The Pacific Problems of Cloud Atlas


Cloud Atlas theatrical poster, via Wikipedia

This post is a preview of sorts for a talk I will be giving for the Ethnic Studies colloquium at the University of Hawaiʻi on Tues. Jan. 21, at 3 pm. More info here

Since I first saw Cloud Atlas last year, I have been haunted by many of its images. Much has already been said about the 2012 movie, directed by Tom Tykwer (of Run, Lola, Run), Andy Wachowski, and Lana Wachowski (of The Matrix). In sum: the movie was too long and too clever for its own good, and tanked at the box offices. The book on which the movie is based, by Irish writer David Mitchell, is flush with musical metaphors and modeled around a sextet: there are 6 different narratives that make up the whole. The book’s structure is a rising and falling glissando, or as many have noted, a nesting Matryoshka doll, in which 5 of the stories appear twice in this sequence: 1 2 3 4 5 6 5 4 3 2 1. The movie departs from and complicates that already complicated sequence, tangling the 6 stories utterly and jumping often between them. A particular source of controversy was the directors’ decision to make actors play multiple roles in the 6 separate stories, resulting in several instances of yellow face, as white actors’ faces were done up to fit into a futuristic, totalitarian “Neo-Seoul.” (See, for example, Racialious coverage here.) While the yellow face (and whitening of black and Asian actresses in certain roles) was certainly disturbing to me, my discomfort with the movie centered on the two stories that were set in the Pacific. It disturbed me too that no one else I talked to, nor any of the critical essays, seemed to recognize the problems in the movie’s portrayal of the Pacific– many of which are also present in the book, which I’ve just finished reading.

The Pacific Ocean, and the people who inhabit or cross its islands and edges, are central to Cloud Atlas in both mediums. Stories #1 (“The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” as titled in the book’s chapters) and #6 (“Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After”) are solidly set in the Pacific. In the book, Melvillian character Adam Ewing travels from the Chatham Islands (east of New Zealand), where he has a formative experience witnessing Maori-on-Moriori slavery, to Raiatea and then Honolulu (bound for San Francisco). In the “Sloosha’s Crossing” story, the action takes place on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi, in a post-apocalyptic future inhabited by noble savages, savage savages, and a mysterious super-people who visit on their space-ships. Perhaps realizing that populating real, colonized places with well-worn stories about savages and slaves could offend (or perhaps more simply betting that their audience would not be able to or care to distinguish between any Pacific Island), the movie, the location of both these narratives is glossed vaguely as “Pacific Islands.”

So too do the Maori slavers and Moriori slaves go un-identified as such in the movie. In their place appear the echoes of a more familiar image of oppression for Hollywood: the historic slavery of Africans in the U.S. South. The movie shows the white protagonist Adam Ewing being transfixed by the stare of a Black slave being beaten by a Black overseer. Except for the torturer’s Blackness, this scene comes straight out of a movie like 12 Years a Slave. The Black slaves have facial and arm tattoos in the imagined style of Polynesian tattoos (perhaps most popularized by Mike Tyson). Later, Ewing discovers this same slave, Autua, as a stowaway on his ship, declares him the “Last Free Moriori” and becomes his advocate. Accordingly, Ewing’s journey home to San Francisco becomes a story of his reinvention of himself from a notary servant of rich colonists to an abolitionist.

I am haunted by so many things here. At first viewing, I marveled at the ease with which the movie uses an image culled from Hollywood depictions of the African slave trade to portray Pacific oppression (and, not incidentally, the use of Black British and African American actors to fill Pacific Islander roles). I initially understood this as a failure of Hollywood to conceive or imagine what the violence of the colonization of the Pacific Islands looked like; they substituted African slavery because it was a clear and familiar evil, and would make immediately and painfully clear that the exploitation of Indigenous Pacific Islanders was evil too. This is troubling not only because settler colonialism in the Pacific did not (and does not) look like African slavery, but also that directors feel confident in turning to African slavery as a convenient metaphor (rather than its own specific structure which continues to have very specific legacies for African Americans today).

But the original story as told in the book deepened my initial misgivings with these scenes in the movie even further. The story in the book is of a Polynesian race (the Maori) who enslave another, naively (and ironically) pacific, Polynesian race (the Moriori). There are some truths to this story, but as with any retelling of intra-ethnic or intra-racial violence, it seems more urgent to question the intent and effects of an outsider telling this story to a distanced audience more than what the story got right or wrong. One major effect is that the story of violence in the Pacific is largely between Polynesians rather than outside colonizers. Though there is a nascent indictment of European and American colonialism in the Pacific in the presence of unscrupulous white doctors and ship captains, neither the book nor the movie really understand the colonization of the Pacific by Europeans and Americans as a major problem. Rather, the story is really about the curious existence of Moriori slavery at the hands of the Maori. Maori are capable of enslaving their fellow man just as much as white Southern plantation owners were capable of enslaving Africans. This analogy is part of Cloud Atlas’ broader lesson which hinges on a universalist sense that all humans have the power to do good or do evil, and that individuals must choose good even in the face of unsurmountable odds. Autua chooses to escape slavery and Adam Ewing chooses to become an abolitionist of all forms of slavery (though it seems unlikely that he will ever again be in a position to intervene in the specific Maori-Moriori slavery that sparked his conversion). 

In telling such a simplistic story, in both book and movie form, all things become relative and the evil impulses of (white or Black) slavers and (white or Black) savages become merely a characteristic of a universal human nature, rather than the historically specific products of settler colonialism and racial capitalism. By grounding the story with Pacific Islanders, who appear at once to be the most primitive people of Cloud Atlas and the stoic, ingenious survivors of a future apocalypse, the book and movie make Pacific Islanders the ancient and future blueprint of all humanity. A passing familiarity with anthropology of any sort should make readers and movie-goers skeptical of such a set-up. And yet, it doesn’t! Though the movie did poorly at box offices, it still engendered positive reviews and the book has enjoyed critical success. Why is this?

While many (maybe even all) Indigenous peoples have been looked at in film and literature as primitive mirrors of modern civilizations, I would argue that the particular use of Indigenous Pacific Islanders here is not incidental. Pacific Islanders have long fascinated, incited, and even charmed typologists (both professional or laymen) in their alleged racial indeterminacy. There was even a name for this fascination: men of letters referred to it as the Polynesian Problem. In the various debates about the Polynesian Problem, from the late nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth century, social scientists argued variously for Indigenous Pacific Islanders’ essential whiteness or blackness and their fundamental origins as either Orientals or American Indians. The Polynesian Problem was a favorite game of racial typologists because Polynesians appeared to social scientists to nearly transcend race, to be all races and no race at once, to be in the process of ascending the family tree of Man (and thus ripe for studying).

While Pacific Islanders could be seen as analogous to both Blacks and Indians in the U.S. context (and indeed, the book Cloud Atlas consciously uses Black and Indian interchangeably to refer to Pacific Islander characters), they did not seem to fit either category very well. In part, this was (and is) because settler colonialism and capitalism in the Pacific was different: in the Hawaiian case, for example, labor came from Asian immigrants and conquest of Native lands and peoples was achieved through political diplomacy and a seemingly easy overthrow rather than the spectacular violence of the Indian Wars. Nonetheless, ideologies about savagery, whiteness and blackness embedded themselves in theories about the racial make-up of indigenous Pacific Islanders and were resolved in particular ways. In general, there was a bifurcation: Polynesians became almost white and Melanesians became Black and savage. (Within Polynesians, there were also two types, one blacker and one whiter– see Maori and Moriori in Cloud Atlas. Micronesians, an afterthought, could go either way.)

In Cloud Atlas, this white/black, Polynesian/Melanesian division plays out as well. In the “Sloosha’s Crossing” future-Pacific narrative, the gentle people of the Valley are terrorized by the blood-thirsty Kona. In the movie, Tom Hanks as Zachry and Susan Sarandon as the Abbess play the key roles of the Valley people, mumbling an eccentric version of Hawaiian pidgin. They are made up with facial and body tattoos, but these tattoos are less stark– done in graying lines that seem to be fading rather than crisp black lines of the Polynesians in the earlier Pacific story and the bright war-paint of the Kona. The faded facial tattoos thereby reference Polynesian tattooing (though no Polynesian tattooist living today would author such purposefully ugly creations) but also Polynesian degeneration, which the story sees overall as a good thing. The Valley people are pure, preyed upon by the Kona, but living quietly and simply in contrast to the greed that leads to the downfall of other characters and civilizations in the other narratives. In the book and the movie, the Valley people are white. Neither offer an explanation for how Polynesians swung from as Black as Africans in the Adam Ewing story to white enough to be visually contrasted with Halle Barry, who plays Meronym, a woman from the Prescients, a technologically advanced people who occasionally visit the Big Island on space ships. 

Overall, Polynesians are used in Cloud Atlas to write universal truths about humanity, but only because they have long been understood as a people who are transcending their race. Polynesians as a race are uniquely capable, in the ideologies of Western science and popular culture, of moving so quickly from Black to white, from savage to civilized. Any other race would not have worked for the movie or novel’s plot quite as well. In short, this is the Polynesian Problem re-written for popular and literary entertainment. It is bad enough that the movie in particular, through its casting of the same actors as various characters made into different races, paints a picture of post-racial (and perhaps even pre-racial) universality, in which all people are good and bad but can evolve, through eternal recurrence and reincarnation, and transcend the conditions of their particular histories and societies. To use Polynesians as the grounding to achieve that transcendence, like the social scientists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, is even harder for me to shallow.

What I would most like to say to David Mitchell, to the Wachowskis, Tom Tykwer, to Tom Hanks, Halle Barry and Susan Sarandon, to Hollywood and to the literary world that made Cloud Atlas a finalist for the Man Booker Prize is, simply: Polynesians are not a metaphor. We are not you. We are not ancient versions of you, we are not you in the post-apocalyptic future. We are not here to teach you how to be better people. And relax, we are not going to eat you either. Our colonization and our decolonization are not metaphors. (See also: Decolonization is not a metaphor by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang.) Our colonization and our decolonization are ongoing projects with long and specific histories. They are connected in structural ways to anti-Black racism and African slavery, but these connections do not make them analogous. We know who we are, we know we live with colonialism, and we know our stories of our pasts and our futures are inextricably connected– just not in such a tortuous, heavy-handed way as your book and movie.


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