Trying to write about Cloud Atlas, based on the novel by David Mitchell, and directed by the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer, is a difficult endeavor. The film combines narratives of disparate characters and genres across six very different eras, from the Black Atlantic era wherein we encounter a lawyer returning to England from the British Virgin Isles, to some future wasteland, where the world has been apparently decimated by unknown disasters with society split between an ultra-technological population and a pre-civilization one. The narratives range from historical fiction, 1970s crime thriller, present day situational comedy, to future dystopia. But unsurprisingly, they each share common elements, including Tom Hanks’ and Halle Berry’s repeated appearances as different characters within most of the timescapes, and more importantly for this blog, a repeated fascination with slavery, bondage, and generally human classism.
The movie opens with a young American lawyer touring a large Caribbean plantation. He hears the sounds of whipping, and as he approaches the slave quarter, he witnesses one slave, tied to a whipping post, receiving brutal beating. As he makes eye-contact with the man being whipped, he passes out, a joint reaction to the inhumanity of the abuse as well as the overwhelming heat of wearing a black suit in equatorial conditions. While the beating is not nearly as graphic as that of 12 Years a Slave, the scene still shocks the viewer, and we are immediately placed in a world where we expect to witness the inhumanity that man is capable of in his relations to others. Violence operates in this film not solely as a reminder of the horrors of the slave trade, but as a common denominator of all moments of human history, past and present; a sort of warning to all that even with study, history, in the form of human violence inflicted on other humans, will continually repeat itself. But the film is not entirely hopeless, instead, it proffers that once humanity has reached to a darkest point, there will inevitably be those who reverse the pendulum and progress towards further enlightenment and equality, though admittedly at a high cost.
This depiction of violence, as a shared human element, could be seen as somewhat diluting the seriousness of the Black Atlantic experience, particularly when projecting similar situations onto an as yet unknown future. While the entire narrative is a fiction, the storyline based in the Caribbean during the slavery era is clearly based on fact. The other most violent storylines though feel somewhat more far-fetched. In the 1970s we see a corporation planning a nuclear meltdown in Southern California as a means of cementing oil powers prominence, in a future society clones are used as a labor force that is totally without rights or autonomy, and in the even farther future, the technological branch of society somehow leaves other branches of humanity without any knowledge or technology, subject to other violent groups raiding. The scenes of violence themselves are very shocking, particularly when we imagine a future which produces humans only to later kill them off later to feed those very same clones:
Warning: this scene is particularly graphic
(Warner Brothers 2012)
The idea that such a society could exist in the future is horrifying. But it also seems highly unlikely. It is difficult to imagine that even should the world have a dire need for such labor that we would be able to accept the relative inhumanity of cloned individuals, let alone murder them like cattle. The same goes for the far future. Despite a true history of drastic income disparity, a world where cures for everything are abundant and easily obtained is denied to half the world, and not just denied but made totally incomprehensible, is totally unfathomable. The point here then is that these depictions, totally fictive, in fact water down the visceral human reaction to the horrors of the Black Atlantic. It instead receives little screen time here, relegated instead to a sort of beginning of human horrors, rather than viewed as a relative end in the history of man’s inhumanity to man. Though the film leaves its viewers hopeful that humanity will continue to progress out of darkness towards greater freedom and rights for all, it does so at the expense of our history, and I’m not sure that’s something we should tolerate.
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/