Nikkei Voices: Cameron Crowe Apologizes — a Little — for Whitewashing ‘Aloha’

June 6, 2015 • Asakawa, Columnists

GilAsakawaBy Gil Asakawa

I’ve been a fan of Cameron Crowe for a long time. When I was in high school and college, I read every piece he wrote in Rolling Stone magazine — especially when I found out he was a teenager, like me. He’s one reason I became a music critic. I thought, “Hell, if HE can do it, so can I!”

In his career since interviewing huge rock stars, Crowe has moved on to making movies. He’s known for huge hits like 1996’s “Jerry Maguire” and smaller hits like 2000’s “Almost Famous,” a fictionalized autobiographical film about a kid in the 1970s who gets to write for Rolling Stone.

Crowe has been in the news in recent weeks for his latest movie, “Aloha.” Upon opening, Media Action Network for Asian Americans (www.manaa.org) didn’t mince words and slammed the movie for “whitewashing” in a statement:

“Taking place in the 50th state, the movie features mostly white actors (Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams, Bill Murray, Alec Baldwin, John Krasinski, Danny McBride, Jay Baruchel) and barely any Asian American or Pacific Islanders. ‘60 percent of Hawaii’s population is AAPIs,’ says MANAA Founding President and former Hawaii resident Guy Aoki. ‘Caucasians only make up 30 percent of the population, but from watching this film, you’d think they made up 90 percent. 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 like tourists making a film about their stay in the islands, which is why so many locals hate tourists. It’s an insult to the diverse culture and fabric of Hawaii.’”

The movie is about a military contractor (played by Bradley Cooper) who is hired to do some work in Hawaii and meets a former girlfriend, who is a fighter pilot (played by Emma Stone). And that casting of Stone has started a second tsunami of controversy that is engulfing “Aloha.”

You see, Stone’s character is named “Allison Ng,” and she is supposed to be one-quarter native Hawaiian, one-quarter Chinese and half-Swedish. Of course, Stone looks (and is) 100 percent Caucasian, hence the howls of protest.

After a week of criticism, Crowe posted an apology on his blog, “The Uncool.” Leading with the meek headline “A Comment on Allison Ng,” Crowe says his film has been misunderstood and that he’s trying to promote and celebrate the multiculturalism that is a part of Hawaii’s attraction. He explains that the Ng character is based on a real woman who (like the Ng character in the script) is frustrated that she’s part Hawaiian, or “hapa-haole” as the natives say, but looks so white that people don’t take her seriously.

This explanation of the casting is appealing, but it leaves a lot of holes for viewers to consider. Like, was it important to add a story line to the narrative that is about a part-native, part-Asian character who is so white she has to spout Hawaiian phrases (and not too convincingly, according to one Hawaii-born hapa-haole critic) to prove her bona fides? Crow did cast one real Hawaiian, native activist Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele, to play himself. So, that alone would have showed his sensitivity to the issues of ethnicity on
the islands.

But Crowe botches his “apology” by only aiming it at the people who were upset. I call that a “nonapology apology,” which is so typical when a prominent person or corporation offends anyone: “Oh, we didn’t mean to be racist; we apologize if you were offended.” That puts the onus on the person who was offended instead of taking responsibility and admitting, “We’re sorry, we did something that was wrong/hurtful/offensive/racist/stupid.”

Crowe goes on to continue, “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.” There’s no possibility that he thinks he made the wrong choice casting her, and if you don’t get the backstory, that’s your problem, not his.

Well, he has enough other problems of his own, because this film will not be a “Jerry Maguire”-level hit.

But it’s worth thinking why we are shown a version of Hawaii — the most Asian-diverse place in the U.S. — that is so blindingly white. And it’s worth continuing the discussion — as some bloggers have already started — of why along with the yucky practice of “yellowface,” where white actors are cast as Asian with prosthetic eyes and phony accents, the somewhat more nuanced practice of “whitewashing” of Asian roles continues.

Let’s face it, at least when John Wayne, Katharine Hepburn, Mickey Rooney and Marlon Brando were cast in yellowface roles with their eyes taped back, it was gross and disgusting, but obvious. Having a famous white woman like Emma Stone play a hapa-haole role isn’t quite half-yellowface, it’s plain 100 percent whitewash.

Gil Asakawa is a P.C. Editorial Board member and former Board Chair. He is AARP’s AAPI Marketing Communications Consultant, and blogs at www.nikkeiview.com. A new revised edition of his book, “Being Japanese American,” will be published in August by Stone Bridge Press.

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