If you tell me there's a movie starring Emma Stone, Bradley Cooper, Rachel McAdams, John Krasinski, Alec Baldwin, and Bill Murray, chances are pretty high that I'll want to see it. A movie like that would be so stacked to the brim with A-list talent, all of whom draw a decently sized audience on their own, that it's hard to imagine it failing. Then throw Almost Famous director, Cameron Crowe, behind the camera? I'm sold.
So, with this stellar recipe for Hollywood success, where did Aloha go so wrong? Well, that's been the question on everyone's mind since its release last week.
According to Rotten Tomatoes, who currently has the film listed with an abysmal score of 19% fresh, reviewers called the film "half-baked" and "alien." As much as Aloha has been panned by the critics, being a bad film seems to be the least of its concerns. Instead of just being another mediocre movie that slips through the cracks, it has inadvertently become a hub of controversy.
Take a look at Aloha's IMDb page. In a film that takes place in Hawaii, and is cutely titled Aloha, not a single person in a primary role is Asian, Pacific Islander, or Native Hawaiian. And as much as I love and admire her work, there's no chance I would have believed Emma Stone is Allison Ng, the daughter of a Chinese-Hawaiian father and a Swedish mother.
To be fair, I am somewhat biased when it comes to this topic. Half of my family is from Hawaii, so I feel a deep connection to the islands and their culture. Furthermore, my father is Chinese-Hawaiian, while my mom is a mix of various Scandinavian nations.
Now, take a second to check out my profile picture, or think about any half-Asian you've ever met, and you'll see why Ng being played by Stone poses a bit of a problem.
Despite being a phenomenal actress, no amount of acting could make me believe that Emma Stone is a bi-racial woman who shares my genetic ancestry. Not even because she's blonde with green eyes. But because, as a White actress cast in a role where being of multiple ethnicities is an integral part of her character, she just isn't the best for the job.
Since the discussion of race has been prompted and Crowe's decision to cast Stone criticized, the director has written a lengthy apology. The statement posted on his official site says:
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.
Looking "nothing like" a Hawaiian is one thing, but being completely European is another.
Don't get me wrong! The melting pot of culture and ethnicity in Hawaii is one of the things that makes it great. But on the other hand, the alienation and isolation that is felt by mixed race people can also be very real and deserves to be properly addressed.
There's a sense that you need to act a certain way to ensure you're coming off as "[insert any ethnicity here] enough." I can't even begin to explain how many times I've answered the question, "So...what are you?" or had to explain why I know so much about Chinese and Hawaiian culture, despite looking fairly White.
Ethnic ambiguity is a double-edged sword. You get to be a part of multiple cultures, but you sometimes have to prove you have the right to be. If that's the struggle that Emma Stone's character is truly facing, why not celebrate the benefits and downsides of it by casting an actress that is even remotely Asian or a bi-racial?
I'm generally one who abides by the "best person for the role" rule. But in this case, we're dealing with an already underrepresented group: Asian actors. When it comes to Emma Stone's casting, it's not even really about her looks, but about casting the right actress for a role that claims to understand being of multiple ethnicities.
Sometimes being the best person for the role means being able to harness some of the intangible qualities that make understanding a role possible. I couldn't, for example, ever know what it's like to have grown up in the Hispanic culture, because that's not part of my experience and never can be.
Crowe continues his apology by saying:
Whether that story point felt hurtful or humorous has been, of course, the topic of much discussion. However I am so proud that in the same movie, we employed many Asian-American, Native-Hawaiian and Pacific-Islanders, both before and behind the camera… including Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele, and his village, and many other locals who worked closely in our crew and with our script to help ensure authenticity.
We were extremely proud to present the island, the locals and the film community with many jobs for over four months. Emma Stone was chief among those who did tireless research, and if any part of her fine characterization has caused consternation and controversy, I am the one to blame.
Am I glad that Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders helped with the movie? Of course! But for a movie that was filmed in a state where the population is less than a quarter white, it's not exactly a breakthrough moment. Film sets always hire locals, so hiring a majority of Asians would only make sense.
Am I happy that Emma Stone and the cast researched their roles? Absolutely! But again, endless research aside, it doesn't change the fact that her role may have been better suited for someone who is actually bi-racial.
Although I do appreciate Crowe's sentiment and I don't believe his casting was in any way ill-intended, I think the fact that he has to apologize, as opposed to simply making the right casting decision in the first place, is absurd.
Just to play devil's advocate for a second, let's compare this to the firestorm that started when Michael B. Jordan was cast as Johnny Storm (The Human Torch) for The Fantastic Four. Yes, parallels exist between the two scenarios. Johnny Storm, a generally white character in the comic books, is being played by a black actor. Yes, it's somewhat out of the norm, but it isn't quite the same thing.
Unless the comic book character's story is associated to a specific country or culture, their outward appearance should be far from static when adapted to the screen. Johnny Storm's identity was never tied up in him being white, nor did any of the Fantastic Four storylines ever revolve around it. So race-swapping does not fundamentally alter how an actor or actress does or doesn't understand a character, because it's not part of the character's identity.
The difference with Aloha is that it's taking an indigenous, and oftentimes marginalized culture, and turning it into a romanticized Hollywood version of what it really is.
The character of Allison Ng is, according to Crowe, based on a real person whose character is partially driven by her ethnic breakdown. So why not give one of the many Asian, Pacific Islander, or bi-racial actors out there a chance to play into what they know?
Cast a blonde haired, blue eyed actress if that's important to the character! But then let's come to a compromise and have the actress be little bit Asian. All I'm asking for is a bit of representation.
Between movies like Forgetting Sarah Marshall, 50 First Dates, and Just Go With It, do we even know what life in Hawaii really looks like without Hollywood's whitewashed and idealized camera lens?
To be honest, I don't blame Emma Stone. I also don't think Cameron Crowe should solely take responsibility for this misstep in judgement. Unrealized privilege is never intentional or malicious, and Crowe did the right thing by addressing it and promising to be more aware in the future, which is all you can ever ask. I'm sure dozens of people were involved in making this casting decision. This is an issue that belongs to the entertainment industry as a whole, not just one man.
Cameron Crowe once called Aloha his "love letter to Hawaii," but it reads more like a misguided fanfiction to me. I think it's about time we learn from our mistakes and wave goodbye to the errors of Aloha.