In Aloha, freckled-faced Emma Stone, with her alabaster skin, strawberry blond hair and green eyes, plays Allison Ng, an optimistic Air Force pilot who’s a quarter-Chinese, quarter-Hawaiian, half-Swedish. At one point, her parents are viewed in a picture, and neither of them look anything like her. Either Allison is adopted and doesn’t know it, or director-writer Cameron Crowe and the film’s producers went a little too far in asking the audience to suspend their disbelief (you can read my review elsewhere on the site). Allison’s heritage turns out to be very important to the plot. She is an expert in Hula dancing, can join in on guitar with Hawaiian natives playing a folk song, raves about the islander spiritual energy mana, and is deeply sympathetic toward the plight of the natives, making her a vital asset in the main character’s (Bradley Cooper) on-going negotiations with a particularly obstinate Hawaiian king. Beyond that, there’s a running joke in the first quarter of the film about how often she explains her heritage to people, none of whom seem overly confused that the Caucasian woman in front of them is claiming to be a quarter-Chinese and quarter-Hawaiian.
The Media Action Network for Asian Americans accused Aloha of white-washing before it ever came out. Countless think pieces have torn into the film on this issue, with EW’s Chris Lee, who is Chinese-American/French-Canadian, writing that watching Aloha made him feel queasy.
Cameron Crowe has heard all of this, and in a new post on his website he formally apologizes for offending so many people by casting Stone as Allison Ng in Aloha. He doesn’t completely back down, though, trying to explain, “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.” As he also did in a recent interview with FilmSchoolRejects, he also points out how many Asian-American, Native-Hawaiian and Pacific-Islanders worked on the film, both in front of the camera and behind the scenes.
You can read his full letter below:
From the very beginning of its appearance in the Sony Hack, Aloha has felt like a misunderstood movie. One that people felt they knew a lot about, but in fact they knew very little. It was a small movie, made by passionate actors who wanted to join me in making a film about Hawaii, and the lives of these characters who live and work in and around the island of Oahu.
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.
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 am grateful for the dialogue. And from the many voices, loud and small, I have learned something very inspiring. 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.