Cloud Atlas Casting Coup: 'Whitewashing' Crisis Averted

Doona Bae photo courtesy <a; Natalie Portman photo ©Marvel" />
Doona Bae photo courtesy; Natalie Portman photo ©Marvel

The flutter over "One Day" star Jim Sturgess joining the "Cloud Atlas" team has overshadowed a bit of juicier casting news: The Wachowski brothers have dodged a major bullet -- slow-motion Matrix-style, even -- by ultimately asking Korean movie star Doona Bae to play the part of Sonmi-450. When it was reported last year that the role had been offered to Natalie Portman, the Internet hummed with the sound of thousands of fans riffling through their paperbacks to confirm that Sonmi-450 was definitely, definitely a Korean character. The role had been, in Hollywood terms, whitewashed.

Whitewashing is a longstanding cinematic tradition, stemming from an era when it was completely common for serious ethnic roles to be handed to white actors -- even if it involved painting them up a bit. I assure you there were no complaints about the transformation of British beauty Jean Simmons into a Tibetan maiden for the 1947 film "Black Narcissus." Even as late as the 1960s we encountered Laurence Olivier's intensely misguided makeover for an adaptation of Othello, and Natalie Wood's for "West Side Story" (also a Shakespeare adaptation, oddly enough). And Mickey Rooney's disturbing performance in the 1961 adaptation of Breakfast at Tiffany's has forever tarnished the enjoyment of this movie for many people.

For every case like these, however, you could count even more in which a character's ethnicity was simply changed with the stroke of a pen, adjusted to that of the actor who'd been cast. And while this occasionally meant that a black performer would have access to material originally intended for someone else (Eartha Kitt in "Anna Lucasta," for example), typically this made it all the easier for money-hungry studios to shoehorn bankable (read: white) stars into virtually any script.

The cosmetic variety of whitewashing has largely faded into antiquity. It's been almost thirty years since white lady Linda Hunt won an Oscar for playing a tiny Indonesian man in "The Year of Living Dangerously" -- though actresses such as Angelina Jolie seem determined to keep the tradition alive. However, the latter, quieter kind has become all the more pervasive, especially as Hollywood becomes keener on adapting books and properties from other cultures. Fortunately, audiences and artists have found themselves united in fighting back. For example, the debate over whitewashing dominated all coverage of M. Night Shyamalan's "The Last Airbender"; the director's attempt at "colorblind" casting resulted in lighter-skinned heroic characters and a darker-skinned villain, as Always Watching's Adam Quigley helpfully illustrated with this helpful infographic.

Likewise, the upcoming live-action remake of "Akira" is already being protested by "Star Trek" veteran George Takei, as well as a group called Racebending. They claim that changing the setting from "Neo-Tokyo" to "New Manhattan" and casting super-vanilla actors like Robert Pattinson or Justin Timberlake amount to a whitewash of epic proportions, and anime fans are voicing their agreement.

Book lovers will always disagree about which details ought to be included in a film and which can be "massaged" a bit, but few disagree that changing a character's ethnicity -- pointlessly, purely for the sake of snagging a bigger name, at a time when there are major actors of nearly all nationalities -- undermines the artistic integrity of the entire project. The Wachowskis already used up their free pass with "Speed Racer," in which most of the characters were interpreted as Caucasian. Hopefully they've learned a thing or two from David Mitchell's ever-vigilant fans. Nothing personal, Natalie -- you're perfectly adept at playing the White Swan, but less convincing as a bird of any other color.

  • Melissa

    RE: The role of Billy Kwan in "Year of Living Dangerously" played by Linda Hunt -
    Not only one of the best performed roles of the 80's but Billy was Chinese-Australian origin. Do the research! It took me 2 min. to verify.

  • Granted. And I'm a big fan of Linda's. But does that change the fact that she was a white performer playing an Asian role?

    At the time she was lauded as the first actor to win an Oscar for playing a character of the opposite gender. The fact that she was also portraying someone of another ethnicity was comparatively overlooked, mainly because all things considered, that was not so unusual by Hollwood standards. Today that same performance would be roundly criticized as "yellowface", and I think rightly so. I can't think of a single reason why it would more appropriate to cast a caucasian person -- of any gender -- in that role.

  • Clyde Kusatsu

    I remember reading the screenplay for "Year of Living Dangerously", and saying the role of Billy Kwan is so good it'll be a wonderful opportunitiy for recognition and nomination.

    I made it through the gauntlet of the casting process to the point of being asked to screen test...they even had me do the scenes on my knees because the physical size was an important component to the production. Unfortunately I didn't get it, but booking my first series "Bring Em Back Alive" on CBS kinda evened things out. However, it did my heart well that my prescience was confirmed by the Academy in awarding Ms. Hunt the Best Supporting Award!
    But I'm glad there's an article like this to point up a problem that's been dogging our community for almost a century now.
    Anna May Wong, it's said, was not cast because it would point up the "white washing" in "The Good Earth" back in the 30s even though she was an international movie star of the time, so they cast a Swedish actress in the role. Oh, the irony!

  • Ha!! Welcome, Clyde.

    Your screen test story reminds me a little of a short by Linda Lee that I just watched. It must be profoundly irritating to muster up enthusiasm for a role and then find it has been "re-envisioned." I really wish I knew how Linda ended up with that one!

    If you check back here again, I'm curious about your opinion as an actor who worked on the "Avatar: The Last Airbender" animated series -- did you find the casting in the recent film questionable, or did it just seem like a public relations failure?

  • Supachai Suntorn

    So it's okay that Linda Hunt played the opposite gender but it's not okay that she played a different ethnicity? This seems like a case of feigned outrage.

    How many times have we've seen English and American actors of northern European descent play ancient Greeks and Romans, who historically were not blonde haired and blue eyed? We've also seen characters played by black actors that have been historically white, like the complete ethnic swap in the remake of, "The Honeymooners." We even see the ethnicity changed for actual real life people. I see that you mentioned Angelina Jolie in, "A Mighty Heart," (a casting choice that was blessed by the real life Mariane Pearl), but you didn't mention Dwayne Johnson playing Sean Porter, a white man, in the film, "Gridiron Gang." Or more recently, Morgan Freeman playing a made up character in a true story, "Dolphin Tale," replacing the real white scientists that created the artificial appendage, which is the entire basis of the film.

    By ignoring such other case of ethnic swapping, you show yourself to be insincere in your convictions. Anyway, does it really matter? When it comes down to it, you seem to forget that this is all acting and movies involve suspension of disbelief. The ethnicity of the actor only really matters when it interferes with the story telling.

  • Aadip

    They also whitewashed WANTED. Anjelina Jolie's character in the movie was originally a strong, attractive, black woman in the graphic novel.

  • Fahad

    Interesting article that could have benefitted from perhaps a bit more analysis and as another poster noted, research. One of the best examples of whitewashing can be found in the film Showboat (1951) in which Lena Horne, a light-skinned black actress, was passed over for the role of a light-skinned black character in favor of Ava Gardner, a white actress whose porcelain skin was covered with make-up that had been created to match that of Lena Horne.

    A more recent example would be Welsh actor Anthony Hopkins playing a (decidedly ambiguous) African-American in The Human Stain (2003).

  • I think everyone is pretty much getting tired of all the Hollywood whitewashing that's going on. The films are becoming less and less believable. Its time for Hollywood to portray movies using individuals that are more representative of the world population. However, until they do, we have to suffer the consequences.

  • Tom

    Thanks for your comments.

    We’ve also seen characters played by black actors that have been historically white

    Sorry, but reverse-racism arguments don't hold any more water in discussions about film than they do in real life. And it actually doesn't even work in your favor if you note that these white-to-black character transformations are often the only reason there are any substantial parts whatsoever for black actors

    I would have loved to spent more time researching for this post, as it's already a personal interest of mine. Unfortunately for a post of this size and scope, the best I can do is point readers in as many directions as possible so that they can follow the topic as far as they care to. Perhaps we'll dig a little deeper into this in the future -- there will certainly be no shortage of opportunities in the future, thanks to the constant tide of breathless casting updates.