Days after the release of his critically maligned Aloha, filmmaker Cameron Crowe has offered an apology for the controversial casting of star Emma Stone has a half-Asian (one-quarter Chinese, one-quarter Hawaiian) fighter pilot, a plot point that is repeated throughout the romantic comedy (Stone’s Allison Ng is passionate about Hawaiian history and culture, which she talks about repeteadly during the course of the film).
Crowe’s film has been hit repeatedly, thanks to mostly bad reviews (it’s currently sitting at an 18% Rotten on Rotten Tomatoes) and poor box office performance (it was number six this weekend, behind fellow newbie San Andreas and four holdovers). But the controversy behind casting on the Hawaii-set film has been the most noticeable, and it’s exactly that which Crowe is answering to today. The filmmaker took to his own blog, The Uncool, to issue an apology and a bit of an explanation as to why the blonde Stone was picked to portray a character with an Asian background. It is a very telling comment on the film, and it’s also a very sad one.
The filmmaker starts off on a downbeat, writing:
“From the very beginning of its appearance in the Sony Hack, Aloha has felt like a misunderstood movie. One that people felt they knew a lot about, but in fact they knew very little. It was a small movie, made by passionate actors who wanted to join me in making a film about Hawaii, and the lives of these characters who live and work in and around the island of Oahu.”
He continues, explaining that Allison was actually based on a real Hawaiian resident:
“Thank you so much for all the impassioned comments regarding the casting of the wonderful Emma Stone in the part of Allison Ng. I have heard your words and your disappointment, and I offer you a heart-felt apology to all who felt this was an odd or misguided casting choice. As far back as 2007, Captain Allison Ng was written to be a super-proud ¼ Hawaiian who was frustrated that, by all outward appearances, she looked nothing like one. A half-Chinese father was meant to show the surprising mix of cultures often prevalent in Hawaii. Extremely proud of her unlikely heritage, she feels personally compelled to over-explain every chance she gets. The character was based on a real-life, red-headed local who did just that.”
That is certainly a fair explanation but, at the very least, Crowe’s desire to convey Allison’s frustration doesn’t scan in the movie ‐ instead, she just seems hyper-peppy and very involved with island culture. Aloha as a whole suffers from a choppy, disjointed feeling (the editing during the film’s first half is, to put it very kindly, confusing and jumpy). Perhaps, over the years of development that Aloha slogged through, we lost scenes of Allison venting her issues, but those would have proven essential to the film, and would only have made her character feel more full and compelling. (And that’s not say that Stone isn’t good in the film, I continue to find her zippy energy extremely fun to watch, even as others pass it off as being part of the “manic pixie dream girl” trope; she was my favorite part of the film.)
Would it also have saved Crowe from the backlash? Probably not.
The film came under fire before it even opened, as the New York Post reported weeks ago that the Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) had issued a “blistering press release” that claimed that Crowe had “whitewashed” his Hawaii-set film. “Caucasians only make up 30 percent of the population [of Hawaii], but from watching this film, you’d think they made up 99 percent,” commented MANAA’s Guy Aoki at the time, pointing to the film’s starry (and mostly Caucasian) cast as being unrepresentative (and insulting) to the population of Hawaii.
Moreover, the Post shared that Aoki believed “the biggest roles for Asian-Pacific Islanders in the film…are for ‘Indian pedestrian,’ ‘upscale Japanese tourist’ and ‘upscale restaurant guest.’” Aoki’s claim, however, wasn’t exactly correct, as the film does feature a subplot that centers on the Nation of Hawaii, a sovereign state dedicated to Hawaiian history and self-determination. That portion of the film even stars Nation of Hawaii leader Bumpy Kanahele as himself, and was filmed on location at a Nation of Hawaii village. (If you visit the Nation of Hawaii’s website today, the first thing you’ll see is a trailer for Aloha, along with a note that “The movie Aloha deals with the issue of Hawaiian history and sovereignty, and Nation of Hawaii leader Bumpy Kanahele plays a prominent role in the movie, which was filmed on location at Pu’uhonua o Waimanalo village.”) But that was only the beginning.
Over at Jezebel, Jia Tolentino wrote about the situation on Monday in a piece titled “Emma Stone Playing a Half-Asian Character in Aloha: Literally Why,” in which she passionately writes (while also drawing some essential parallels):
“But I think the real problem, for me, is that I’m finding this super fucking boring instead of upsetting. The problem for me is I’m that used to it. Asian erasure is so normalized (and much worse, codified in patterns of professional advancement) that I can’t even get my blood up about the idiocy that allowed these castings: Emma Stone as Allison Ng, but also Josh Hartnett as an Inuit sheriff, Jake Gyllenhaal as the Prince of Persia, Carey Mulligan as the “Latina” love interest in Drive, Scarlett Johannson as the Asian lead of Ghost in the Shell ‐ all the while audiences happily flip their shit about, say, Cinna and Rue in the Hunger Games being black.”
At The Daily Beast, Jen Yamato penned her own take on the casting, “The Unbearable Whiteness Cameron Crowe’s Aloha,” which neatly addresses the problem (while also smartly noting that MANAA and other critics had not seen the film before issuing their claims of whitewashing, which likely would have been overshadowed by the introduction of Stone’s character). She writes,
“Crowe might’ve even gotten away with it if he’d cast any of his supporting characters with minorities, more accurately repping the ethnic makeup of the islands. Instead, his ‘love letter’ to Hawaii feels about as authentic as a mainlander’s #TBT to that one exotic Oahu vacay years ago, sipping Mai Tais on the beach at sunset while watching the hula show.”
And that Nation of Hawaii subplot? It’s just not good enough, as Yamato continues:
“Unfortunately, the plot thread involving Kanahele and the Native Hawaiian cause dissipates like the mythological Menehune into the misty Hawaiian night. Aloha’s minority characters take the backseat, left to look for signs in the sky as Cooper’s flawed hero saves them from a fate of his own making, transformed by the island’s mana, and by love. More tellingly, Kanahele relents on his moral high ground and trades his people’s blessing for two mountains and better cellphone reception. Welcome to Cameron Crowe’s Hawaii.”
Crowe ends his comment/apology with a vow, writing “so many of us are hungry for stories with more racial diversity, more truth in representation, and I am anxious to help tell those stories in the future.” Too bad then that it could have already happened in the past, like just last week.