of Andy and Lana, as well as the book present an altruistic desire to move beyond race into a future humanity that eradicates the national, racial, and gendered social boundaries that keep us apart, the film fails to convey this message. The reason being, their film skips an extremely important process within confronting difficult subjects like race and racism. Their focus on smashing down barriers rather than first establishing a bridge between races makes it impossible for a real sense of connection to take place. In reality, the Wachowskis force colorblind perspectives on to US and Global audience members who exist in societies that have yet to truly develop bridges capable of manifesting a dialogue between races. Such a premise does not create a world where future allies listen and embrace the complexities and differences within our shared humanity. Instead it chooses to ignore, silence, and make people of color invisible reinforcing those walls that they want to tear down.

The Utopian vision that the Wachowskis' wish humanity to achieve, is reached through racial mixing—at least that is what the film implies. This is evident in the final scene of the film where an elderly Zachry (Tom Hanks) sits by a campfire telling stories to his and Meronym’s (Halle Berry) multiracial grandchildren. This moment acts as the concluding paragraph to the film’s thesis of racial mixing, which is defined as the ultimate solution to humanity’s racism problem. The images of mixed race children during the finale, creates a sense that this is humanity’s future. Love surrounds this family as the chaos of the past, the differences that are portrayed throughout the movie no longer matter. It is the presentation of peace and harmony within this future moment that leads me to the conclusion that these children are the manifestation of the mixed race savior. However, one might not be aware of how this concept recalls a historically racist ideology found in Latin America.

This may seem like a foreign concept to citizens of the West, as the racial ideologies in the United States have historically been based upon racial purity as a means to maintain white supremacy. The rigid racial boundaries were (re)enforced by antimiscegenation laws dating back over 300 years ago and finally being repealed in 1967. As a result the logical response to racism in the West has been the deconstructing of racial boundaries by promoting a multiracial ideology. However, in the early 1900s the ideology of Mestizaje (race-mixing) was promoted in Latin America to structure racial hierarchies in a different but equally racist fashion.

The idea was founded on scientific racism, a pseudo-science that provided justification for colonization, the enslavement of Africans, white-supremacy, and the eugenics movement—not to mention the Holocaust. The findings within scientific racism would always convey the superiority of whites and the inferiority of people of color. Some examples of studies are based on reflexes, cranium size, athleticism, and intellectual ability among other things.

Leo gave a pretty thorough overview of a form of scientific racism in that Tarantino film about racism that turned out to be way racist - the irony was not silent

The popular belief in the United States was that mixing made the supposed superior race inferior, while countries in Latin America somewhat reversed the idea of scientific racism. This alteration viewed mixing as a pathway to providing superior traits into the supposedly inferior indio and African populations. Influential scholars, like José Vasconcelos, advocated for an ideology of Mestizaje (race-mixing) to populate Latin American countries, whitening them in the process, and creating The Cosmic Race With countries like Mexico having difficulty increasing European immigration, The Cosmic Race worked as the solution to unifying people under a national identity. Since whiteness was still seen as superior, the only way to unify the nation was through mixing the existing European population with indigenous and African peoples. As a result, the mestizo (mixed person) was thought to be the savior of these nations.From its very foundation, the national ideology of racial mixing has been based upon a racist notion of eliminating the perceived inferior qualities of the other. Beyond that, it was thought that blending races would purge racism from society, but the fact remains that racial inequalities, colorism, and various forms of racism still exist in Latin American countries today.

Its interesting to think that the directors chose to place the final scene of Meronym (Berry), Zachry (Hanks) and the multiracial grandchildren in space. Was this the Wachowski's symbolic shout-out to Vasconcelos' Cosmic Race?

The result of the Latin American ideology was the creation of a racial hierarchical system that was based on the mestizo (mixed person) being the superior race and, much like the in the United States, Indigenous and African peoples were placed on the bottom—this is likely an intellectual apparatus that Lana did not account for when she defended her film. This historical reality complicates the film and directors' premise quite a bit as their perspective neglects to see the limitations of placing all of your hopes into the mixed-race saviors, especially when one considers that hybridity has had little impact on the realities of racism and race-relations in the United States.
Andrea Smith provides greater insight into the problems of the mestizo. According to Smith, this ideology constantly “situates Indians and Europeans in a dichotomy that can [only] be healed through mestizaje" making it appear as though real solutions cannot be found without erasing difference. Such a perspective seeks to eliminate the beauty of cultural, racial, and ethnic distinctions to make humanity into a colorblind society that does not embrace the multiplicity of identities that make it special. Moreover, this ideology categorizes the “Native identity...[as] primitive” and the mestizo as “sophisticated."  While Cloud Atlas does not touch on the relation between Native and European identities Smith’s words are still relevant, as they suggest a hierarchical system just as discriminatory as racial purity. With this in mind, it is clear to me that the film's premise can be a dangerous one. It can result in racist ideologies that lead to the erasure of indigenous peoples. While not entirely the same, it does hearken to the genocidal practices that eradicated the indigenous populations of the Americas. Smith provides a counter argument to the idea of racial mixing being the ultimate solution to racism and race-relations. If we are to consider the Wachowskis' premise we must educate ourselves on how it has been used in the past, as well as presently in places outside of the isolated western ideologies that Lana and Andy borrow from.

Andrea Smith's article; "Queer Theory and Native Studies: The Heteronormativity of Settler Colonialism" and other amazing articles can be found in the above book...

Unfortunately, the directors seem ill equipped to grapple with the complexities of race in any meaningful way. Instead they opted to trade one racist ideology (racial purity) for another (the mixed-race saviors). While their intentions might have been to dismantle the racialized systems of categorization I must say that the end result merely perpetuates that which it seeks to destroy.  In regards to race, it is imperative not to begin the conversation at the eradication and erasure of entire cultures by promoting colorblind mentalities. Rather, any discourse on race should start by first hearing the different voices in communities of color and embracing difference. Not merely accepting it and asking it to disappear. I get that Lana and Andy want us to exist in a post-racial society, but we cannot get to such an end game without first having some very tough discussions today—discussions that were entirely absent in Cloud Atlas.


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