Yellowface is when someone who isn’t Asian (American) dresses up and pretends to be Asian (American). It’s most commonly used to describe actors taping back their eyes to look more chinky, so that movie studios can avoid hiring Asian (Americans) (who, as we all know, rarely act and when they do, have no talent and do not appeal to American audiences. Or so the justifications for yellowface go). Classic example, Katherine Hepburn playing a Chinese peasant in Dragon Seed:
But that was 1944, you say. A long time ago. Mickey Rooney playing Audrey Hepburn’s buck tooth landlord in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, John Wayne pretending to be Ghengis Khan, that’s all in the past. Now we have John Cho and Sandra Oh and independent storytellers like Wong Fu and CAAM!
Of course, we also had Cloud Atlas open this month. Hugo Weaving goes from white man, to white woman, to Asian man, all in one movie! (Poor Hugo Weaving, he does not look good as a Korean.)
And he’s not the only one. Halle Berry gets to be Jewish, Indian, and Mexican. And an alien, apparently. The rationale here, is that the directors wanted the same actors throughout the film, and so the make up was necessary. The question here, is “Can they do that? Is that racist?”
It definitely looks weird to me. And it bothers me that the racial cues used for all races (blond= white!, slanted eyes=Asian!, tribal face paint (or are they tattoos?)=cannibal!) are stereotypical nods to the way people of color have been portrayed in film in the past. I do appreciate that the Wachowski siblings knew that race bending would be a serious issue. I am disappointed that their solution was to leave out blackface, and do every-other-race-face. Is that what we’ve come to? The risk of offending the black community is too high, but everyone else is fair game?
But, as always, racism is not a binary. We can’t divide culture into things that are racist (bad!) and not racist (good!). Cloud Atlas doesn’t look like the most racist movie ever, but it’s definitely not the most progressive either.