A hovering accusation of racism shadows ‘Cloud Atlas’

As an Asian American, you can’t avoid touching on the subject of racism in the movie “Cloud Atlas,” particularly if you’re viewing it in Hawaii. Hawaii is the only state where the cultural atmosphere suddenly changes and I am part of the majority, or at least look the part despite my mainland ways. I get the same feeling when I’m in any one of Los Angeles County’s Chinatowns despite not being Chinese, yet for my Hawaiian-born husband and cousins, being part of the majority is what being at home means.

“Cloud Atlas” is confusing enough with its intertwining fragmented stories, but what is clear is the theme of hubris or karma. Hubris is a Greek term that is about a person acting in arrogance and the shaming a less powerful person for mere pleasure, yet in modern usage is also comes with a caveat: there will be punishment. If not from the gods because in Christian thought humility is preferable,  from a God, and thus one says “pride goes before the fall.”  (Book of Proverbs, 16:18).

Karma means deed and is an Asian term from India and part of the tradition of Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikh. The deed is part of a cycle of cause and effect and the cycle itself is called samsara (now the name of a different type of movie). In the movie, more than once characters comment, “Our lives are not our own. By each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.” You see this concept in all monotheistic religions; it’s the Golden Rule or the ethic of reciprocity.

You might be wondering why Hawaii is important at all in “Cloud Atlas.”  Perhaps this is where some of the confusion springs from–we aren’t immediately aware of where we are when we’re in the post-apocalyptic world, the world where we see Tom Hanks as Zachry. He’s an old man, battle scarred and telling a tale of the past, before a fire. When he was younger and inhabiting the tale of “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After,” he is in Hawaii, but not a Hawaii that we would ever know or shall ever be and herein lies some of the racially-charged content.

The movie “Cloud Atlas” is like one of those Russian dolls, in which one nests inside another and the real charm of the dolls themselves is in their relationship to each other. There are six stories. The oldest one is “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” which follows Adam (Jim Sturgess) during his journey to the Chatham Islands in 1849. The American lawyer befriends a Moriori slave who has stowed away on his ship. The slave, Autua (David Gyasi), comes under his protection, but Adam’s friend, Dr. Henry Goose (Hanks) is treating the American for a Pacific parasitic worm while actually poisoning him.

In story two, the journal is being read in 1936 Edinburgh, Scotland by Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) who had left his male lover in Cambridge, England in order to work with a famous composer, Vyvyan Ayrs (Jim Broadbent) in Edinburgh, Scotland. Frobisher is a man of questionable morals, but finds real inspiration while working with Ayrs and composes his masterpiece, “The Cloud Atlas Sextet.” He writes letters back to his real love, Cambridge science student Rufus Sixsmith (James D’Arcy), describing the situation but not necessarily including a particular detail: he’s having an affair with Ayrs much younger wife (Halle Berry). Frobisher provides the shocking hook at the beginning of the movie–he’s committing suicide in a particularly messy way. As the movie progresses, we learn why his suicide is necessary.  In the 2004 novel “Cloud Atlas,” Frobisher is in Zedelghem, Belgium and not Edinburgh.

In San Francisco (the third story), the daughter of a journalist, Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) has followed her father’s footsteps as a journalist, but now finds herself investigating a conspiracy to cover up information about the safety of a new nuclear reactor as the result of a chance meeting with Frobisher’s now middle-aged lover, Rufus (D’Arcy). Rufus will be killed and Rey will find the possibility of romance with Rufus’ co-worker Isaac (Hanks) but end up working with a former friend of her father’s, Joe Napier (Keith David).  At the end, Rey will be reading Frobisher’s letters to Rufus Sixsmith and even find a rare copy of “The Cloud Atlas Sextet” as a record.

In the novel, an editor named Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent) is reading a manuscript called “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery.” The Cavendish segment is comical and also starts the movie out with a bang, or splat that acts as an ominous warning to critics. The year is 2012 and Cavendish tells his violent author Dermott Hoggins (Hanks) not to mind the critic who panned his book because, “What is a critic but one who reads quickly, arrogantly, but never wisely.” Hoggins ignores his publisher’s advice and kills the critic by throwing him off a balcony. That makes his book an instant success but Cavendish keeps all the money for himself until Hoggins’ brothers come and demand an enormous sum. Cavendish turns to his brother, but his brother (Hugh Grant) recalls the affair between his brother and his wife and has Cavendish go to a hotel which turns out to be a rest home where residents are held prisoner under the authority of Nurse Noakes (Hugo Weaving).

Cavendish’s tale about his incarceration and escape are made into a movie which the genetically engineered Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae) has been watching in Neo-Seoul in the year 2144. Sonmi is a clone that is used to serve in a fast food restaurant. In the movie, the clones are all young women in short  dresses and the audience sees young Asian women in short shorts bending over, being harassed by Asian men, young naked Asian women in a shower scene and a simulated sex scene between Bae and Broadbent. This is the only time during the movie we see bared breasts.

The clones are treated as drone slaves and then slaughtered to become meat products, but Sonmi-451 is rescued by Hae-Joo Chang (Jim Sturgess,) who feels she is the one to tell her story and bring awareness to the greater human society.  Her story is being recorded for the archives by an interviewer and shown in flashbacks.

The last story is 2321, 106 winters after “The Fall,” in the Hawaiian Islands. Zachry  (Hanks) tells about his shameful cowardice when his family member, Adam (Sturgess), was killed by the horse-riding cannibals, the Kona, and his meeting Meronym (Berry), a member of the Prescients, the last members of a tribe who have advanced technology. Zachry guides Meronym to the Cloud Atlas so she can send a message to people who have left the earth and now live on other planets, hoping these people will be able to save them from this dying planet. The Cloud Atlas is the Mauna Kea Observatories on top of the Mauna Kea Observatories, but in the movie, it almost seems as if this place is Neo Seoul, the place where the rebels take a last stand so that Sonmi-451 can made her broadcast as the government breaks in and kills the rebels, including her lover Hae-Joo Chang.

What has actually happened is that the rebels transport Sonmi-451 to the Big Island of Hawaii and this is where she makes her broadcast. Or at least, that’s my interpretation. Zachry is clearly on the Big Island and makes references to Hawaiian geographical points.

Are the cannibals, the Kona, cultural descendants of the corporations and governments who decided clones were acceptable fodder for other clones? This isn’t clear from the movie. What is clear is that, although there are references to Hawaii by Zachry, this isn’t the Hawaii or the Hawaiian culture of today and hopefully not the future.

The racial controversy that swirls around “Cloud Atlas,” mainly focuses on the decision not to cast any Asian men but to cast South Korean actress Bae Doona and Chinese actress Zhou Xun. Bae Doona plays Tilda Ewing, wife of Adam  (Sturgess) and a Mexican woman whose dog gets killed in the Luisa Rey segment, Zachry’s’ wife,

Sonmi-451, Sonmi-351 and a Sonmi prostitute. Zhou Xun plays Talbot, a hotel manager who doesn’t seem to realize that there’s a phone in the room where a guest commits suicide and leaves to call the police, and Yoona-939 and Rose. However, Broadbent dons yellowface to portray a Korean musician, James D’Arcy as a Korean archivist, Keith David as An-Kor Apis and, most infamously, Sturgess as

Hae-Joo Chang.  The yellowface tends to look unnatural, drawing the viewer out of the story and reminding one of a Star Trek Vulcan (Screen Crush’s Matt Singer suggests Star Trek Romulans, but the conclusion is the same–yellowface makes them look more alien than human. In both cases, the references are to Star Trek: The Original Series). I’m not sure that this is what the Wachoskis had in mind.

Star Trek TOS Romulan commander.

Similarly, Bae Doona as Tilda Ewing doesn’t look quite right, but not as audaciously and comically silly as Hugo Weaving as Nurse Noakes. This Agent Smith isn’t in disguise; he’s a man in drag meant to look like a man in drag. If makeup artists can make Robin Williams (for the 1993 “Mrs. Doubtfire”) and Dustin Hoffman (for the 1982 “Tootsie”) convincing women, surely in 2012 they could have done the same for Weaving.

Berry as Jocasta Ayrs also isn’t quite convincing: See her, you know something isn’t quite right in a way that’s similar with seeing many former brunettes gone blonde. Sure it makes her more shocking or striking but is that really the purpose?  She already has the weight of the ominous name, Jocasta. In Greek mythology, Jocasta was the wife of Laius and then wife and mother of Oedipus.

Yet there are more subtle and unsettling themes that could be viewed as racist. The people of Zachry’s tribe are primarily white, unlike the current and projected population of Hawaii. The current population of Hawaii is 38.6 percent Asian, 24.7 percent white (with only 22.7 percent non-Hispanic white alone), 23.6 percent of two or more races, 10 percent Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islanders, 8.9 Hispanic and Latinos of any race and 1.6 black or African American.  Hawaii has the lowest percentage of white Americans than any other state. One wonders why the directors decided that Chinese actor Zhou Xun needed to look more Caucasian in order to be a member of Zachry’s tribe (The later usage of the whiteface on Bae Doona as the wife of Adam Ewing is understandable although not entirely convincing). According to hair.color.wikia.com, black is the most common hair color with brown coming in second. If you look around Hawaii, the majority of people have dark hair and that’s true for most of the Pacific Islanders. Yet Zachry’s tribe all have medium brown to blonde hair.

Look at Zachry’s tribe. Is this Hawaiians of the future without a single brunette or black-haired person?

In Hawaii, the movie makers missed an opportunity to contrast the casual and culturally accepted nakedness that was characteristic of Pacific Islanders prior to Victorian Christianity with the sleazy sexualized nakedness of the Asian clone-slaves of Neo Seoul. It was not only the hot weather that encouraged the native dress but the lack of cotton plantations and fields. The Pacific islands did not have the culture, land or climate for the production of the raw materials for cotton, linen, silks and satins. This makes the cotton rags of Zachry’s tribe puzzling, as if they are natives of a Mediterranean climate and dressed as serfs from a different era.

Zhou Xun needed to look more Caucasian in order to be a member of Zachry’s tribe even though we are in Hawaii?

Zachry’s tribe fears the Kona who have their faces painted and ride horses that seem very European. Kona is not just the name of a coffee in Hawaii, it means leeward or downwind in Hawaiian.  In ancient times, each island had a leeward district. In modern Hawaii, Kona is a district on the west side of the Big Island of Hawaii.

This is a different district than the one inhabited by the paniolos, or Hawaiian cowboys, who were generally in the North Kohala and Waimea districts. Waimea is where the two astronomical observatories are located (on Mauna Kea). Horses were introduced to the Big Island of Hawaii in 1803 after five black longhorn cattle were released (1798) and allowed to free range. By 1816, there were thousands of maverick cows and John Palmer Parker, husband of King Kamehameha I’s granddaughter Kipikane, was given permission to wrangle the cows and ranch. Parker brought over Mexican vaqueros in 1832 and began the paniolo tradition. There are dude ranches and even some working ranches currently on the Big Island, most of them seem to use stock horses, a type of horse based on or derived from the American Quarter Horse.

The suggestion of the movie “Cloud Atlas” is that the paniolos no longer herd cattle, but, as the Kona, prefer to eat the meat of small pockets of survivors like Zachry’s tribe. Like the Asian civilization of Neo Seoul, cannibalism is a viable solution and we see a parallelism between the corporate society of Neo Seoul and the savagery of the Kona.

The film comes two years after former Talk Radio Network host Michael Savage made a comment on his syndicated show about Hawaii and cannibalism, “I loved Hawaii I lived there many many years, it’s an interesting all syllables. But you don’t know about that are they going to be independent very soon. I don’t know how they’re going to make a living, they’re going to kick the white man out then what they going to have cannibalism again. Oops sorry.” No one really believes that Michael Savage is sorry, but the accusations of cannibalism, true or not, persist in relation to African and Pacific Islanders.

Captain Cook was killed on Kealakekua Bay which is on the Kona coast, but that was in 1779 (February 14). There have been accusations of cannibalism in the death of Captain Cook, however, according to the 2003 book “Captain Cook: The Life, Death and Legacy of History’s Greatest Explorer,” this was not the case. Yet the movie “Cloud Atlas” seems to use cannibalism as a sign of reverting to a base and immoral savagery–the lowest form of civilization with or without technology. The audience might think that even the Nazis didn’t go as far as eating their victims.

Hugh Grant might be unrecognizable as the Kona leader, but he looks clearly Caucasian to me although that might not be the concept of the directors. He has clearly “gone native.” The tattoos seem to be of a snake although there is only one native Hawaiian snake that looks more like a worm.

I haven’t been to the Big Island, but I have been to Seoul and Neo Seoul of the movie could be any East Asian city and yet is like no Asian city. It has no character. Coming from Tokyo’s Narita airport and landing in Seoul, the very smells of the city tell you where you are. Then the colors and the aesthetics. Americans are often offended by the Koreans taste for dog meat and I have seen sad dogs waiting to be butchered.

The segments if Neo Seoul seem uninfluenced by the manufactured boy and girl band trends and the modernization of furniture that has Koreans sleeping on beds just as Americans, Europeans and Chinese. The most telling aspect of this non-specific East Asian depiction of the Neo Seoul

Photo of a traditional Japanese house (minka).

apartment that Hae-Joo Chang and Sonmi-451 take refuge in. The cherry blossoms become the moving wallpaper. While cherry blossoms bloom and are celebrated in Korea, their national flower is the hibiscus syriacus or Rose of Sharon which symbolizes immortality. The cherry blossom in Japan symbolizes impermanence.

A tourist reads a book at a traditional Korean house Hanok at Tea Guest House in Seoul, South Korea. AP PHOTO/AHN YOUNG-JOON

Seoul, unlike Japan, has a large Christian population. In 2005, with 46 percent of South Koreans expressing no particular religious faith, 29.2 percent identified themselves as Christians (with 10.9 percent as Catholic). Compare this to the 22.8 percent who identified themselves as Buddhist. In Japan, Christians make up only one percent or less of the population. In Thailand, less than one percent. In Taiwan, the figure is 4.5 percent and includes Mormons. The influence of Christianity is erased in Neo Seoul. Yet what we know about the Holocaust is that some people were moved by their faith in God to resist the Nazis. Christian abolitionists were also instrumental in the fall of slavery in the United States. Yet in the movie, religion only seems significant in a shamanistic way for Zachry and his tribe.

The casting of black British actor David Gyasi has also gone under some scrutiny. He plays Autua, a Moriori man. The Moriori have been described as peaceful and of small stature and dark-skinned. Gyasi isn’t easily identified as a Moriori, or Pacific Islander, and Screen Crush critic Singer saw him as an African slave. An easy mistake and more than likely something that added to the confusion.

Moriori in 1877.

This isn’t to say that Pacific Islanders haven’t been played by people of African descent before or haven’t been considered black. People of African descent have played Pacific Islanders before, most notably in “South Pacific.” Juanita Long played the Tonkinese “Bloody Mary” on Broadway and became the first African American to win a Tony in 1950. She also played a Chinese American in “Flower Drum Song.”  France Nuyen, a French-Vietnamese actor, played Bloody Mary’s daughter Liat. Nellie Forbush’s problem with the handsome Emile is his prior relationship with a native woman resulting in mixed race children. Forbush is from the South (Little Rock, Arkansas). Emile had lived with a woman who wasn’t white and wasn’t yellow. She wasn’t Javanese or Tonkinese. She was Polynesian and “To Nellie’s tutored mind any person living or dead who was not white or yellow was a nigger.” (In the book, Emile had eight daughters to four women and only one was Polynesian. The musical changes Emile’s background to two children from one Polynesian woman.)

The Moriori are Polynesians and dark skinned as are the more war-like Maoris who defeated them. Captain James Cook also met with the Maori and there are credible accounts of Maori cannibalism. What besides the mention of the Chatham Islands and the Pacific parasitic worm could the movie directors have done to make the place clearer to movie viewers? Would the casting of a different actor, someone who perhaps looked more Polynesian or Pacific Islander have helped? Or did the Wachoskis mean for us to have the uncertainty of place? If so, why only in the non-European segments?

“Cloud Atlas” was actually filmed in Duselldorf, German, Port de Sóller, Mallorca, Baleraric Islands, Spain, Mallorca, Balearic Islands, Spain, Edinburgh, Scotland (UK), Glasgow, Strathclyde, Scotland (UK), and at Studio Babelsberg in Germany. Mallorca and the Baleraric Islands stood in for Hawaii. Yet not all islands can sub for the tropical paradise known as the Big Island.

There are other problems of logic tied into conventions of TV and movies. Why don’t the Prescients have a better way of scaling the cliffs if they have crafts that can hover of the ocean? Maybe I’ve been conditioned by watching too many Batman movies.

When the gang of bad guys, supposedly government agents break into the love nest of Somni-451 and Hae-Joo Chang, they cannot hit the two lovers as the two slowly attempt to escape via a self-generating bridge from their window to the next building. My husband blames George Lucas because the Storm Troopers of Star Wars are only good shots during the first part of the movie and then reduced to can’t shoot the side of a barn buffoons.

Pursuing bad guys have a similar problem in the segment “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery,” but this is something often seen in police and similar TV dramas. We’re used to that illogic, but both cases of faulty marksmanship detract from the serious intent of the movie. In a way, both the author and the directors have it all ways: The six stories cover so many genres there is almost something to please everyone despite the troubling portrayal of Asian and Pacific Islanders. That’s odd because Hawaii seems to be a place where clouds of many types are seen and offer the opportunity for rainbows. We saw several including the rare triple rainbow during our latest brief visit there.

A cloud atlas is much like an atlas for countries except it serves as a key for identifying clouds. Jean-Baptieste Lamarck published an atlas classifying and naming clouds in French in 1801. Luke Howard published the first English language cloud atlas in 1802. In 1890, an expensive book called “Cloud Atlas” was published by Hugo Hildebrand Hildebrandsson, Wladimir Koppen and Georg von Neumayer. The book’s success led to the “International Cloud Atlas” in 1896.

The importance of understanding clouds and their meaning increased not because of the human interest in small talk but it could be used to predict weather. With the beginning of human flight, weather became more important as anyone whose flight has been weather-delayed knows. The atlas was meant to serve as an aid to training meteorologists toward a more consistent descriptive vocabulary for clouds. Unlike an geographic atlas that defined nations, boundaries and borders,  a cloud atlas was about a natural phenomena that was not bound by artificial man-made borders. Clouds are part of the universal experience of weather.

The movie “Cloud Atlas” ambitiously attempts to show a karmic cycle, the application of the Golden Rule in seven different stories, yet the movie does seem to reflect a troubling racist bias. That is to say, I don’t feel that the directors overcame the problem which they attempt to expose–the artificial boundaries of racial prejudice and sexism.


  1. The point of the tribe being all-white in the final story is because the “superior” alien-like race in the final story is all-black. As a result, it contrasts the earlier story in the 19th century where the “superior race” is white who are bringing slaves over to there land. The final story has the alien race opening up to the island natives and finally showing them respect as a people, just like in the earlier story where the lawyer played by Jim Sturgess show respect to David Gyasi’s black slave, and joins the abolitionist movement.

    I get your issue, but I think your focusing too much on the logistics of demographics and races as opposed to the themes. Your analysis doesn’t completely hold up, IMO.


    • You’ll find that the majority of native cultures in the Pacific Islands and in Africa have dark or darker skin whether they are considered yellow or black. There is nothing that immediately said “Hawaii” when we were supposed to be on the Big Island and this comes from three people who were born and raised in Hawaii.

      There are many mixed race people in Hawaii and it would seem logical if a minority of them should survive, it would not be totally drawn from the minority of what is Hawaii today.

      If there needed to be a hard contrast as you suggest, perhaps New Zealand would have been a better choice given that before the arrival of Europeans it was Maori. Today it is 67.6 percent European and 14.6 percent Maori. Asian are only 9.2 percent and other Pacific Islander is 6.9 percent.

      This would tie in better with the Moriori as it is thought that a group of Maori who immigrated to the Chatham Islands became the Moriori.

      You’d still have that problem with the lack of native plants to create clothing. New Zealand like the Big Island of Hawaii has no poisonous snakes.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Like I said, themes are more important than the tiny details like being set in New Zealand and the indigenous plant life. Ideas are much more important than the specifics of the location or demographics when the symbolic connection is made. Interesting analysis in any case though.


      • The disregard for details comes in the Pacific and Asia, but not Scotland or England or even San Francisco.

        Asian and Pacific Islanders and their ethnic groups have historically been lumped together, with the details of race, culture, religion and appearance ignored. This was called Orientalism and is a type of prejudice.

        Hawaii is just as distinctive a place as Scotland and to consider otherwise seems ethnocentric. The directors and the production staff could have made the location clearer, even if another country was standing in for Hawaii, by paying attention to the details, but it doesn’t seem to have been important enough.

        Island paradises don’t all look alike and neither do Asians and Pacific Islanders.


      • I understand what Orientalism is, and I appreciate your sentiment. My problem with your analysis (and subsequent responses) isn’t your beliefs, it’s that you are ultimately focusing on the tiny details of how “the production staff could have made the location clearer” where they were located, when you should be more concerned with characters and the themes of the movie. Your complaints are ultimately nitpicks that are put under the microscope so much that you are pulling out a meaning in the film that doesn’t exist. It’s like if you complained that “The Cabin in The Woods” is a bad movie just because it doesn’t work in a real-world scenario. Both cases are missing the core point of the film.


      • What’s the point of deciding a place must take place in a specific location if you don’t get the location right, if you make it so non-specific that it could be anywhere and by doing so make it nowhere?

        Hawaii is a specific place just as much as Scotland and Seoul, Korea.

        Being sloppy just because it isn’t Europe or America shows a definite bias.

        I understand the sentiment of the movie, but being well-meaning isn’t an excuse. Would you imagine an African nation or island as totally white in the future and expect for people from that nation or people of that ethnicity to find it acceptable? Probably not. You’d know better and expect some sort of backlash, but not with Pacific Asian Islanders?

        The movie failed to find authenticity in so many little ways. It’s not one small mistake, but many small mistakes that makes it one large mistake. And not all the mistakes were minor.

        You act as if Korea or Hawaii doesn’t have people there who haven’t projected or imagined the future for themselves.

        Further blackface is uncommon in Hollywood films, but yellowface is all too common. More than yellowface, there’s a whitewashing of history that denies Asians Pacific Islanders a place in history. Apparently, they don’t exist in the future of Hawaii according to “Cloud Atlas.” Denying their existence in Hawaii isn’t a minor detail.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the catch. Got it right in one place and wrong in another. Wish I had an editor, but for now, sharp readers will have to do.


  2. Welcome to the club. Ever notice that much of violent crime in America is committed by blacks, but most street criminals in Hollywood movies are… white?


  3. Moors have often been played by blacks of sub-saharan origin, though Moors looked very different from black-blacks.

    Also, plastic surgery is very big in Asia because asians wanna look white. And Japanese anime features asians as blonde long-legged, and pointy nosed people. So, maybe asians in the future will use dna technology to look more white.

    btw, asian men aren’t used in movies because they lack popularity as ‘geeks’ and ‘small-penised’ wussies. Don’t blame conservatives. It’s liberal Jews who use Hollywood to spread certain racial impressions, true or not.


    • Andrea, I somehow think you don’t really know the definition of “black” per Merriam-Webster and are probably not qualified to decide what might be racist in any film at all.

      Plastic surgery is very big in the U.S. One could blame Playboy and Hustler for that, but that would just be supposition.


  4. Well thought article. They def need to include more asian american male leads. Times are changing and hopefully hollywood will better portray people of all color/ethnicities more fairly.


    • Not being Polynesian, I didn’t want to say anything, however, this would explain why some people who are sensitive to the issue might have thought the slave in “Cloud Atlas” was African and not Moriori.

      I did ask a friend who is half-white and half-black and she believes that Polynesians are originally (West) African. Of course, Africa is a continent and not a cultural or nationality.

      This unclear point of race in the case of Polynesians is why I mentioned “South Pacific.”


  5. I think Hoggins needs to talk to you out on the balcony…

    Just kidding.

    I think the film captured the pluralism depicted in the book well, despite your observations, the cast is diverse and it is my hope that while ethnicity is often a factor in casting, that these actors were all given there roles based on talent. I think that is clear from the performances (personally I think it is one of Halle Berry and Hugo Weaving’s best).

    I don’t think your argument holds up at all. The themes of the film are so clear and the acting so superb, and the story telling well constructed (from a book that was considered unfilmable). I think that Cloud Atlas has unwittingly put the nail in the coffin of using political correctness as a means for understanding racial, cultural and ethnic diversity. PC theory certainly does not work in art and to quote our president “Our differences do not divide us, they define us.”

    It is a work of art, and an experimental one at that. I don’t think treating it as though it should be a strict interpretation of historical genealogy through the many geographic regions visited in the narrative is warranted or fair. This is especially so given the importance and timeliness of it’s message.

    Great film and a stunning book. I recommend both to everyone. And since you mentioned it… Samsara is an even more important must see!


    • By definition pluralism is “a state of society in which members of diverse ethnic racial, religious, or social groups maintain and develop their traditional culture and special interest within the confines of a common civilization.” I do not see how by misrepresenting non-European or white cultures in the movie “Cloud Atlas” provides such an example.

      If instead of the Big Island of Hawaii, Zachry’s tribe and the Konas had been in Georgia and the only survivors were black, what would your assumptions then be? As the current population of Georgia is 59.7 percent white and only 30.5 percent black this would be much the same as what we see in “Cloud Atlas.” Hawaii is 24.7 percent white.

      The job of the directors is to quickly establish a place/location. If Hawaiians can’t identify the Big Island as Hawaii, then the directors have failed and just lazily attempted to fill in any island with a warm climate as another. In other words, all warm climate islands look alike.

      Besides the population, the flora and fauna would have hinted at the location as well as aspects of language.

      In addition, Neo-Seoul tells us by a subtitle where we are but what we see could easily be anywhere in East Asia so likewise do all East Asian cities look alike?

      Further, there’s a comment from a Polynesian who feels that Polynesian is not African. Some people misidentified the character as African because the actor was African and could not pass as Polynesian. Do the directors feel that all blacks look alike?

      As a person whose family includes mixed race individuals, I can tell you what they look like; they don’t look like Vulcans or Romulans. Again the directors have failed to provide us with a believable context unless the movie means to launch us into another chapter of Star Trek (TOS).


  6. Yellowface is a tradition of white racism against Asian male while Asian female were allowed to play their race and gender in order to serve white male. Yellowface
    is not new this film used old format of Hollywood anti-Asian male practice and Asian female were all easily available to White males. In this film, the relationship
    between Korean actor Donna Bae and White guy in Yellowface is old format of social enginnerring play Asian female and White male match-up while Asian male
    are depiction as ugly horrible looke like those 3 white actor in Yellowface look like
    alien creature than Asian male. This is what makes this film anti-asian male racism.


  7. I didn´t noticed any of those details, I´m a latina, I thought Hae-Joo Chang and the others were part of a new race, I was so confused by the movie I couldn´t focus in anything else. Didnt read the book either 🙂


  8. Boy oh boy, Jana J. Monji, you have no idea what art is and you clearly missed the point of the movie, but comp-uh-letely.


    • I have to wonder what gives you such authority to state that I “have no idea what art is.” It would seem your ego exceeds your grasp of reality.


  9. Well, your unimaginative dissection of a piece of cinematic art as if it were an object of scientific analysis gives me authority to state that you’ve no idea what art is. You cannot understand a film by applying rational truths, facts or whatever it is you are trying to perform here. It engages faculties it would seem are exceeded by your own ignorance about philosophy of art.
    Anyone who focuses on the genetics of Hawaiians while sitting in a cinema has no business employing themself to film criticism (which is an a priori modern case of sophistication if there ever was one). The world would be a much better place if only there were no people ”who read too quickly, arrogantly, but never wisely.”

    Eloquence and knowledgeability, my dear, does not entail understanding.


    • So someone who uses a pseudonym which is analogous for a colloquial term for mistake has decided that a certain movie is “a piece of cinematic art” and the usage of a logical argument to criticize that piece of art and perhaps challenge BooBoo’s subjective decision cannot possibly understand art?

      And then BooBoo decides to be paternalistic by calling me “my dear.”

      Next time I view a movie with my friends, many of whom are scientists, I’ll remind them that according to BooBoo, you cannot understand a film by applying rational truths. For future reference, we might consider noting such by saying, “That’s a BooBoo.”


  10. Wow, you do surprise me with your imaginative limitations. There is more meaning to Boo Boo than it being a colloquial term for mistake, you know? Does literature ring a bell, maybe? Probably not. You should look it up.

    And that’s wonderful, I’ll be very happy if you ever note a Boo Boo!


    • To the question: Does literature ring a bell? Of course, literature cannot ring a bell. I’m not sure you’re in a position to tell me what I should or should not do, but that might be your ego talking, again.


  11. Are you seriously saying that literature cannot literally ‘ring a bell’? What a remarkably well spotted piece of superfluous information. Good for you.

    And you’re right, I do have quite an ego, if by ‘ego’ you mean ‘the self.’ And if by any chance you mean an inflated sense of self-importance, don’t you think it would be a tad counter-productive inventing ‘BooBoos’? Just kidding.

    Anyhow, thanks for the lectures in history, genetics and scientific anthropology, I guess. I’m sure I’ll find the information useful somehow, somewhere, someday. Most likely not in cinemas.

    Onwards and upwards,

    A Colloquial Term for Mistake, apparently


    • I’m sure there are people who prefer not to think while attending movies but I’m not writing for such people.

      I am quite sure I don’t write for people who would address me with paternalism. The lessons of paternalism should be unlearned and those who still adhere to such ignored.

      I don’t post outside links.


  12. Than e.g. “ONce upon a time” is racist, because Sir Lancelot is played by a black actor? I’m sick of over-pc attitude…


    • Did I say that? You’d have to define black. I use the MW 2a: “having dark skin, hair, and eyes.” If you believe that Lancelot was French, then perhaps he was as French (by birth) as Alexandre Dumas.


  13. I didn’t say, Lancelot was French… my point, which it seems I failed to express clearly, was that I wouldn’t call racism that in a tv series a character who belongs to one “race” is played by someone who belongs to an other “race”. (I wouldn’t wish to define “black”, take a look at the actor in question http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sinqua_Walls)
    Although it was embarrassing for a short moment, it never occured to me, that it would be racism (maybe over-pc, but why care? it’s mainly and most importantly : fantasy). And it is true vice-versa.
    And I would suggest you to be careful with the word: “racism”. True, feelings could be hurt by unrealistic depiction (although I’m not from Hawaii neither from the US, so I didn’t sense that the post-apocalyptic place would be Hawaii, BUT MOST IMPORTANTLY, IT’S A FANTASY, and they gave us no linear history with details on demographic changes, so who knows what happens in the next 100 or so years? Would I be offended, if in a fantasy film Europe would be inhabited by Arabians and Africans in the next century? I doubt…) So, apart from hurting emotions (which I understand, but consider to be meaningless from the point of view of the critical discussion of the film) do you think that this phenomenon is truly racism? In my country pc has reached a point, where being proud of my nation and origin is almost racism… (Neither I’m French 🙂 )
    So the whole point of this: don’t overuse this term please…


    • My point is that how can you be sure if that person is of a certain race since there were so many different Lancelots? So if we take the version that says he is French, then could it not be possible that like Alexandre Dumas he was also black? If you read carefully, I did not state that you thought Lancelot is French. I could re-state it as should you consider Lancelot French, which is one version, then we have another French person who is black, Alexandre Dumas. Lancelot du Lac was from France in the musical “Camelot.” If you consider that he was from Benwick, then that’s a different story. But you seem to be saying that you are quite sure there were no people who would be considered black in England or Europe at that time of King Arthur who may or may not be a real person. Mixed casting is not how I defined racism in “Cloud Atlas” and has not been the issue with other Asian Americans. I think you need to re-read my essay, but I’m also writing three more essays on this topic.


  14. Oh my God… Is it intentional, that you argue about the most irrelevant parts of my reasoning? Lancelot and Once Upon a Time was just an example, an example, I repeat, although it seems a bad one… Anyway, Dumas was not black, but at best mixed-race (according to wikipedia and some other internet sources – I admit, it was a new information for me, so thank you for calling my attention to it). (Is it not racism to call him black, when he had a white parent, too…? this leads nowhere) And who said anything about my vision of England/Europe at the time of King Arthur? But let’s drop this, because again it leads us nowhere, I see.

    I agree, that Americans are ignorant in some aspects (“Europe is a country”, or marking Australia as Iraq if you write it on the continent), especially when making films. E.g. in the movie “I Spy” when we first get a glimpse of Hungary a Turkish-like (or not, sry I don’t know, but definitely not typically Hungarian) music can be heard in the background, with the purpose of giving back the “Hungarian feeling”. Well, that was eyebrow-raising (literally I was shocked for a short second, as now I tell you, I’m Hungarian) and was completely inappropriate, as our musical culture is something totally different. – Superficial and false introduction of my country. Am I offended by it? No! I was (let me say please) fuckin’ proud, that the scene of a funny and cool movie was admittedly in my country (as Budapest often “plays” Moscow etc. 🙂 ). Turkish people back in history occupied a part of and stayed in my country for a long time – do I care, that a Turkish-like music plays in the background? Again, no.

    I think you’re too sensitive. And I think the debate is easily resolvable by giving a definition of racism: “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race ” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/racism). Judging based on this definition, do you still think, that what we see in CA is racism?
    Anyway, white actors (actresses) masked as Asians and vice versa were disturbing. I wondered for a long time during the movie, what’s the problem with the eyes of Hae-joo Chang (or whats-he-called), but I understood, that the point was something different, and think to understand the reason why they did not employing an Asian actor in that role.

    Hm, but if I get it right, you’re of at least American origin and so our views on racism differ almost completely, thus further discussion of it is totally a waste of time. I think Americans are handling this question in a very wrong way, and tend to “make a mountain out of a molehill”. That is my personal, subjective view and do not claim it is the right and only one. But I think this oversensitive and overreactional attitude hinders true honesty and confidence and in fact does a great harm for example in self-evaluation as an individual and as a nation. Why is it so hard to simply just accept the things they are, instead of seeing a monster in every shadow (speaking generally)?

    And again, Hawaii was never mentioned. Hanks and Berry went obviously to the place where Somni and co. were – based on the film: Nova Seoul. How do you know, what climate changes took place in the following who knows how much years? This debate is absolutely in vain, as again, I mentioned before and you failed to react to that, that it is a fantasy or a fantastical place, i.e. imagined, nonexistent. How can you argue about something that does not exist?

    I said what I wanted, if I gave you anything to think about than I’m happy. And please do not intentionally misinterpret what I say, so you could further argue, but rather try to grab the concept behind the mere words.


    • You might be under the mistaken notion that you are the most important contact of the day. You, of course, are not.

      Since you wrote so little at first just what was relevant? Of course, everything should be relevant. That’s the basics of writing.

      Alexandre Dumas was black depending upon your definition. Black and African are not necessarily synonymous. If that’s new information to you, then you might have some problems understanding the issues I’m addressing. Hawaii was mentioned in the movie and the essay, but an island with sand and greenery do not make Hawaii Hawaii. If you missed this while reading the essay or watching the movie, then again, it is easy to see why you have problems understanding either (and thus prove that the filmmakers failed to give sufficient visual/oral cues and increased the confusion).

      So I think you should re-read the essay and gather your thoughts better.

      I was having other conversations and there’s already another article posted about “Cloud Atlas” on this blog.


      • “You might be under the mistaken notion that you are the most important contact of the day. You, of course, are not.” Thank you for the information 🙂 Although I have to admit, it surprised me, that I’m not the center of the universe? I thought the Sun goes round me… (that was irony)
        Our way of thinking is different, although you like to label what I think about this and that, make hasty judgements about what I think about this and that kind of people, and twist my words in an annoying way. It’s obvious to me I won’t be able to change even a bit your thoughts, and most sadly you don’t seem to try to truly grasp the intention of my comments, so I stop trying. You might be under the mistaken notion that you possess the philosophers stone, thus the ultimate truth. You, of course, don’t 🙂
        Have a good day 🙂


      • You might have taken the time to re-read my essay instead of spouting off about Americans (also known as the fallacy of generalizations).

        You’d have to be better organized and more eloquent to change my mind.


  15. A defense i’ve seen here and elsewhere is that an important theme of Cloud Atlas is transcendence of race and sex in the chain of existence, and in the movie several of the lead actors/actresses play characters of different race (and even different sex) from their own in the six storylines, so it’s unnecessary to single out the white-actor/korean-character permutation for criticism. Fair enough. But one may then ask: why not cast an asian-american actor who might play one of the caucasian incarnations in some storyline? (and not only to play one of the korean characters). That would certainly strengthen the transcendence message? A plausible response is that “this movie is a 100 million dollar investment and actors/actresses that have box-office draw are needed…” Again fair enough (although sad for asian-american actors). But Doona Bae or Zhou Xun are not asian-american nor famous in the west, and if one argues that they can attract the asian audience (esp. in China, where it seems a lot of financial hopes for this movie are pinned), then surely there are many asian male candidates too (witness the huge popularity of many asian pop-artists/actors in asia, e.g. Rain). So it seems Cloud Atlas still leads back to a basic racial/gender bias…not in the overt message of the movie, but as an unintended reflection of societal attitudes (and those of the film makers). What is disappointing is that a project of such moral ambition as Cloud Atlas did not do more to see and address these biases.

    Your article is good film criticism IMO. I especially like the analysis of the significance of Polynesia and Hawaii in the movie…I learned something there.


    • Dear Eric:

      Thank you for taking the time to comment. It was nice to have someone see the logic of my argument. I discussed the movie with three Hawaiian-born Asian Americans. None of us had read the book but that shouldn’t be necessary to understand a movie.


  16. I just finished reading the novel about ten minutes ago, after falling in complete love with the film. I’ve watched the film three times and while the Futuristic Hawaii segments were troublesome to me (as a Pacific Islander – Native Hawaiian and Chamorro) I “let it go” for the sake of the story. However, seeing what was changed from the novel to the movie has me angry. And really appreciating your essay.

    The movie is ambitious, the story line connected rather than continuous, so I understand the challenges of trying to get a mainstream audience to follow along. The filmmakers decided to cast the same actors in the different roles to give the audience that sense of continuity, but as a part of the audience, I get to voice my dissatisfaction with their laziness. I think that audiences are perfectly capable of picking out threads of connectivity, and certainly other methods could have been used. The comet birthmark was utilized effectively in the novel, tying characters together despite sex or age or place. In fact, Luisa Rey’s character was directly mentioned as an reincarnation of Robert Frobingsher. In the film, Rey is relegated to the reincarnation of Jocasta. This is troublesome because Luisa Rey is so certain in the record shop that she “knows” the Cloud Atlas sextet. The novel asserts without saying outright that she knows the piece because she wrote it in a past life. In the film, she knows it because she was sleeping with its composer. A very different kind of connection.

    But the most important bit of lazy adaptation comes in the treatment of the Pacific Island narrative as a whole. The Pacific Journals of Adam Ewing display the most blatant racism in the entire novel (as observations Ewing has about other people on the ship he is on, as well as missionaries / white people living on the islands). There is a discussion about the “ladder of civilzation” which is mentioned in the movie, but dicussed more thoroughly in the novel. Ewing begins the novel as someone entrenched in the belief that Anglos are the pinnacle of human civilazation, yet this belief system is eroded by his travels in the Pacific Islands. He meets many different islanders and witnesses white missionaries attempting to get islanders addicted to tobacco to fill them with a need for more than they have available to them in their surroundings. He sees the benevolent racism of the missionaries and can’t quite put his finger on what troubles him about it. After all, he is a pretty well off white guy. But then Dr. Goose, who is poisoning him, makes a remark that Anglos are only at the top of the ladder because of weaponry, which is not an inalienable, God-given miracle. He later tells Ewing in private “Why tinker with the plain truth that we hurry the darker races to their graves in order to take their land and riches? True ‘intellectual courage’ is to…admit all peoples are predatory but White predators, with our deadly duet of disease dust and firearms” are the examples of predatory excellence.” As he poisons Ewing’s brain wth narcotics to get to his treasure chest, he poisons Ewing’s beliefs, which leads to a crescendo of realizations that left me, as a descendant of those same Pacific Islanders, hopeful. That was not captured in the film. How unfortunate.

    This misfortune is only exacerbated by using the same big name actors in all of the roles, rather than attempting to cast each role with respect to the individuals they represent. It’s not just that there were black people cast as Pacific Islanders, which I will admit did offend me. It is important, for example, that we observe what cinematic tradition shows us – all dark skinned people are African or all Asian people interchangeable, or even “just” altered white people. In a film about racism, slavery, and the realization that all individuals do have dignity, it is a shame that the filmmakers revert to more of the same, literally, by using the same few actors. It was a cinematic choice which seems to contradict the central theme of the novel it pretends to revere. I see this contradiction, and I am calling it out. The fact that so many people are willing to let it go just because it’s a pretty movie (which it is) must mean something. The fact that “we” expect studios to compromise on a novel whose central theme is equality simply because “hey they need to make money too” means even more.

    Thank you so much for your essay.


    • I have to admit that when I first was notified of your comment, I didn’t want to open the email because most of the comments I’ve received for my essay were negative (and I was on vacation). I was often told that I had missed the point of the movie.

      I wrote the essay with some hesitation because I am not a Pacific Islander and I am not someone who might be considered black (as in the South Pacific way).

      I think it is a mistake for Asian Pacific Islanders (nationals or of that ethnic group) to just let something pass that offends us for the sake of the story. The choices that are found offensive are just as much a part of the story. At this time in human history, we should be beyond that.

      We need to, as you say, “call it out.” People want to make money, but they could certainly save money if they didn’t have to pay those well known actors and have so much makeup. We have “Life of Pi” to show us that an all Asian cast of relative unknowns can succeed in capturing the world’s imagination.

      At this point in time, movie makers should not be lazy. Asians and their ethnic groups represent about 60 percent of the world population.

      So thank you for taking time to write in your comment. It encouraged me to continue on my dragon lady like journey.


  17. I have to agree with several other commentators that you are over-analyzing the racial elements of the film. The inconsistencies and not entirely successful attempts to make the white characters appear Asian in ‘Neo-Seoul’ didn’t bother me because that society is much different from our own in terms of ethnic diversity and genetic experimentation, and I appreciated the effort made to communicate the theme of interconnectedness. Also, the woman who broadcasts the message that apparently keeps humanity civilized after the apocalypse is Asian. In fact, the most awkward part of the film in terms of race was the poor attempt to pass off an Asian woman as white in the 19th Century.

    In the same vein, a post-apocalyptic Hawaii three hundred years from now where even the language has altered would have been subject to so much upheaval that the fact that the tribal people are all white was of little import to me. The cannibals didn’t appear to be any specific race at all. And the most advanced people we see in the whole film, the end product of civilization, are all black. The film is too broad and sweeping in terms of the vast timescales and projected social changes to accuse it of racism.


    • Because you weren’t bothered by the “inconsistencies and not entirely successful attempts to make the white characters appear Asian” in Neo-Seoul, I think you need to examine your ability to accept yellowface.

      Yellowface is more acceptable than blackface in movies out of Europe and the United States. It is clearly more acceptable to you. That in itself is a sign of racism and one could venture to say that movie goers have been indoctrinated into accepting yellowface as well as Eurasian actors playing Asian characters.

      That the film has “broad and sweeping” timescales and “projected social changes” doesn’t mean it cannot be accused of racism. The projected social change for Hawaii is that a minority white population survives and becomes the dominant force in the peaceful population. That the “tribal people are all white was of little import” to you can also be considered a sign of racist attitudes that you hold and that is found generally acceptable.

      The survival of predominately white people in an area that is not predominately white is a white person’s fantasy just as one where the white race dominates the future of space exploration and colonization as is commonly seen in science fiction of the past. One could suggest the survival of predominately white people in Hawaii is Social Darwinism.

      Further, having a black race as the saviors and more advanced people doesn’t necessarily ameliorate the racism toward Pacific Islanders or Asians and actually aligns well with the acceptance of yellowface and the non-acceptance of blackface in contemporary society.


  18. It’s so sad that the most important ideas (imo) got lost in all this psychobabble, and those would be the ones of JT in the beginning. Hang in there guys.


    • Alas, but the world isn’t all-white or all-black and has never been. JT is incorrect. The original issue is that of Pacific Asian versus white American.

      The segment takes place in Chatham and the slave isn’t black African, but Moriori, a Pacific Islander ethnic group. Black Africans and black Islanders weren’t the only people enslaved.

      I’m not sure what you consider psychobabble so I won’t go in to that.


  19. What was particularly ‘sad’ about the portrayal of the Moriori (playing the real-life role of Koche; King of Pitt Island) is that they didnt even have the decency to consult with Moriori. They didnt film any of what happened on Rekohu (Moriori homelands) and they comopletely misrepresented who Moriori are and what they look like. Moriori DID NOT have tattoos. Shaving ones head would have been most foolhardy as they lived in the Roaring Forties with nothing between them and the Antarctic apart from a line fo clouds.
    None of the story of real story of Koche was told – which would have made a better chapter than the other 5 stories within Cloud Atlas.

    Moriori have clawed their way back from the brink of extinction and despite many people just wanting them to ‘go away’ they are today desperately engaged in negotiations with the New Zealand Government for redress and reparation for all the wrongs perpetrated upon them since the fateful invasion in 1835. In New Zealand we have a founding document that guarantees rights to all Natives of our country. As the smallest native ‘tribe’ in New Zealand Moriori continue to be maligned, sidelined, overlooked, ignored and oppressed.
    They were a pacifist people. They didnt get defeated. They were were invaded and chose to adhere to their religious beliefs.
    The invaders saw that as a sign of weakness and killed, ate, enslaved and ‘conquered’ (how do you conquer someone that doesnt fiight?
    When they first cried out for help-in writing- in an 1862 appeal to the Governor for the support of the law, they were ignored. No-one cared.
    In 1870 and 1872 in land court sittings, they were overruled and overlooked and 97% of THEIR lands were given in law to the oppressors. No-one cared.
    In 2016 as they enter into negotiation with the government…. who will care? Who will stand up for Moriori. Will you?
    They just need the vocal support of… anyone.
    Help them. Help Moriori. Help put right the wrongs that were done to them in 1835 and onwards.
    Join the facebook page facebook.com/Justice4Moriori or leave a comment at justice4moriori.wordpress.com


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.