Recently Turner Classic Movies played The Good Earth and The Bitter Tea of General Yen back to back. I caught the former as the locusts descended upon the crops and continued to the latter as a “Chinked up” Nils Asther rode away in “Yellow Face” without care or concern for the rickshaw driver his car had just hit.
I grimaced as I watched Nils Asther’s exaggerated Yellow Face – painfully narrowed eyes and pencil-thin eyebrows – look preoccupied and distant as a desperately concerned Barbara Stanwyck (playing blonde White Christian) tries to get him concerned about the rickshaw driver he just injured. I couldn’t watch any further than that despite telling myself I was being unfair – things were different then – Al Jolson – Black Face – It’s a Capra movie for Crissakes! You know – It’s a Wonderful Life!
I was ready to be offended. But then both movies were made in the 1930s when minstrel shows and Yellow Face went unquestioned. I accepted the caricatures and pacified myself with the excuses of time and place – It was the 1930s – pre-Civil Rights – pre-Dr. King – pre-Vincent Chin… I focused on the story – the drama unfolding.
And they were good stories. The former about a family coping with the challenges presented by nature (both earthly and human) and the other about the mutability of faith. With the latter I couldn’t stop myself wondering why it hadn’t already been remade with Chow Yun Fat and Charlize Theron or Simon Yam and – I don’t know – Gwyneth Paltrow? – But that’s not the point. The point is it is a good story that can be a great one with some modernizing and tweaking.
Perhaps the most poignant example of modern day Yellow Facing is the movie Gandhi. Gandhi because I watch it every time it is on – It is one of my favorite movies! Gandhi because he is my inspiration – I am awed by the resolve he showed in not hitting back and his perseverance through such hardships (first with the British and then with the religious divide between Hindus and Muslims).
Gandhi because he is played by Ben Kingsley in “Yellow Face” (or more appropriately “Brown Face”). But Kingsley plays so well and so convincingly I don’t see Ben Kingsley past the opening credits – I see – in some perverse rearrangement of time – Gandhi as I imagined he would be as the young lawyer being booted from a train in South Africa and years later as the frail looking robed defender with a walking stick.
And I wonder – What would Gandhi say about this portrayal? What would he say about Yellow Facing?
In the Arthur Dong documentary, Hollywood Chinese, Luise Rainer’s (the actress who played O-Lan in The Good Earth), sentiment on authenticity is reiterated by Nancy Kwan and a few of the others interviewed: “It’s illusion… It’s much more important to be true to the character inside than to be exactly right on the outside.”
Racebending (the site that got me thinking about this again), was created to encourage “fair casting practices. As a far-reaching movement of consumers, students, parents, and professionals, we promote just and equal opportunities in the entertainment industry.” Its creation was sparked by M Night Shyamalan’s decision to cast only White actors as the protagonist leads in his adaptation of Nickelodeon’s cartoon series, Avatar.
He rationalizes his decision in an io9 interview:
Here’s the thing. The great thing about anime is that it’s ambiguous. The features of the characters are an intentional mix of all features. It’s intended to be ambiguous. That is completely its point. So when we watch Katara, my oldest daughter is literally a photo double of Katara in the cartoon. So that means that Katara is Indian, correct? No that’s just in our house. And her friends who watch it, they see themselves in it. And that’s what’s so beautiful about anime.
”So that means that Katara is Indian, correct? No that’s just in our house.”
And so I think that’s where the problem lies – “just in our house…” Why should we be Katara just in our houses? Why can’t Katara be Indian? Why does she have to be White? While I agree with Luise Rainer about the craft of acting and the art of making a good film, I think she and Shyamalan miss the point – It is about the opportunity to indulge in the illusion, not about the illusion itself. It is akin to Shyamalan telling his daughter: “Honey, that’s cute but you can’t wear the Katara costume outside like the other kids.”