Why Hollywood continues to think it’s a good idea to cast white people to play the role of Asians and Asian Americans is confounding. I mean, I’m glad that Emma Stone’s character in Aloha, Allison Ng, shares my last name. At least people will finally get a chance to learn how to pronounce it (if you’re wondering, Stone’s character apparently helps here: “It’s ring without the r”). But that withstanding, have we really progressed so little, Hollywood? Did the offensiveness of Charlie Chan not catch your ears decades before?
To his credit, Director Cameron Crowe has issued an apology to the litany of responses regarding his casting choice of Emma Stone to play the character, Allison Ng. I only wish he arrived at his cultural ah-ha moment earlier. It would have saved him the bad PR and several critical reviews of his movie.
Asian American history is nuanced yet powerfully compelling, sometimes subtle but always worth discovering and retelling. Our history gives voice to the experiences of immigration, identity and cultural adaptation and preservation. It includes the stories of global icons, like the Filipino boy who rose from abject poverty to success in the international boxing scene. It also resides in the lives of lesser-known individuals who live in our midst, like the Chinese-American grandmother I met last year who grew up in Tennessee and navigated her ambiguity during the largely black-white polemic of the Civil Rights Era (she also happens to have one of the thickest southern accents I’ve ever heard). The more recent emergence of hapa voices add to the diversity and richness of what constitutes Asian America, reminding us to safeguard ourselves from making others into “Others.” This brings me to why I am so disappointed at Aloha.
Cultural research cannot fix the screaming omission of a people. While I admire Crowe’s willingness to learn about Hawaiian culture and history and applaud him for partnering with Hawaiian communities, no amount of research can replace representation. Through its actors, a movie always take on a certain form, regardless of motivation. Iron Man would not be the same if comedian Jim Carrey played Tony Stark. He just doesn’t fit the part. Carrey could try to play the role against the backdrop of meticulous, director-driven research, but he would still not be the right fit for Iron Man’s comic book persona coming to the big screen. So also Emma Stone, a white actress, cannot convincingly play the part of Allison Ng, a hapa who is 1/4 Hawaiian, 1/4 Chinese and 1/2 Swedish. Form matters. And so do people.
Casting aside, some say Crowe has done a respectable job of representing aspects of Hawaii (caveat: I probably will never fully know since I have no plans to see the movie). I believe he falls woefully short. If representing Hawaii was what he was after, choosing a nearly all white cast did not position him well for achieving that goal. Instead, Crowe reinforced the practices of whitewashing in Hollywood that continue to ignore the multi-ethnic America we live in.
Save the $12 friends. We don’t just need better story-telling, we need better forms of story-telling. We need more accurate depictions of our experiences, our cultures and our peoples. And Disney if you’re wondering, we don’t want a white Mulan.