Perhaps you’ve heard the news: Cameron Crowe apologized for casting Emma Stone as Asian-American Allison Ng in his movie “Aloha.” Entertainment Weekly said it. Time magazine said it. Us Weekly, People, even Indiewire’s own The Playlist all said it. Case closed, mystery solved. Move along here, nothing to see.
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 1/4 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.
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.
I get why publications went with “Cameron Crowe Apologizes for Casting Emma Stone.” (It reminds me of the anecdote in Greil Marcus’ In the Fascist Bathroom where he unsuccessfully lobbies a Rolling Stone editor to change the headline “Elvis Costello Repents” on his cover interview. His editor responded, “Give me something better in three words, or it runs.” It ran.) But given the discussion that Crowe’s movie has caused, it’s important to look carefully at what he’s saying — and, just as important, at what he’s not. Crowe is not apologizing for casting Emma Stone, who fits his physical description of the character, a “red-headed local” who “look[s] nothing like” a native Hawaiian, to a tee. He’s apologizing that “Aloha” does not make clear why he cast her. Although the movie’s Allison does seem unusually fond of reeling off her ethnic background to utter strangers, it comes off more as a mild eccentricity than as evidence of any identity crisis — and since everyone in “Aloha” is constantly babbling about something or other, it’s not even a distinguishing characteristic. You can read into those moments an underlying anxiety about unintentionally passing for white — Allison sees herself as mixed-race, and feels angry or even guilty that others do not — but in a movie where so little of the characters’ behavior is recognizably human, there’s not much impetus to infer that degree of subtlety. As Chris Lee, who is Asian-American, wrote at Entertainment Weekly, “she’s wholly absent any shred of ethnic je ne sais quoi.”
The issue isn’t really, or at least not only, Allison Ng, or the plausibility of casting Emma Stone as a mixed-race woman. As the Daily Beast’s Jen Yamato wrote on Twitter, “Asian Emma Stone isn’t the problem; she looks like some of my cousins.” It’s that the movie places her in a context where she’s the most prominent, and in many scenes, the only non-white character, and that the movie seems to forget about her race whenever she’s not talking about it. As Yamato wrote at the Beast, “The outraged should be more incensed that for a movie set in Hawaii, there are precious few non-white faces onscreen.”
When Allison and Bradley Cooper’s Brian Gilcrest visit a stronghold of (visibly) native Hawaiian activists, led by real-life nationalist Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele, she’s welcomed as one of their own, like an explorer stepping off the beach in some staged re-enactment. All it takes is a phrase in the native tongue, which Slate’s Nate Chinen, himself hapa haole, says is uttered “with the awkward care of someone who just spent 20 minutes repeating it to her dialect coach,” and she’s jamming on “Waimanalo Blues” — “in the style of Gabby [Pahinui,]” she adds, so they’ll know she’s old-school.
Of course, as is par for Crowe’s course, Allison ends up merely being a means to Brian’s redemption, a circumstance that would arguably play worse if the actress in the part were visibly non-white; all we need is for the legend of Lono to meet “The Legend of Bagger Vance.” Which is to say that what appears at first to be an issue of casting goes much deeper and wider. It’s not that Crowe wrote a complex, well-rounded Asian-American character and then inexplicably cast a green-eyed redhead in the part. It’s that he offloaded the movie’s trickiest issues onto a secondary character, then reduced her to a secondary (at best) agent in one more Cameron Crowe dreamer’s quest to get his mojo back. There might be a great movie to be made about Allison Ng. “Aloha” is most definitely not it.