The 2013 Academy Award nominations were announced today and among them was a Best Actress nomination for Naomi Watts’ performance in The Impossible. The film follows a family who find their Thailand holiday caught in the mayhem of the December 2004 tsunami. As well as receiving many rave reviews, the film has been widely criticised for turning a natural disaster in Asia into a story about white people.
Devin Faraci’s review on Bad Ass Digest calls it “the sad story of a white family who lost all their luggage while having to see lots of Thai people dying in a tsunami” while David Cox at The Guardian places the film into the long history of Hollywood whitewashing. For me, the racism of The Impossible is less remarkable than the way in which third world experiences become mere “background colour” for a first world learning moment.
But hang on. Isn’t the film based on a true story? Why shouldn’t this family have their story told?
Sure. But there are seven billion people in the world today, and each one has countless stories to tell, as well as the stories of past, future and worlds that never were. So which stories get told, and in particular which stories get financed and publicised, is political.
It’s no accident that this Spanish production is in English language. The Spanish director and production company previously collaborated on the 2007 Spanish language film The Orphanage, which has since sold rights to an American studio for an English-language remake. I imagine that experience might make you consider how to make your original films more marketable to an American audience.
It’s no accident that the film casts blonde, light-skinned actors and actresses to play the dark-haired, olive-skinned Spanish family on whose story the film is based. Both director Juan Antonio Bayona and Maria Belon (portrayed by Naomi Watts) have said they consciously didn’t specify the nationality of the main family as they wanted the film to be “universal”. But obviously the film is still set in a particular time and place, among real events that affected real people. It’s not a fantastical animated allegory – it’s Thailand in 2004.
It’s no accident that the film revolves around the story of tourists, whose departure gives the film neat closure, rather than the local residents who have to contend with destroyed infrastructure, economic uncertainty, and many people displaced long after the physical disaster is over.
There is a deliberate choice here to use this story and these actors, not because they are universal, but because they appear universal – because European tourists and blonde actors are neutral and generic, in a way Asians or actors of colour are not.
Another film that has been recognised in this year’s Oscar nominations is Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, a film about the abolition of slavery in the USA that features no Black characters in its core cast. Kate Masur’s analysis in the the New York Times calls the film determined “to see emancipation as a gift from white people to black people, not as a social transformation in which African-Americans themselves played a role”.
I think the whiteness of these two productions has less to do with people of colour actors being unmarketable, as the presumption that subaltern stories are essentially uninteresting. In both films, the thoughts, feelings and actions of the central white characters are complex and unpredictable, dramatically developing throughout the film as the characters learn and grow. White people make decisions. People of colour have situations, which determine their actions and motivations. White people experience trauma, sins and tragedies, while everyone else’s suffering is part of their natural condition.
This is changing in relation to the portrayal of people of colour in contemporary Western settings, especially for middle-class characters. But it remains to be seen whether the Academy Awards can imagine third world people, people in subaltern positions (enslaved, colonised, or just poor) actually have stories to tell, rather than just suffering to embody.