The extended trailer I’d seen in the theater was atrocious: A film called “Aloha” taking place in Hawaii with nothing but white people talking.
I went on imdb, which gave a detailed listing of the entire cast even down to those who weren’t credited. The top Asian roles were “Indian pedestrian,” “upscale Japanese tourist,” and “upscale restaurant guest.” They didn’t even have names. But there were over 30 white actors (and when I later saw the movie I didn’t remember even seeing the last two characters!).
While researching the issue, MANAA intern Yvonne Nguyen discovered a Twitter interview Cameron Crowe (the writer and director of the film), had had with imdb. “I wanted to dig deeper into the real story of Hawaii… Not only was local community so inspiring to us, we wanted to hire many of them as actors and to make sure to pay respect and help educate everyone on the mainland about the rich history and culture of Hawaii.”
Gotcha. And this was Sony Pictures, the same studio that white-washed “21” by casting white actors in place of the real-life Asian Americans who learned how to win at blackjack in Vegas.
I issued the press release on Wednesday, May 20. Only The New York Post picked it up along with some bloggers. We got some tweets about it, but that was it. OK, I guess nobody cared. Two days later, I went to Vegas for my Waiakea High School reunion for the long weekend.
When I returned Monday evening and began checking my emails, everything had changed. There was a request for an interview from KHON2 in Honolulu, another from Hawaii News Now. I did those two phone interviews and was on the 5 and 6 p.m. broadcasts that night for the former (watch it here) and three days later for the latter (watch it here).
I’d missed a request from The Hollywood Reporter, who ran their story — based on The Post’s — on Saturday. The imdb listing had been updated. Real-life Hawaiian activist “Bumpy” Kanahele had been added playing himself, but every other API still had no names, like “Spiritual Elders 1 and 2,” “Hula Instructor,” and “Hula Girls 1 through 12.”
Reuters TV contacted me the next day for an on-camera interview while I was behind in preparing for the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition’s annual meeting with Fox Television executives. I squeezed them in between at 11:15 a.m. Then a Hawaiian activist who was actually pleased with the film (he had a conflict of interest — he was in it and was understandably happy the Hawaiian independence movement got some screen time) finally called so I could grill him on what was and what wasn’t in the movie (earlier on Facebook he’d claimed there were just as many APIs in the film as whites. Speaking? Uh, no. No.). I left for the Fox meeting at 1:15.
On Thursday, a producer for the Jillian Barberie and John Phillips KABC talk show wanted me to call in and discuss the movie (more on that later). Sony was very secretive about their picture especially after those hacked emails in December revealed that Amy Pascal, the studio’s then-chairwoman, said the script was “ridiculous,” they should never have filmed it, test audiences hated it, Crowe refused to make any major changes, and “it never works, not even once.”
Sony didn’t even allow any of the actors to do interviews for it ahead of only one screening for critics on the mainland, and there was an embargo on reviews until 4 p.m., the day before it opened. Yet the studio was so desperate for sampling they released the film’s first eight minutes on Twitter.
Then the reviews started pouring in, verifying the bad buzz. At 4:58 EST Jen Yamato of The Daily Beast revealed that Emma Stone’s Allison Ng was supposedly one-fourth Hawaiian and one-fourth Chinese. Those who already hated the movie began foaming at the mouth! “What? Cameron Crowe couldn’t find a real API actress to play the role?!” How about Maggie Q? Chloe Bennet?
A reporter from the Huffington Post wanted to talk about that angle. (See it here.)
A different reporter from The Hollywood Reporter wanted to discuss films that’ve included Hawaiian culture, casting issues aside. As we went through her list, it was clear how the two were inseparable: How could you accurately portray Hawaii’s culture if white people fronted for it and not Asian/Pacific Islanders, who created it? She didn’t seem to get it. You can see the gallery here.
Over the weekend, the editor of The Hawaii Herald asked me to write a review of the movie. I did it on Monday. Legendary Hawaii entertainment reporter Wayne Harada wrote about the controversy in Sunday’s Star Advertiser.
Tuesday afternoon, CBS National News wanted to send a car to come get me for an interview they’d use in their Wednesday morning show. Then they changed their mind. Oh well…
Only 18% of critics recommend “Aloha” and those who don’t are scathing in their assessment with most agreeing it’s the worst film of Crowe’s career. Some mentioned MANAA calling it a white-washed movie. Articles kept repeating my quote: “Caucasians only make up 30% [of Hawaii’s population], but from watching this film, you’d think they made up 99%.”
In the end, “Aloha” came in sixth place, grossing $9.6 million. The budget was $37 million and Sony spent $20 more marketing it, so don’t expect it to make a profit.
Tuesday night, the secretive director wrote an essay on his website, TheUncool.com, explaining that Allison Ng was based on a real-life redhead who didn’t look API, so she went out of her way to tell people that she was. Perhaps some of us could’ve given that a pass if there had been other API characters with a real presence in the picture (e.g., George Takei would’ve been great as the general played by Alec Baldwin). Instead, it came off as a director loving fellow white people so much it spilled over to casting a white actress to play an API.
Crowe wrote: “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.”
No, Crowe, you had your chance and you blew it. Honestly, if you hated the Hawaiian culture, could you have done any worse in the level of API presence you allowed in your film (a seven-minute scene where Bradley Cooper and Stone visit the Hawaiian village is just about the only time any APIs speak)? You still don’t get it. You’re just like most of the white males who write the movies we see (80% of them) who can’t get beyond their own racial background to fully embrace those outside of it. Even in a movie about Hawaii, in Hawaii, and about Hawaii’s people.
Who gave you your first big break writing for Rolling Stone when you were just 16? It was Chinese American Ben Fong-Torres. How did you return the favor to Asian Americans? This “I spit in our face” mockery called “Aloha”? For this former resident of Hilo, this one was personal. Go screw yourself.
Attention Deficit Radio Department: It was at times challenging trying to have a conversation with KABC hosts Jillian Barberie and John Phillips because, while talking about race and the media, they’d throw in inappropriate counter-examples, or one of them would make an aside that just derailed the conversation (e.g. while I was explaining why Amy Hill told me she felt more comfortable with Asian audiences laughing at her jokes about her Japanese mom than white audiences, Phillips mentioned she played the love interest of Ben Stiller‘s father on “Seinfeld”).
Phillips reasoned that “The Jeffersons” had a black cast because it was about a black family and “Dallas” sported a white cast because it was about a white family. “If [‘Aloha’] just happens to be on a naval base, why can’t it be about white people? The racial diversity may not be there if you’re talking about white people in the military [who don’t interact with] a bunch of Asians… If it’s a story about three white people, then that’s what you’re gonna get!”
My response: “Well, what I’m telling you — and what I told Jillian — is that’s all we ever get. So how can we just keep letting this happen [with] this kind of bias and all the rationalizations as to, ‘Oh, well, we just happen to have a predominantly white cast’? Well, you always have a predominantly white cast! When are you ever going to give meaningful roles to Asian or Pacific Islanders when you have a show [sic; screwed that one up!] taking place in Hawaii?”
They couldn’t understand why I preferred that actors who were part Asian play roles that were part Asian — that’d have a positive effect on the audience, defy stereotypes, and discourage ethnic jokes against Asians in general. If people of color “had been seen in equal proportion to their white counterparts being able to be heroic, romantic, funny, respected, you wouldn’t have people being really concerned upset about this movie or that—”
Barberie: “What about Italians that’re always portrayed as mobsters or killers? Or the Irish as drunks? I’m Lithuanian. My father was born and raised in Lithuania. I don’t see Lithuanians represented. I don’t care!…”
“Jillian, people don’t know you’re Lithuanian! They don’t know what you are. They just know you’re white! They look at me, they know I’m Asian and along with that comes a whole bunch of—”
Phillips: “I disagree with you, Guy. People look at us, whenever we go out in public, and people go, ‘I know what these two, they’re alcoholics!’” (laughs)
See what I mean? You can listen to the podcast here.
You can imagine how much worse the discussion got once I hung up and they went off on more tangents. They thanked people who tried to prove there were a lot of successful “Asian actors” like Yul Brynner (buzzer).
Caller Lisa, a Hapa (her mom’s from Japan) who thought I was a bit sensitive, said she didn’t relate to being Asian (read: probably doesn’t look it either; they go hand in hand). “I’m just Lisa!” Gee willikers, golly gee, well, it’s kinda easy to not care about racial issues when you pass for white and nobody treats you as if you’re Asian and good for you, they can treat you as an individual. That’s what those of us who look full Asian would like too, but that doesn’t always happen.
Darrell, a black actor, called in siding with the hosts, spouting the eye-rolling cliché that the only color Hollywood cares about is green, inferring that Crowe had no negative racial intent. Yet later he admitted that when auditioning for a role, the director couldn’t use him because he was very dark-skinned. He gave up acting. Oh, but keep believing what you want to, Darrell.
No space to even review “Aloha.” Maybe next time? ’Til then, keep your eyes and ears open.
Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.