Racism or condescension: The Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas problem

Race has been at the centre of some debate surrounding the Wachowski Starship’s latest cinematic offering, Cloud Atlas. Assigning their ensemble cast to a variety of characters each, across six different storylines, Lana and Andy Wachowski use facial prosthetics and post-production touch ups to transform the racial and sexual orientations of their actors. The result has elicited charges of “yellow-facing” from Jezebel contributor Laura Beck, while Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) founding president, Guy Aoki, issued public statements vilifying the filmmakers for their seeming racial insensitivity.

Having recently viewed the film, I feel these charges of racism seem somewhat misguided. The offense, as I saw it, was not against race. The affront was to the audience’s intelligence. The Wachowskis seem to assume we, the film’s viewers, are too dull-minded to connect the multiple storylines of the film without the obvious device of using actors in multiple roles.

This wouldn’t have bothered me as much had their decision not been in complete contradiction to the spirit of an otherwise beautiful film. Cloud Atlas is not about race, but revolution. In fact, I would say this film marks the Wachowskis’ turn to a more mature treatment of the subject than can be found in their past endeavors. Watching Cloud Atlas, we are witness to a web of storylines detailing humanity’s propensity towards cannibalism as the rich and powerful feed, both literally and figuratively, off the weak. The question we must ask in the face of our savage history is why we keep making the same mistakes over and over again.

Sonmi-451, a futuristic worker clone leading a doomed revolution, becomes the voice of our emancipation. In contrast to the hero-centred revolutionary ethic found in the Wachowskis’ past films, Sonmi-451 promotes emancipation, not of a self-determined through its own freedoms, but of social being itself, telling us, “We are not ourselves. We are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.”

If only the Wachowskis had matched this revolutionary ethic to the form of the film. “The truth is a singularity,” Sonmi-451 emphasizes, indicating the repetition of history is not the simple repetition of consistencies over time. The only consistency is the vicious repetition of power itself, while truth comes to us in the resonances that sing across our myriad differences.

By casting the same actors to play racially diverse roles for fear the audience won’t make the appropriate connections themselves, the Wachowskis betray their own project, forgetting that truth in film, as much as in history, doesn’t come to us through the repetition of similarities. The screen itself is an open face upon which the tension of differences inflecting each motion, each sound – each facial gesture – speaks its tiny, explosive revolutions over our eyes and minds.

This revolution could have moved us across a silver surface reflecting its multitude of faces singularized beyond their racial features. Instead, we are left to hunt for it through a distracting mess of fake noses, bad skin toner, and awkward eyebrow prosthetics.