Was the vituperative abuse heaped upon Sony-owned Columbia Pictures release “Aloha” and its writer-director-producer Cameron Crowe deserved?
In a word, no. In more than a word, absolutely not, no way, no how.
The romantic “Aloha” is a lightweight, trifle of a movie — but it’s not horrible. Parts of it are even touching, funny and thought-provoking. Some of it is also problematic (and I’m not even referring to the Emma Stone casting controversy), but not in any outrageous way. It’s not up there with the best of Cameron Crowe’s filmography (“Jerry Maguire,” “Almost Famous”) by any stretch. But he put himself into a no-win situation with this picture.
But was “Aloha” worthy of the attacks? Hardly.
By casting someone with no Asian or Pacific Islander background in a role in which the character is explicitly part Asian or Pacific Islander, Crowe’s timing couldn’t have been worse. In 2015, a tipping point was reached, where Hollywood — especially in its motion pictures — has finally gotten the message for the long-running lack of diversity in front of and behind the camera.
“Aloha” was no doubt finished months before the backlash began, though, and it’s likely that the idea of having Stone play Allison Ng was probably not given a second thought when the movie was in its casting stage. After all, while yellowface is almost as old as Hollywood, there is also a decades-long tradition in Hollywood in which a mixed-race character who is part Asian (or this case, part Asian and part Pacific Islander) is usually played by a white actor. (I won’t even get into the issue of Native Americans being played by whites!)
David Carradine as Kwai Chang Caine in the TV series “Kung Fu.” Jonathan Pryce as the Engineer in Broadway’s “Miss Saigon.” Peter Weller as Buckaroo Banzai in “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.” Linda Hunt as Billy Kwan in “The Year of Living Dangerously.”
The thinking is that since the character is half white, getting a white actor or actress to play the role is justifiable — and fair. In reality, it’s just lazy. The pool for actors and actresses who are in reality mixed-race or Eurasian or Hapa, as the case may be, is much smaller than the pool of white actors. To find someone who fits the part would take work and, more importantly, probably require spending extra money to actually beat the bushes to find someone who fits the part. In this instance, Emma Stone was a proven commodity, a young, attractive star on the rise, so she got the nod.
Emma Stone and Bradley Cooper in a scene from “Aloha.”
As for fairness because the character is half-white, which then gives a white actor the right to play the role — while it might sound OK on paper, the reality is that it’s a smokescreen, a dodge. There have been so few roles for actors of Asian ancestry, it’s actually morally bankrupt to not attempt to find an actor of Asian (or Pacific Islander) background to play the part.
Furthermore, because many of the phenotypes associated with Caucasians (lighter complexion, hair and eye color) are recessive genetic traits, someone who is, for example’s sake, half White and half Japanese, is usually — though not always — likely to have traits of the dominant genes: darker hair, eyes and complexion. While it may be possible for someone who is of the background of fictional character Allison Ng to look more Caucasian than Hawaiian and Chinese, putting Emma Stone in the role, regardless of how talented and attractive she is, was preposterous.
Sony and its Columbia Pictures label, meantime, has had an abysmal track record when it comes to casting for roles involving Asian characters — or characters that should have been Asian. It’s simply been tone-deaf and bone-headed in pictures like “21,” “Memoirs of a Geisha” or “The Green Hornet.” (That it’s a Japanese-owned company is all the more galling.)
While it’s a bit thin from my perspective, Crowe has said he cast someone who didn’t look Chinese or Hawaiian on purpose, because the character is based on someone real (a redhead) who was part-Hawaiian and therefore had to constantly overcompensate and point out her Hawaiian-ness.
But suppose Crowe had cast an actress who was Hapa or Eurasian to play the love interest of Caucasian protagonist Brian Gilcrest, played by Bradley Cooper. Crowe would have had to put up with just as much criticism from some who get offended when a movie depicts a romance between a white male and a female of Asian ancestry.
Only rarely does it go the opposite way in movies, like in “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story,” because it was based on real-life people, or in Broadway’s “The King and I,” which co-stars heart-throb Ken Watanabe in a play in which the female lead is Caucasian.
In movies nowadays, the attractive leads falls in lust and end up sleeping together very quickly, and this movie is no exception. But had the lead actress in “Aloha” been Chloe Bennet, Olivia Munn, Maggie Q or Kristin Kreuk, some guys (and it’s almost always a guy) would have had an aneurysm.
Like I said, it was a no-win for Crowe.
“Aloha” also raised the ire of many individuals and watchdog groups because it took place in Hawaii but failed to showcase more people who reflect the racial and ethnic makeup of the location, which is the one state in the Union in which whites do not make up the majority. Some felt it was disrespectful toward Hawaiian culture.
To the first point, yes, “Aloha” takes place in Hawaii — but mostly on a U.S. military installation. So, the argument actually loses a lot of heft because the makeup of the U.S. military in general and on a U.S. military base in particular don’t necessarily jibe with which state (or foreign country) the U.S. base is located in.
As for any disrespect toward Hawaiian culture, the Gilcrist character is quite cynical and says some things that aren’t too flattering after his meeting with Dennis Kanahele, who plays a Hawaiian sovereignty activist. But the movie itself is not disrespectful toward Hawaiian culture and it stands out as a rare mainstream movie that depicts Hawaiian sovereignty in any way whatsoever.
Furthermore, it’s one of the few mainstream movies in which Hawaii’s local music is shown, and it’s done lovingly. Crowe no doubt had a hand in that, since his background was a music journalist for Rolling Stone.
Regardless of its virtues and faults, the attacks on “Aloha,” Cameron Crowe and even Emma Stone were disproportionate to its place in popular culture. The reaction to “Aloha” wasn’t quite up there like the Boy Who Cried Wolf; it more a case of Chicken Little. In this case, the (vanilla) sky wasn’t really falling. To “Aloha’s” critics, I’d say save your energy for bigger fights.
Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at George@NikkeiNation.com. The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2015 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.