It’s Orientalism, My Dear Watson: Sherlock Holmes’ Trouble With Race

By Arturo R. García

It seems at least one scene in the upcoming film Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows will involve Robert Downey Jr.’s Holmes disguising himself as “a Chinese beggar” for laughs. Because crude racialized cosplay is funny, y’see – especially if there’s a British accent involved!

At least, that seems to be the reaction from some movie bloggers: The Huffington Post breathlessly reported that Downey’s yellowface get-up signifies director Guy Ritchie “has his hero going multicultural — to great comedic effect.”

Actually, what this bit threatens to do is continue a disconcerting trend: the creative teams behind the most recent attempts to “reimagine” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective stories can’t – or won’t – let go of some of their most xenophobic elements.

A similar issue emerged during the debut season of Sherlock, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ generally well-received modern spin on the detective. Last year’s episode “The Blind Banker,” written by Steve Thompson, went beyond using Chinese smugglers as villains to seemingly demonizing the whole of London’s Chinese immigrant community, as one viewer told Monique Jones:

Had it been based on a piece of canon that was rife with this kind of period-appropriate bigotry, I could have better understood it (although I’d have been deeply disappointed they weren’t capable of subverting it and reflecting the reality of London in 2010). But the fact is that this script is derived from a story which has NOTHING to do with Asia in the first place! So it was just egregious, lazy, stupid, reductive, racist codswallop. Which is a damn shame, because in other respects this is probably my favourite episode – but the whole thing is sullied by the racefail…I thought the mafia boss was fairly awesome, and she did a great job with her role, such as it was, and so I could have handwaved that. I like circuses, and so although it was fetishistic I was willing to work with them and handwave the Mysterious Oriental Circus thing. And I was trying to handwave the cliched depiction of the beautiful vulnerable maiden slain by her wicked brother.

But when they put OMINOUS MUSIC behind some normal footage of China Town, as if all the Londoners we were looking at were supposed to suddenly be Evil Scary Suspicious Figures just because they were of Asian extraction?

I wanted to punch someone in the face.

That portrayal was part of a bigger problem, according to 2010 Parliamentary candidate Philip Ling, who wrote in DimSum:

the next day after Sherlock Holmes, the current BBC Radio 5 Live advert for the new football season was on, and the Chinese character was a take away owner, celebrating in his shop. It makes you realise that actually almost all Chinese characters on British TV are:

  • An illegal immigrant
  • Linked to the criminal underworld
  • Or a take away owner.

This despite the evidence that Chinese students in the UK are amongst the highest achieving academic group, many working Chinese are doctors, lawyers (not to stereotype here either), as well as bankers, IT experts, fashion designers, teachers, graphic designers basically any job you can think of that exists. Yet there is none of this on British TV.

Doyle wasn’t averse to orientalism in his original works: In his novel The Lost World, he name-checked Sir Richard Francis Burton, who made a living making his way thru South Asia. And in the Holmes story The Sign Of The Four, Doyle introduced the character Tonga in the most dehumanizing of fashions:

It straightened itself into a little black man – the smallest I have ever seen – with a great, misshapen head and a shock of tangled, dishevelled hair. Holmes had already drawn his revolver, and I whipped out mine at the sight of this savage, distorted creature. He was wrapped in some sort of dark ulster or blanket, which left only his face exposed, but that face was enough to give a man a sleepless night. Never have I seen features so deeply marked with all bestiality and cruelty. His small eyes glowed and burned with a sombre light, and his thick lips were writhed back from his teeth, Which grinned and chattered at us with half animal fury.

Moreover, colonialism informs how Holmes and Watson approach the case, which involves a set of gems from India that goes back and forth between the characters of Captain Morstan and Major Sholto. Sholto is criticized not only for killing Morstan to get them, but for stealing them from an Englishman. Morstan’s theft, however, is glossed over.

Despite this, Sign has been adapted no less than 12 times for the screen (although it’s possible an Indian adaptation, Neekkam (The Move), is more sympathetic to Tonga and Sholto), for its’ bigger contributions to the Holmes canon: it’s the first mention of his drug habit, and the debut of Doctor Watson’s future wife, Mary.

But both of these plot points were already in play when we met Downey’s Sherlock in the last Holmes movie, which makes this costume choice for Downey seem all the more arbitrary by himself, Ritchie and Shadows writers Kieran and Michele Mulroney. As IGN reports, the film is “influenced by” a Doyle story, The Final Problem, but isn’t “strictly based” on it. Of all the disguises they had to choose from, is this really the best they could come up with?

Which isn’t to say that Holmes’ reputation as a master of disguise shouldn’t be played on in any new interpretations of Doyle’s work. But put it this way: when Downey’s character in Tropic Thunder, Kirk Lazarus, went to absurd lengths to “credibly” play a black man, the absurdity of the choice was made plain. It’s possible the same will happen to Downey’s Holmes in this new scenario, but given what’s gone on before, it hardly seems worth it for the sake of a played-out sight gag.

  • Kate

    That scene with the ominous music from BBC’s Sherlock was so bizarre. It was like, my god, look at these weird foreigners, so removed from our culture, with the way that they…talk on cell phones, and hang out with friends, and stuff.

  • Kate

    That scene with the ominous music from BBC’s Sherlock was so bizarre. It was like, my god, look at these weird foreigners, so removed from our culture, with the way that they…talk on cell phones, and hang out with friends, and stuff.

  • Soph

    Racist codswallop indeed! How could they think that was okay? This seems so obviously offensive I think I’d rather see what others make of the film before I give my money to the box office. I enjoyed the first one and probably would have gone to see the sequel but I don’t want to pay to see RDJ play another racist stereotype for kicks.

  • Soph

    Racist codswallop indeed! How could they think that was okay? This seems so obviously offensive I think I’d rather see what others make of the film before I give my money to the box office. I enjoyed the first one and probably would have gone to see the sequel but I don’t want to pay to see RDJ play another racist stereotype for kicks.

  • http://twitter.com/danthrasher Daniel Thrasher

    I loved all three episodes of the BBC show.  There’s something about the smugglers using the racism and fetishized interest of the ‘mysterious circus’ that the upper class Londoners had against them.  The show pointed out that the characters weren’t really the meek pan-Asian stereotypes they originally presented them as.
     
    There’s still the issue of the music and every Chinese character being tied to crime, but it’s a mystery show.  All of the music was dark and every guest character for these types of shows is categorically a victim or a criminal. 
     
    To me, the movie’s yellow face is much different because it’s being played for laughs.  Maybe it could work if RDJ doesn’t open his mouth and just goes by without interacting with anyone, but we just know it will come with a complete over-the-top performance. 

    • Jenny Islander

      Maybe if the point of the Chinese beggar getup is to get past people to whom he would be invisible?  Or (this being RDJ) people who would be disarmed by someone performing the stereotype of a groveling beggar with a bad accent?

      But, yes, ominous music paired with a shot of Chinatown . . . omens are not good.

    • Jenny Islander

      Maybe if the point of the Chinese beggar getup is to get past people to whom he would be invisible?  Or (this being RDJ) people who would be disarmed by someone performing the stereotype of a groveling beggar with a bad accent?

      But, yes, ominous music paired with a shot of Chinatown . . . omens are not good.

  • Digital Coyote

    I’m not at all surprised at how SE Asians were characterized on the new Holmes show given how PoC, human, alien, or otherwise, are often treated in Dr. Who.

    Really tired of people excusing RDJ’s–and all associated writing or directing parties, for that matter–colorface problem.  It’s not “multicultural.”  It’s not “okay” because he’s really playing someone trying hard to be authentic.  Melanin is not a damn punchline, but I think it makes white people feel comfortable when it’s made in to one.   As the other post today said: people of color don’t exist unless whites say they do – and, even then, they exist only as they are seen by whites.  Being outnumbered by billions is less scary if you can make them in to something other than real live human beings.

  • Digital Coyote

    I’m not at all surprised at how SE Asians were characterized on the new Holmes show given how PoC, human, alien, or otherwise, are often treated in Dr. Who.

    Really tired of people excusing RDJ’s–and all associated writing or directing parties, for that matter–colorface problem.  It’s not “multicultural.”  It’s not “okay” because he’s really playing someone trying hard to be authentic.  Melanin is not a damn punchline, but I think it makes white people feel comfortable when it’s made in to one.   As the other post today said: people of color don’t exist unless whites say they do – and, even then, they exist only as they are seen by whites.  Being outnumbered by billions is less scary if you can make them in to something other than real live human beings.

    • http://commentarybyval.blogspot.com/ Val

      Well said. I was really shocked at so many people making so many excuses for Robert Downey, Jr’s Blackface character in Tropic Thunder. And it looks like getting away with that has made him even bolder. I wonder what he’ll do next?

      • Kat

        Redface of course. The Holy Trinity.

      • Kat

        Redface of course. The Holy Trinity.

      • Anonymous

        Eh, I was actually on the fence with the Tropic Thunder role. To me, it read as a *critique* of blackface, which I’m fine with — but I’m sure it got a lot of uncritical laughs, and if a good portion of the audience isn’t perceiving the critical element, then it might as well be plain old blackface.

      • Anonymous

        The way I took the Kirk Lazarus character was as a skewering of the industry–that they would go to such great lengths to avoid casting a black man in a main role that they would take a white actor in blackface first. It also appeared to satirize actors who pride themselves on delivering “authentic” performances when everything about them is manufactured. If that’s not what people took away from it, though, it doesn’t really matter.

  • Digital Coyote

    I’m not at all surprised at how SE Asians were characterized on the new Holmes show given how PoC, human, alien, or otherwise, are often treated in Dr. Who.

    Really tired of people excusing RDJ’s–and all associated writing or directing parties, for that matter–colorface problem.  It’s not “multicultural.”  It’s not “okay” because he’s really playing someone trying hard to be authentic.  Melanin is not a damn punchline, but I think it makes white people feel comfortable when it’s made in to one.   As the other post today said: people of color don’t exist unless whites say they do – and, even then, they exist only as they are seen by whites.  Being outnumbered by billions is less scary if you can make them in to something other than real live human beings.

  • Anonymous

    I generally loved the BBC update of Sherlock, but I LOATHED The Blind Banker. The scene with the ominous music during scenes of Chinatown was especially infuriating. They tried to make lucky cats seem sinister, which would’ve been hilarious — lucky cats, sinister? really? — except for the way it was appalling.

  • Anonymous

    I generally loved the BBC update of Sherlock, but I LOATHED The Blind Banker. The scene with the ominous music during scenes of Chinatown was especially infuriating. They tried to make lucky cats seem sinister, which would’ve been hilarious — lucky cats, sinister? really? — except for the way it was appalling.

    • Julia

      Totally agree. And also, aren’t lucky cats Japanese, not Chinese? I was shaking my head at that, too.

  • Anonymous

    I generally loved the BBC update of Sherlock, but I LOATHED The Blind Banker. The scene with the ominous music during scenes of Chinatown was especially infuriating. They tried to make lucky cats seem sinister, which would’ve been hilarious — lucky cats, sinister? really? — except for the way it was appalling.