Sunday, May 31, 2015

‘Aloha’: No Film Is an Island

Left: Sony/Fox’s official European poster for Cameron Crowe’s ‘Aloha’.
Right: A parody of the poster from Imgur. ‘Haole’ is the Hawaiian word for Caucasian.

Once again, I’m going to write about a movie that I haven’t seen, so if you want to reckon this blogpost as being without any merit whatsoever, I’ll understand.  But more than the movie itself, I want to concentrate on the idea of a movie, and why that questionable idea was seemingly never questioned when the movie itself was given the go-ahead by its producing studio, Sony Pictures Entertainment

The film is Aloha (2015), writer-director Cameron Crowe’s Hawaii-set romantic comedy about, in the words of one writer, “a military contractor ([Bradley] Cooper) who moves to Hawaii for work and falls for an energetic Air Force member ([Emma] Stone).” The movie was released in the U.S. last Friday by Sony’s Columbia Pictures division (it will be released abroad by 20th Century Fox).  For the most part, Aloha has received an unenviable pummeling from the critics.  To mention just one, Devin Faraci of Birth.Movies.Death says: “The movie’s just a jumble, a total mess, and that plays out in both macro and micro ways.” 

Again, I haven’t seen Aloha, which in addition to Cooper and Stone, also stars Rachel McAdams, Alec Baldwin, and Bill Murray.  For all I know, I might disagree with Faraci and the rest of the clobbering critical crowd.  For all I know, I might just agree with Los Angeles Times critic Mark Olsen, who writes: “Even with its off-balance, overstuffed storytelling, [Aloha] maintains a charm and energy that never flags, with brisk pacing and generally engaging performances from its deep-bench cast.”  So, I can’t say for sure what my reaction to the storytelling and performances in Aloha would be.  But I have a feeling that I wouldn’t be able to get past the movie’s concept and casting. 

As far as the concept goes, I have some questions: If you wanted to make a movie primarily about Caucasian characters, would you set your story in Harlem? If you wanted to make a movie primarily about Caucasian characters, would you set your story in East Los Angeles?  I would hope that the answer to both questions would be an obvious and resounding “no,” because Harlem is overwhelmingly African American and East L.A. is overwhelmingly Latino.  If you want to film a story primarily about white people, wouldn’t the logical strategy be to set the story in one of the multitudinous U.S. locations where white communities dominate?  And if you wanted to set your story in Harlem or East L.A. wouldn’t you feel the need to reflect the settings’ disproportionately non-white populations in your lead cast? 

I’m not so certain about the answers that I would get to those last couple of questions.  At this moment, I can hear gainsayers telling me that Caucasian people set foot in Harlem or East L.A. all the time.  So, such devil’s advocates might ask, why shouldn’t stories be told about white characters in those primarily non-white settings?  I’m not denying the right of filmmakers or other storytellers to spin whatever yarn they want.  But stories about white lead characters already abound in U.S. media, and making them the focal point in a minority-majority community hazards relegating the people who dwell there to the backgrounds of their own histories and lived experiences.  You also run the risk of alienating minority audiences, who would be yet again deprived of “seeing themselves” and their own experiences in the settings where they live. 

Bradley Cooper and Rachel McAdams in ‘Aloha’

So, I would also add this question: If you wanted to make a movie primarily about Caucasian characters, would you set your story in Hawaii, a state with an Asian/Pacific American supermajority population?  I would hope that the answer to this question would be an equally obvious “no,” but this is what writer-director Crowe (Jerry Maguire, Vanilla Sky) does in Aloha.  However, if you did set a story with a Caucasian primary protagonist in the 50th state, wouldn’t you still want to reflect its Asian/Pacific majority with your lead cast members (the way the current TV reboot of Hawaii Five-O does, where two of its four lead regulars are played by Asian American actors)?  Apparently, Crowe’s answer to this question would be no.  His Hawaii-set Aloha is clearly about a white protagonist, and none of the film’s top-billed cast members are recognizably Asian/Pacific.  This understandably prompted an angry press release from the watchdog group the Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA):

Taking place in the 50th state, the movie features mostly white actors … and barely any Asian American or Pacific Islanders.  “60% of Hawaii’s population is [Asian/Pacific American],” says MANAA Founding President and former Hawaii resident Guy Aoki.  “Caucasians only make up 30% of the population, but from watching this film, you’d think they made up 90%.  This comes in a long line of films (The Descendants, 50 First Dates, Blue Crush, Pearl Harbor) that uses Hawaii for its exotic backdrop but goes out of its way to exclude the very people who live there. ... It’s an insult to the diverse culture and fabric of Hawaii.”

(Full disclosure: Guy Aoki is a personal friend of mine, and I have been a member of MANAA for several years, but I was not a part of its Aloha campaign.)  If I had seen Aloha, that issue would likely be my foremost thought as well.  But something else would probably be on my mind…

I really thought that, by now, the American entertainment industry, including Hollywood, had absorbed the lesson of the Miss Saigon casting controversy of 1990, which I have written about elsewhere.  I thought that the dispute over that Broadway musical casting its Asian male lead role with a Caucasian actor had ultimately gotten across this fact:

Asian American actors do not have equal opportunities to play lead roles on Broadway or in Hollywood

Historically, white actors have always been able to play lead Asian roles — from Charlie Chan to The King and I to Kung Fu — while Asian American actors have never played white leads and continue to struggle to play Asian leads.  So, however talented the actor and however well intentioned the decision, any time a U.S. production casts a white actor in an Asian lead role, it diminishes already scarce opportunities for Asian American actors and perpetuates a racially discriminatory double standard.  The best solution to this predicament, in my opinion and that of many others, is to reserve Asian roles, especially lead Asian roles, for recognizably (i.e., visibly) Asian performers.  Thespians who are part-Asian but can pass as wholly non-Asian (such as Keanu Reeves or Hailee Steinfeld or, for that matter, Yul Brynner) don’t have the same constraints on their careers that recognizably Asian actors do, and thus don’t need this particular kind of consideration.  I thought that Hollywood had gotten the memo.  Apparently, I was wrong. 

Emma Stone as Capt. Allison Ng in ‘Aloha’

In an article titled “The Unbearable Whiteness of Cameron Crowe’s Aloha,” Jen Yamato, writing for The Daily Beast, quotes the MANAA press release and expresses the same misgivings about the film, as well as skepticism about its casting:

MANAA and other Aloha critics didn’t get to see the film before issuing their statements; Sony didn’t conduct a press day for the movie (translation: no stars did interviews) and hid the film from everyone, including journalists, until three days before it opened. If they had [seen the movie], they might be even more perplexed. Because Aloha actually features one of the more prominent Asian/mixed-heritage female leads in any studio movie in recent memory. 
She just happens to be played by Emma Stone. 
The Amazing Spider-Man star locks horns and lips with Cooper as Allison Ng, a promising pilot moving up the ranks. She loves the stars. She’s focused on her career. She impressed Hillary Clinton with her discipline that one time! And she’s all about her native culture. Native, because the blond, green-eyed Ng is one-quarter Chinese, one-quarter Hawaiian, and one-quarter [sic] Swedish….

Of course, Stone is not recognizably Asian/Pacific, and I’d wager that she’s not Asian/Pacific at all.  She certainly has many opportunities to play non-Asian roles — playing them is how she became a star — and I would also bet that she turns down more job offers than she accepts, another luxury that Asian American thespians seldom have.  There are plenty of half-Asian actresses in Hollywood, including some well-known ones, and I’m sure that any of them would have made a more believable quarter-Chinese, quarter-Native Hawaiian, half-white female lead than the blonde-haired Emma Stone. (I might need to add an extra entry to my blogpost “Yellowface Top Ten.”)

As Erin Keane put it in her Salon article (referencing the former Sony Pictures executive) “8 Things About Aloha That Bugged Amy Pascal More Than Casting Emma Stone as an Asian Character”:

But with all of the [unrelated] objections Pascal herself raised with the film during its production, you’d think her emails would produce even one “um, you guys?” moment about the choice of Stone to play this particular character instead of an actress with actual Chinese and/or Pacific Islander heritage.  Maybe there is one lurking in the Wikileaks repository, but I couldn’t find anything.

Or as blogger Shanee Edwards sums up:

[T]he fact that Emma Stone’s character is supposed to be a quarter Native Hawaiian, creates a bit of a disconnect. We’re not saying a person of Hawaiian descent can't have blond hair or blue eyes, but it does seem unfair not to cast someone who is the real deal.

Of course, even if Aloha had indeed cast the role of Allison Ng with a recognizably Asian actress, this would have perpetuated the shopworn paradigm of the Asian female love interest to a white male lead, a paradigm that has already marked scores of Hollywood releases from Sayonara (1957) to The World of Suzie Wong (1960) to Year of the Dragon (1985) to Showdown in Little Tokyo (1991) to The Wolverine (2013) to Marco Polo (2014).  

Cooper (left) gives the Hawaiian shaka sign (with Stone, right).

Controversy also surrounds the very use of the word “aloha” as a title for Crowe’s film, or perhaps as a title for anything else.  For example, Hawaii-born culture critic Janet Mock writes on her blog:

Hawaii lives vividly in people’s minds as nothing more than a weeklong vacation – a space of escape, fantasy and paradise. But Hawaii is much more than a tropical destination or a pretty movie backdrop — just as Aloha is way more than a greeting. 
The ongoing appropriation and commercialization of all things Hawaiian only makes it clearer as to why it is inappropriate for those with no ties to Hawaii, its language, culture and people to invoke the Hawaiian language. This is uniquely true for aloha – a term that has been bastardized and diminished with its continual use…. 
When writer-director Cameron Crowe uses the language of a marginalized, indigenous people whose land, culture and sovereignty have been stripped from them, he contributes to a long tradition of reducing Native Hawaiians to his own limited imaginings – and this is dangerous…. 
A message to those in Hollywood: If you are not [Native Hawaiian] or a person from the Hawaiian Islands, you do not get to spread the message of aloha through your product because [the message] is not yours. It is not yours for appropriation or profit…. 

Poster for ‘Aloha Summer’ (1988)
This seems rather restrictive, and I can imagine some on the other side of the issue crying censorship.  However, I believe that this sensitivity over Crowe titling his movie Aloha is compounded by his choice of visibly white lead characters and an exclusively white lead cast.  If Crowe had done more to feature Hawaii’s diverse ethnic culture in his lead cast and main story line (as opposed to a mere subplot) — the way that the 1988 independent film Aloha Summer did — I think that the titling of the Crowe movie with a word sacred to Hawaiians wouldn’t have stung the local population so much. 

But what dismays me the most is Sony Pictures’ response to the controversy.  As quoted by the Los Angeles Times, the studio released a statement that read in part:

While some have been quick to judge a movie they haven't seen and a script they haven't read, the film Aloha respectfully showcases the spirit and culture of the Hawaiian people. … Filmmaker Cameron Crowe spent years researching this project and many months on location in Hawaii, cultivating relationships with leading local voices. He earned the trust of many Hawaiian community leaders, including Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele, who plays a key role in the film. 
 The tone of Sony’s press release strikes me as defensive and somewhat taken by surprise.  From reading it, I get the idea that Sony felt blindsided by the ethnic criticisms surrounding a supposedly innocent romantic comedy.  If this was the spirit in which the press release was written, I’m dumbfounded.  Critiques of Hollywood’s depiction (or lack thereof) of racial minorities and other historically underrepresented communities are going on all the time.  Now, the studio has presented a movie of visibly white lead characters, played by a visibly white lead cast, in a setting with an Asian/Pacific supermajority.  How could Sony not have seen this controversy coming? 

Trailer for Cameron Crowe’s ‘Aloha’

Update, June 3, 2015: Cameron Crowe has written a post on his blog regarding the casting of Emma Stone as Allison Ng in Aloha.  It reads in part:

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.

I think it’s bewildering that Crowe would try to “show the surprising mix of cultures often prevalent in Hawaii” by erasing that very mix of cultures in the casting process.  As we have seen, when the first publicity for the film appeared, viewers believed that all of Aloha’s lead characters, played by a white lead cast, were Caucasian.  Nothing in those posters, trailers, or press pieces suggested — much less “show[ed]” — a mix of cultures.  They suggested a story about a verdant, magical, Other-inhabited land as seen from inside a Caucasian cocoon.  That’s precisely why early critics thought that the film was entirely about Caucasian characters: no mix of cultures was promised to be shown. 

I’m also still wondering why it’s a Hawaiian story like this — and not something else — that gets the Hollywood treatment.  Why is Hollywood pouring its money into a Hawaiian story where the lead minority character “look[s] nothing like one,” where her status as a person of color is visibly erased?  Meanwhile, projects that do indeed show a mix of cultures in Hawaii (the Disney Channel’s Johnny Tsunami [1999] comes to mind) are given a much lower profile (even the new Hawaii Five-O has a white lead character as its top-billed role).  A Native Hawaiian-centered major Hollywood release like Disney’s Lilo and Stitch (2002) is very much the exception, but even then, Lilo and Stitch’s lead Native Hawaiian characters were animated.  Crowe goes on:

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.  (ellipses in original)

This reminds me of Welsh-born Jonathan Pryce in 1991 thanking Miss Saigon’s “multiracial cast” when accepting his Tony for playing Broadway’s first Asian male lead in 15 years: “As long as this minority-majority-set project gives jobs lower on the list to people of color,” this kind of rationalization seems to say, “keeping the above-the-line talent Caucasian is acceptable.”  (The Tonys considered B.D. Wong to be a “featured” [i.e., supporting] actor in 1988’s M. Butterfly.)  If Crowe had really learned about Hawaii and its people during his purported “years of research” in the writing of Aloha, I get the idea that he would have come up with a story where he wouldn’t need to disclose the involvement of Hawaiian locals away from the movie’s advertising — because this fact would be self-evident in the film’s trailer.  

With all of my dismay about Aloha, I can say that, at the very least, I’m glad this issue is one that Cameron Crowe felt the need to address on his blog and express a modicum of remorse for.  As for Aloha itself, reviews and word-of-mouth for the film were so cripplingly bad that it opened in sixth place at the weekend box office, a disastrous placing, in the eyes of the industry, for a new major-studio offering in wide release.  Whether Hollywood at large will learn anything — beyond the mercantile — from the Aloha controversy remains to be seen.  

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