Why Does This Movie About the 2004 Tsunami in Thailand Star a White Family?

I'm rattled by the idea that Summit Entertainment feels like the themes of heartache, loss, tragedy and pain have to be white-washed for audiences to “get” it.

Sep 5, 2012 at 6:00pm | Leave a comment

I watched the trailer for the upcoming film "The Impossible" last night and couldn't quite bend my head around what I was seeing. I knew the premise of the film –- a family vacationing in Thailand is torn apart by the tsunami that struck in 2004 -– and I knew that Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts were starring. I know that both actors are white. However, even armed with this knowledge I was still astounded when two and a half minutes later I felt like I was supposed to believe that the most important victims of the natural disaster were the British white family on vacation... and not the thousands of Thai people who died.

I understand that audiences expect some things over others. I get that McGregor and Watts are bankable stars and that people will go see movies they're in just because they're in them. Hell, I saw their names linked underneath the trailer description and had a moment of “Ooooh!” because they always make films I love.

I find it hard to believe that film studios, or in this case Summit Entertainment, have such a low opinion of the majority of movie-goers that they think we wouldn't go see a film about an actual Thai family coping in the wake of the tsunami. You guys, give it to me straight: am I totally crazy for thinking people would see that movie instead?

The reality and aftermath of the tsunami are enough to have me crying for days. I'd even say that I don't really think the topic ever needed to be touched by Hollywood. But since it has, I'm rattled by the idea that Summit Entertainment feels like the themes of heartache, loss tragedy, and pain have to be white-washed for audiences to “get” it. Is it impossible for people to empathize if someone doesn't look like them on a screen?

In an effort to try to make myself feel better about this, I searched around for a while for a commercially successful film starring non-white actors. It probably surprises no one that I couldn't come up with much. I did find various articles about how white people won't see movies that don't star other white people and the like –- none of this is new or news to me, but something about this particular film is really getting to me. I know that this has happened before and will probably continue to happen for decades, but taking an event, a natural disaster, that was so regionally devastating and so specifically NOT WHITE and turning it into a tale about how a wealthy white family's vacation was ruined by a bunch of water just turns my stomach in a way I didn't realize it could be turned.

Clearly I'm not an expert on this topic, and clearly this single trailer has stunned me into a stupor in which I can't articulate everything that's going on in my head. I keep grasping at straws, like “Maybe this would be OK if there had been any other films made about the disaster before this one” or “Maybe this would be OK if it told the story of a Thai family alongside the British family” and so on, but REALLY what I'm thinking is “This is not OK. This should never be OK. This IS never OK.”

I'm trying to grapple with how anyone ever thought this movie would be a good idea to make, and I'm not sure I can.

I realize that the film is based on the real-life struggle of a real-life family that experienced what we see in the trailer, and I'll say this: I can't imagine what that was like for them. I can't imagine being torn away from half your family, wondering if they're alive or dead, wandering around in an unfamiliar location trying to have conversations with people you can't speak to. I can't imagine watching my child float away from me. I do not know what that feels like. I hope I never know what that feels like. But you know who DOES know what that feels like? Actual Thai (and Indonesian, Sri Lankan, and Indian) families. They know what it feels like because it also happened to them.

Part of me is holding out a small bit of hope that "The Impossible" will actually be an intelligent look at white privilege and the remnants of Western imperialism, but that part of me is, as I said, quite small. I know that a film trailer can sometimes be deceptive, but I'm having a difficult time convincing myself that the movie will be about anything other than how this British white-skinned, blue-eyed, blonde-haired hetero-normative nuclear family beat the odds and reunited in the midst of a tragedy. Because you know what probably happens to that family when they do reunite? They hop on the first plane home and recuperate in their beds, tucked in with their favorite warm blankets and all the movies they can handle, mending their broken bones and shattered vacation dreams. 

Perhaps we'll get an obligatory “The State of Thailand” message at the end of the film to remind us that Those Other People suffered, too, but I wouldn't be surprised if the last shot is a smiling but still ailing Naomi Watts, gazing lovingly at a smiling but still ailing Ewan McGregor while their children run in the yard and like, fuck, I don't know, ride ponies and eat piles of food from the comforts of their massive home. Because that's what rich white people do after they overcome the odds.

Well, that -- and they get a movie deal.