Yellowface in Woody Allen's Magic in the Moonlight


BY Andrew Linde

Woody Allen films tend to vary from subject to subject. Last year’s Blue Jasmine was a drama about a woman dealing with the loss of her husband and her high society lifestyle. But we’re used to seeing him do comedy, and that is what his new film is.

Magic in the Moonlight is about Stanley, played by Colin Firth, who is asked to debunk supposed spirit medium Sophie, played by Emma Stone, fooling a family in France. Stanley is also a magician and goes by the stage name of Wei Ling Soo. Considering Colin Firth is an Englishman, this stage name shouldn’t fool anyone. That is why he wears make-up, a bald cap, and a fake mustache. In fact, one might describe his on stage disguise as looking like an Asian sterotype. And that person would be right!

So, how did this happen? Did we just forget about Jim Sturgess in Cloud Atlas and how people reacted to that? I haven’t seen Magic in the Moonlight, but I have a theory. The film takes place in the 1920s in France. Given the time period and location, this instance of yellowface is meant to show how the world used to be. A magician could sell more tickets by pretending to be from Asia. It will simply be a passing detail. Most of the trailer shows Colin Firth as himself.

In fact, Firth’s character seems to be inspired by real life magician William Ellsworth Robinson who performed as Chung Ling Soo until his death onstage in 1918.

I also don’t think the use of yellowface will be a punchline. In the trailer, to show off Sophie’s psychic abilities when she first meets Stanley she says, “I’m getting a mental impression. Are you from the Orient? Far East?” This is a jab at Stanley’s alter ego, Wei Ling Soo, not a joke about Asians or Asian culture. The film seems more focused on romance between the leads and how Sophie could actually have magical mind-reading powers.

Also, given the controversy Woody Allen just went through regarding his daughter, shouldn’t he stay away from such touchy subjects? At this point, removing the yellowface would be nothing more than censorship based on audience/advertising pressure.