Yellow Filter: A Cinematic Technique or Pushing Stereotypes?

When does artistic creativity cross the line into pushing stereotypes?

By: Jeremy Ullmann

It didn’t take long for Extraction to become a lockdown sensation—the action-packed and fast-paced film quickly rose the ranks to become the most viewed Netflix original film ever.

Why then, is it also receiving so much criticism?

Extraction tells the story of a mercenary (Chris Hemsworth, a slightly less immortal Thor) hired to rescue the kidnapped son of a crime lord, who is being held in the drug underworld of Dhaka, Bangladesh. As soon as the trailer was released, viewers noticed something odd about the aesthetic of the location. While the behind the scenes footage showed Dhaka as dusty but colourful, the finished film was colour-graded to exaggerate—and, by extension, dramatically change—the look of the city.

For most viewers, Extraction was their first exposure to Bangladesh, a country that despite being the eighth most populous country in the world is seldom visited by international tourists. So how well does the film’s colour palette portray the actual country?

“Dhaka is huge, dusty and hot, so it does seem somewhat ‘sepia,’” Mya Salehin, a Bangladeshi doctor working in the United Kingdom told Media Diversity Institute.

“But Bangaldesh is very vast in terms of its landscape,” she continued, speaking to the geographic diversity of the country. “Bangladesh is also colourful. Very lush and green in places like Sylhet in the North. Sandy beaches and palm trees in Cox’s bazar.”

Why then, did the filmmakers exaggerate Dhaka’s colour so much, and carry this aesthetic into the countryside, making a lush area full of rivers and palm trees appear yellow, dirty and dark?

It turns out that it is a common problem—many Hollywood directors habitually use the same yellow colour palette to dramatize stories taking place in Latin America, Africa and South Asia, a practice that visually casts these places as universally warm, hot, dry and dusty. But how does this work, when places such as Mexico City, Kigali, Mumbai or the Bangladeshi coast are not even close to being deserts? Some commenters have suggested that the yellow colour grade creates a feeling of tension and action—but then why is it not as frequently applied to U.S. based action films?

“Many filmmakers in Hollywood and other mainstream industries around the world consider cinema as entertainment and a creative expression. They do not necessarily find themselves ‘answerable’ to the socio-political concerns of any particular community,” says Dr Victor Fan, senior lecturer in Films Studies at Kings College University.

“For them, their primary concern is to tell a story the way it is meant to be told. When a cinematographer or director decides to use a yellow filter in scenes that take place in Africa, Latin America, and South Asia, they indeed intend to create a space that would make their intended viewers (i.e. viewers like themselves) associate it with poverty, ‘pre-modernity’, lawlessness.

But how does this impact stereotypes of these places—many of which are developing countries that are working hard to lift themselves out of poverty, and compete on a global scale? Whether or not it is the intended effect, this filter often invokes a “third world” aesthetic, as it was seen in films like City of God, which takes place in the Rio De Janiero favelas.

Meanwhile, blue—the direct opposite of yellow, in terms of colour theory—represents futuristic, vibrant and progressive societies. Films like The Wolf of Wallstreet use this hue to subtly highlight the wealth and modernity of New York City—but while this accurately portrays the city as seen through the eyes of a billionaire, a yellow filter superimposed over palm trees and lush landscapes feels forced, and inauthentic.

Extraction is certainly not the only film to use the yellow filter to evoke a feeling of third world poverty. Breaking Bad was subject to internet mockery for its ‘Mexico filter’ which it used to highlight any scenes taking place south of the border. The Darjeeling Limited and Slumdog Millionaire, both set in India and directed by Anglo-American directors, were similarly yellow-graded to a similar effect. Even Disney’s Queen of Katwe – a feel good biopic about a young Ugandan chess prodigy who grows up in a slum – applied the yellow filter throughout the scenes set in the African country. Twitter user Muganzi Sonia responded during a twitter exchange on the subject, to a user who suggested that these films had to be yellow as they represented desert climates.

It is not only the yellow filter. In addition to the blue filter, Hollywood frequently applies a greyish tint to films such as the 2018 film Red Sparrow, which is set in Eastern Europe—the aesthetic paints an air of gloominess, and backwardness, as if the sun never shines. While sometimes the visual cues provided by colour grading serve to further bring the viewer into the story, irresponsible use pushes stereotypes, and shows the racial and class bias of directors. In many ways, it is one more version of the way that a disproportionate number of films have cast Arab characters only to have them drive plots related to terrorism, or Latinx characters only to be overly sexualised.

“Honestly, not much has changed over the years for how people of colour are represented in Hollywood,” says Rani Khanna, a filmmaker and professor teaching on Media Diversity Institute’s MA course in Diversity and the Media at the University of Westminster.

“They are either the bad guy, the gangster, or victim, or simply a mere token, or as backward, poor and dirty and therefore not worth of any screen attention,” she continues.

“If we tell a cinematographer or director that these tropes have real impact on our perceptions of these regions and communities, they would probably say that we are actively censoring their creativity and that this is indeed how they feel about those places and communities”

While Extraction may be an enjoyable film, the filmmakers had a responsibility to show that Bangladesh is more than a stereotype. Perhaps it doesn’t make sense for the story to explore its remarkable decrease in poverty over the last decade or the a rapidly improving healthcare system. However, the yellow filter does no justice to the clear skies and green trees along its coast and furthers an image that the entire country is backwards and lawless, full of dangerous drug lords and covered in dirt. It is great that a major film was shot in Bangladesh—but the filmmakers should have used it as an opportunity to show the country as it actually is, instead of pushing the same old tired stereotypes.