Cameron Crowe’s Aloha, has not been received well by the filmgoing public. Is this because Crowe made a really lousy movie? Well, he did, but the real outcry here is about a choice Crowe made before the cameras even started rolling: he cast Emma Stone as Allison Ng.
Ng is a central character in Aloha. She is the daughter of a half-Chinese, half-Hawaiian man and a Swedish woman. Throughout the movie, she reminds the characters around her — and, by extension, the audience — of this fact of her heritage, a point of pride for her: “I’m a quarter Hawaiian.” But Emma Stone is zero percent Hawaiian, zero percent Asian. Emma Stone is white.
To make a bad call even worse, Stone’s character is part of a movie that trivializes the culture it purports to celebrate. As E. Alex Jung notes at Vulture, the “inherent Pocahontas element of the movie would not have changed had Allison Ng been played by an actual woman of Asian and Hawaiian descent: Hawaii is a backdrop that allows a white guy to self-realize.”
Late Tuesday night, Crowe posted an apology to his official website, titled “A Comment on Allison Ng.” In it, he writes:
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.
He goes on to clarify that many Asian-American, Native-Hawaiian and Pacific-Islanders worked on the film; he says they were employed both on and behind the camera, though none of the central characters is played by a non-white actor. (Other boldface names include: Bradley Cooper, Rachel McAdams, Bill Murray, John Krasinski, Danny McBride and Alec Baldwin.) And naturally he implores readers not to hold Stone responsible for the “consternation and controversy” caused by her casting: “I am the one to blame.”
Crowe closes out with this: “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.”
Here’s hoping Crowe actually follows through: A study out of USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism analyzing the ethnicity of speaking characters across the 100 top-grossing films of 2013 found that only 4.4 percent of them were Asian, compared to the 74.1 percent who were white. Asian males were found to be the least likely individuals to be portrayed in a romantic relationship.
And a few years ago, Indiana University professor Andrew J. Weaver conducted a study on why Hollywood blockbusters rarely feature non-white actors. He determined that studios were wary of casting minorities in lead roles for fear of alienating white audiences.
“There is an assumption in Hollywood that whites would avoid movies with majority black casts, or any minority cast for that matter,” Weaver said at the time. “You see this whitewashing of films — even films that have minority characters written into them are being cast with whites,” like with 2008 card-counting flick 21; though the movie was based on a real group of MIT students, most of whom were Asian, the cast was mostly white, with Asian actors relegated to supporting roles.
“You have this whitewashing of the mainstream films, and the only time that you see minority casts are for films that are marketed very specifically toward minority audiences,” Weaver said. “You get this discrimination in the casting of roles, where they’re going to cast whites if at all possible to maximize the audience.”