Accumulated Histories and Disposable People in Cloud Atlas and the Black Atlantic

Deeps > Contemporary Film and the Black Atlantic > History > Accumulated Histories and Disposable People in Cloud Atlas and the Black Atlantic

The 2004 novel, Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell shows historical repetition/accumulation to be a clear theme, and the trailers for the movie make the case that this has not changed in the adaptation process. As Tom Hanks says in the trailer below, “Our lives and our choices, each encounter suggest a new potential directions.” This crossing and recrossing of paths, lives, and circumstances forms the the structures through which each individual story is told, while simultaneously connecting all six of narratives.

The six narratives include a 1849 narrative set on a voyage from the Pacific Islands to San Francisco, a composer’s struggle in Great Britain in 1936, a mystery involving a San Francisco journalist in 1973, a 2012 comedy again set in Great Britain, Neo Seoul in 2144, and a post-apocalyptic Hawaii.  Despite disparate genres, each segment of the film is linked, not only through the common themes, but through the same actors appearing as different characters across time and echoes of the other stories woven into the film (for example, the 1970s journalist readers the letters written by the protagonist of the 1930s narrative).

As movie critic Chris Vognar noted in his review of the film, Cloud Atlas carries themes that resonate throughout:

Freedom and bondage. Fate and destiny. Conformity and rebellion. Power and corruption. This is a movie with a lot on its mind, most of it conveyed with great seriousness. “From womb to tomb we are bound together, past and present,” explains a stoic revolutionary (Doona Bae) in the future world of Neo-Seoul. Just to make sure you get it, she says it more than once.”[i]

Ting Guo, in one of the few academic critiques of the film, argues, “it is the belief in modern human values–self-identity, social justice, democracy and global ethics, that points to a new direction for a collective humanity in the film version of Cloud Atlas.”[ii] In Guo’s analysis of the film, he connects the the themes throughout the plots, showing that nation, ethnicity, occupation, genre, and space/time do not ultimately separate the characters moving in this field. American slavery connects to the Chatham Islands just so much as it connects to a futuristic South Korea and even a dystopian Hawaii.

Peter Debruge, Chief International Film Critic, reviewed the film for Variety, stating, “suffice to say that common themes echo throughout the film, where the gesture of liberating a slave in 1849 reverberates through time, culminating in a paradigm-changing insurrection whose denouement occurs two centuries later.”[iii] Debruge, most specifically, connects the 1849 to the centuries ahead. Although he only touches on this instance briefly, I argue that this moment is not only the crux of the film, but directly inserts itself into the conversations about the Black Atlantic and modernity.

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Chronologically, the narrative of 1849 appears first, implying its significance in relation to the five following stories. This segment of the film follows the friendship of Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess), an American lawyer involved in the slave trade concluding his business in the Pacific Islands, and Autua (David Gyasi), a stowaway Moriori slave on a ship bound to San Francisco. If, as the film argues, “our lives are not our own,” and each moment in time builds the future, the slave trade is not only directly important to history but also the inciting incident to begin this specific historical period.

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Although the film does not spend a large amount of time examining issues specifically within the terms of the Black Atlantic, the problems created by American slavery, diaspora, and disposable people play an important role in the narration. In 1849, the slavery seen on the Chatham Islands becomes a vehicle through which the trade and the institution of slavery becomes critiqued.

According to Michael King, a New Zealand biographer and historian, in his book Moriori, “the Moriori were Polynesian like the New Zealand Maori, Tongans, Samoans, Hawaiians and the inhabitants of Easter Island” (15). Not only is this important historically, as it shows more than divisive difference  was at play in the racism and enslavement by the Moriori by the Maori. The portrayal of the Moriori by Cloud Atlas, both the movie and the novel, do not necessarily match history.

Although the Moriori are Polynesian, many of the actors portraying these people in the film are of African descent, which to a degree aesthetically connects similar experiences of these races together. Cloud Atlas‘s cast members, as stated previously, play multiple parts throughout the film. Many of the actors switch race, gender, and age. This fluidity of race/gender/nationality/age/historical location show that the connections across the globe and time throughout the casting and doubling of roles.

A late 19th-century photograph of the Moriori peoples.
In contrast, this is Cloud Atlas‘s portrayal of the Moriori. Autua is played by David Gyasi, an English actor of African descent.

The dialogue between Ewing and Reverend Giles Horrox (Hugh Grant) introduces the ties between the Moriori and American enslavement. Haskell Moore (Hugo Weaving), Ewing’s father-in-law, sent Adam to get a contract signed by Horrox that involves the slave in some unknown capacity. Horrox who participates in and supports the subjugation of non-whites, states that the races are on a ladder of civilization based on progress:

This explains the advancement of each race, why you have the Anglo-Saxon at the high-point on the ladder, nearest God and the ‘irreclaimable races,’ such as the Aboriginal and the African or even our own Moriori, who remain one rung up from the great ape, so obdurate to Progress and to the Word of God, that no one should be surprised when one of them slips off the ladder altogether.”

The beliefs of Horrox, and other white characters in this part of the film, show the connections between the slavery taking place in America and that in New Zealand (as well as other parts of the world). In the film’s claim that everything is connected to everything else, the global problem of slavery in this time as well as in others becomes connected as one evil. This racism reflects the position of the Moriori at the time. As King states:

Nobody in New Zealand — and few elsewhere in the world — has been subjected to group slander as intense and as damaging as that heaped upon the Moriori. They were regarded by many Victorian as the lowest in God’s hierarchy of created beings; and by non-Christians as negative proof of the Darwinian precept that only the fit survived. After 1835 Maori colonists despised them, enslaved them for a generation and referred to them contemptuously, in the borrowed currency of racism, as ‘black fellas’ (15-16).[iv]

The language of “hierarchy” permeates both King’s historical description of the Moriori and Horrox’s endorsement of the ladder theory. The division of races  becomes used as a logic to control part of the population. In turn, the film becomes a dialectical examination of the powerful and the powerless. Director Lana Wachowski put it this way:

And so when we first read David Mitchell’s book, I thought it was an unbelievable examination of incredibly varied perspectives, and also the relationship between the responsibility we have to people we have power over, and the responsibility we have to the people who have power over us. Are we meant to just accept their conventional construct of whatever they imagine the world to be? Or are we obliged in some way to struggle against it? In the reverse, what is the obligation of the person whose life we have power over? Are they obliged to struggle against that conventional relationship?”[v]

The power which racism and brutal control give the colonists over the Moriori continues to have reverberations across time.

Cloud Atlas the film, in fact, takes greater pains to connect African slavery to Moriori slavery than Mitchell’s novel. The Ewing plot of the novel has been basically been adapted faithfully for the film edition, despite cutting characters or repurposing characters/dialogue to streamline the storytelling. The novel, however, differs in that it mentions Ewing’s family but never shows them interacting.[vi] In the film, Adam returns home to reunite with his wife (Doona Bae) and tell his father-in-law he will no longer participate in slavery.

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By focusing on the ties between 1800s and the futuristic narrative set in Korea, I hope to show the direct impact the slave trade and diaspora had across time and space. Each story is obviously connected to the others in simplistic and complicated ways, but the two easiest connections to make when discussing disposable people are these. Several of the protagonists (Autua and Sonmi~451) face their own disposability as their time servitude draws to an end. These narratives make it clear that slavery isn’t “over,” the consequences of it still echo throughout time.

Slavery was not just connected across national boundaries in its “time,” the film argues, but continues to resonate across the ages. (Perhaps, most interestingly, slavery had been abolished in 1809 by British law and continuously discouraged, but the enslavement of the Moriori people lasted until the 1860s. This problem is dealt with in Cloud Atlas the novel but is left out of the film.) In other words, slavery does not end by law or by “improvements” made to society. The successfulness of the abolition movement, which Ewing and his wife plan to join at the end of the film, does not end racism, oppression, dispersion, or the circulation of people.

Korea in 2144 appears to have become a totalitarian state that thrives on consumerism. Sonmi, as a fabricant, plans to spend her life serving pure blooded humans until her time as a worker ends. In the same way, Autua finds himself forced to serve those who have taken away his land and his freedom. Though these characters take different paths, both acts to liberate themselves from slavery and expect to be seen as human.

In looking at Kevin Bales’s Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy, against the film, I plan to analyze the connections between these two narratives and show the consequences of power as they move throughout history. Bales links this “new slavery” to a global economy, showing that this form of the institution is both extremely profitable and has the ability to bring down costs in mass production. He states, “Although the direct value of slave labor in the world economy may seem relatively small, the indirect value is much greater […] Slavery lowers a factory’s production costs; these savings can be passed up the economic stream, ultimately reaching shops of Europe and North America as lower prices or higher profits for retailers” (23). [vii]

Billions of dollars, then, participate in this industry across the globe. Slavery may be illegal, but that does not stop the same countries that have outlawed slavery from profiting (however unintentionally) from the industry. The South Korea of Cloud Atlas, of course, acts as a portrayal of this “new slavery” that has become institutionalized and promulgated by the state itself. Sonmi, after she breaks free from her labor and becomes a revolutionary, presents a major “political problem” rather than a scientific or spiritual one. In the graph below, quoted from Bales’s book, the differences between old and new slavery are emphasized, showing the changes made within the institution throughout the years.

This is a graph from Disposable People explaining the difference between old and new slavery (15).
This is a graph from Disposable People explaining the difference between old and new slavery (15).

In distinguishing old and new slavery,  this graph may be helpful when thinking of Ewing’s narrative and the clone Sonmi~451’s storyline. In the futuristic South Korea, the fabricant Sonmi is forced to serve at a restaurant. Once these fabricants finish their time specified for serving, they are taken to a factory where they are recycled as food for still-living clones. Although not all of Bales’s attributes explicitly describe Sonmi’s situation, such as legal ownership being avoided, it is implied this order produces a low purchase cost and high profits for the clones owners. The film clearly shows there is a surplus of potential slaves, their enslavement is short-term, and these slaves are clearly disposable. Although the film states there is a binary of fabricant/pureblood through which racism takes on a new form, ethnically speaking, these fabricants do not appear to be any different than those they serve.

This contrasts with Autua’s situation — he has a legal master, his skills as a seaman save him from being treated as a disposable slave, historically the Moriori were depleted in numbers after their enslavement, and (as discussed before) ethnic differences were heavily asserted even if these were not strictly true. Of course, both characters face similar restrictive societies of control. The film first introduces Autua as he undergoes a brutal whipping. Sonmi witnesses a rape of a fellow clone and later watches as her friend is murdered after she resists sexual harassment by a consumer. In one way or another, both Autua and Sonmi attempt to expose the arbitrary limits placed around their peoples in an attempt to liberate themselves/overthrow control. The enslavement and “racism” displayed in both narratives prove that the issues dealt with in the 19th-century are just as prevalent in a more technologically advanced timeline.

And yet, despite the pessimism that the problems associated with capitalism, slavery, and control recur, the film makes the case that revolutions and multi-cultural literacy can take place between “different races” as well. The end of the film suggests hope for the future and, in fact, that redeeming moments may also be found in the past. In the segment of the film posted below, the narrative intercuts between the conclusion of Sonmi and Adam’s story lines. Sonmi, who has broadcast her story to a mass audience in rebellion faces execution. Adam, inspired by Autua’s self-liberation and grateful to the Moriori man for later saving his life, seeks to remove himself from the slave trade and plans to work with the abolitionists on the East Coast.

Before her execution, Sonmi states, “If I had remained invisible, the truth would have remained hidden. I couldn’t allow that.” Although the revolution’s stand does not produce instantaneous results, the final narrative in Hawaii reveals that Sonmi’s words have inspired generations, across nations. By exposing herself, Sonmi makes a political statement that her oppressors and those that have accepted this “natural order” cannot ignore. Autua, in the same way, shows Adam a truth: skin color does not define “good” and “evil” and all human life is equally valuable. Confronted with these truths, the peoples of the 1800s and the 2100s must decide whether or not to act based on what they now know. Haskell Moore warns:

There is a natural order to this world and those who try to upend do not fare well. This movement will never survive. If you join them, you and your entire family will be shunned. At best, you’ll exist as pariahs to be spat on and beaten. At worst, lynched or crucified. And for what? No matter what you do, it’ll never amount to anything more than a single drop in a limitless ocean.”

To which, Adam replies:

What is an ocean but a multitude of drops?”

This film (perhaps above other films that deal with the slave trade/slavery/segregation, ect.) acts as a descriptive theory of the Black Atlantic and its spilling over into (or perhaps beginning) modernity. That is, since the 1800s narrative acts as the early narrative, the choice of Autua to seek freedom inspires Adam to join in the movement to end slavery. What is the reason for this, if not to be a catalyst for the events that follows? Cloud Atlas leaves its audience with the message (although, admittedly, one of many) that the desire for freedom and equality is infectious and spreads through the populations across time and space. Adam, Autua, Sonmi, and the Korean rebels are only a few drops in this “ocean.” The final narrative set in post-apocalyptic Hawaii shows the culmination of these events and ends on a note of hope for humanity, despite recognizing violence and racism still exist. Although societies of control and supremacy keep asserting themselves then, cultures continue to sprout a counterpoint to domination, showing history accumulates rather than simply moves toward progression or regression.


[i] http://www.dallasnews.com/entertainment/movies/reviews/20121025-brazenly-ambitious-cosmic-fantasia-cloud-atlas-does-nothing-halfway-b-.ece [ii] Guo, Ting. “Cloud Atlas.” Journal of Religion and Film 17.2 (2013). Academic OneFile. Web. 31 Mar. 2014. [iii] http://variety.com/2012/film/reviews/cloud-atlas-1117948250/

[iv] King, Michael. Moriori. Penguin, 2000. Print. [v] http://www.avclub.com/article/the-wachowskis-explain-how-icloud-atlasi-unplugs-p-87900 [vi] Mitchell, David. Cloud Atlas. New York: Random House, 2004. Print. [vii] Bales, Kevin. Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 199AD. Print.

How to cite this project: Sasha Panaram, Hannah Rogers, Thayne Stoddard. “Contemporary Film and the Black Atlantic.” Deeps, (Accessed on Date) http://sites.duke.edu/blackatlantic/

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