Hawaii has always been the cinematic setting for the age-old spiritual quest, one in which a confused white man takes to the white sand beaches and the birds of paradise and strolls, endlessly, against a backdrop of crashing waves and Technicolor sunsets, until he either gets the girl or figures out he didn’t need her at all. It’s a beautiful location that’s easily accessible, but far enough away to feel exotic. It’s as if the island itself is steeped in wisdom, like strolling the beaches and simply being around the happy locals will excise the poison within and return you back to your native shores, renewed, refreshed, cleansed. We see it in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” in “Punch Drunk Love” and “50 First Dates.” “Aloha,” Cameron Crowe’s mangled “love letter” to Hawaii, is yet another entry in the canon of douchey-white-men-finding-themselves cinema, and it’s a real doozy.
The pre-release news cycle for the film has been pretty bleak. When hackers busted Sony wide open, we learned that the movie has been riddled with issues from the start. The film, originally titled the worrisome “Deep Tiki,” was widely hated by both executives and test audiences, and the script itself had been tinkered with since 2008. This thing took seven years to rise to its shaky, too-tan legs, and totter to theaters. Yesterday, the Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) came out with a statement condemning Crowe’s casting:
“Caucasians only make up 30% of the population, but from watching this film, you’d think they made up 90%. This comes in a long line of films (The Descendants, 50 First Dates, Blue Crush, Pearl Harbor) that uses Hawaii for its exotic backdrop but goes out of its way to exclude the very people who live there.”
You’ll probably com across the trailer for “Aloha” as you’re flipping through channels and think to yourself, Oh, I liked ‘The Descendants’, so I bet I’d like this. This is where you’d be very, very wrong.
The film itself is pretty loose on plot, relying merely on Bradley Cooper’s eye crinkles and Emma Stone’s bemused expression and quivery lower lip to convey emotion. Defense contractor Brian Gilchrist (Bradley Cooper) returns to Hawaii to handle something shady, helmed by eccentric billionaire entrepreneur Carson Welch (Bill Murray). There are complications, naturally, a bunch of nonsensical plot points that never quite come together. There’s something about a private satellite, and something else about the blessing of a gate, which seems to be of utmost importance, but it’s never actually explained why.
Hawaiian culture is treated with the same reverent mysticism it usually gets in popular culture. At one point, after driving back from a meeting with Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele, the real life head of state of the group Nation of Hawai’i, Gilchrist is driving down a dark road when they stop to let a group of Nightmarchers, the ghosts of ancient Hawaiian warriors, pass. There is much talk of mana. There are singalongs to Hawaiian songs and ceremonies and leis and kukui nut necklaces. Rachel McAdams goes to a holiday party with a flower in her hair. It is all par for the course, but the story pays little actual service to the culture of the islands, merely glossing over the very real concerns that it intended to illuminate.
On this magical island Gilchrist finds himself caught between two women. There’s his old flame Tracy (Rachel McAdams), whom he ran out on 13 years ago, because he’s not only a douchebag, but a lovable, handsome one at that. Then there’s Captain Allison Ng, assigned to be his keeper. She’s a real spitfire, this one, all success and ambition and sharp, jabby elbows, but with a soft side. She likes peppermint tea, but is cool enough to get drunk and fall in love with a man she has known for about an hour. She’s also a proud half Swedish, quarter Chinese and quarter Hawaiian woman, who is played by Emma Stone.
Emma Stone, a white actress best known for her role as a white savior with a heart of gold in “The Help,” plays a character who is ostensibly the result of an Asian penis interacting with a white vagina.
For your reference, here is what a Google image search of the name “Allison Ng” brings up. Do you see anything fishy? One of these things is not like the others. One of these things is a white woman. That white woman is Emma Stone.
There are a wide range of Asian Pacific Islander actresses that could have been considered for this role: Olivia Munn, Janel Parish, Vanessa Hudgens, Shay Mitchell, Lindsay Price or Sandrine Holt come to mind and that is with me just sitting back and thinking for a few minutes. Any of these women could handle the challenge, but it’s up to Hollywood to give any of them that chance. This casting decision goes hand in hand with a wide variety of other questionable ones in recent memory. Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily in NBC’s waking nightmare “Peter Pan,” for example, but the history is there. We’ve come a long way from the buck-toothed and accented
Andy Mickey Rooney in “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” but there’s still a long way to go. It’s not surprising that Emma Stone was cast, because she is a verified movie star, a big name who will bring people to fill seats and pay money, but it’s disappointing. With so many actresses out there who are just as suited for the role, it seems preposterous to me that someone in the process wouldn’t pull Crowe aside and say, “Hey, did you hear? Emma’s white, bro. Let’s circle back on this one.”
Staring at the same picture of Emma Stone, it became both crazy and less crazy to me that she was considered visually right for the part. Like a horrible version of #TheDress, every angle looked different. As someone who identifies as Hapa (of mixed ethnic heritage), it is clear to me that she is nowhere close, but I am only one person, with one opinion, and with one frame of reference. The beauty of being Hapa is that not a single person looks one way. I have a sister who looks completely white, and another who has been described by a friend as having the face of ancient Aztec royalty. We are a wide-ranging bunch, and I don’t doubt that somewhere out there, there’s a little Swedish-Chinese-Hawaiian baby girl that has Emma Stone’s grey eyes and the pert, ski jump nose that I used to wish for as a child. But that doesn’t mean that her casting was okay.
Representation for anything other than the status quo is sorely lacking in Hollywood. We live in 2015, a year when the great drought of diversity on TV was briefly slaked with “Black-ish” and “Fresh Off The Boat,” two shows that felt revolutionary. If you’re a minority, it still feels like a privilege to see a face that looks like yours shining back at you on the big or little screen. Cameron Crowe had a chance to actually acknowledge the culture he was trying to honor, and he failed miserably. That’s why this is upsetting. That’s why this is not okay.