"Aloha," the film about a navel-gazing manchild who goes to Hawaii and finds himself, got mostly bad reviews when it debuted in May for its meandering and over-sentimental plot. Then, gradually, criticism sprang up over Emma Stone’s leading role as a mixed-race Asian woman. Stone playing a Hawaiian, Chinese and Swedish fighter pilot named Allison Ng was cited as yet another instance in Hollywood’s long history of misrepresenting people of color on screen.
On June 2, director Cameron Crowe issued an apology over the casting decision. Yet Emma Stone has stayed silent on the issue. Where is her apology? And what responsibility do white actors bear when they accept roles clearly written as people of color?
Over the last decade there has been considerable outcry over the whitewashing of Asian roles in particular --- the cast of "21", the cast of M. Night Shyamalan’s "Avatar: The Last Airbender," Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan in "Star Trek," and more recently Tilda Swinton’s role as a Tibetan man in the upcoming "Doctor Strange." "Aloha," it seems, is a kind of tipping point in the conversation, the casting almost comically clueless.
After all of the vocal backlash, it felt natural for Crowe to issue a reasonably heartfelt apology -- albeit one full of excuses for the casting of the role of Allison Ng. For Crowe, the character being based on a “real-life, red-headed local” who constantly reminds people she’s Asian seemed like a good enough reason to make a movie set in Hawaii with a 100 percent white cast. He misses the point of course --- regardless of whether this character is real or not, his desire to showcase a white-passing Asian over a visibly mixed-race one is a problem.
And yet, Crowe’s final admission that he is “the one to blame” for the misguided casting choice is gratifying. But is it completely true? While he did write the character, direct the film and work with casting director Francine Maisler in choosing stars, it’s striking that so rarely are the actors in these controversies ever taken to task. Why are we not asking more of Emma Stone?
Crowe says that Stone was “chief among those who did tireless research” in preparation for the role, but it’s a flimsy defense. Researching Hawaiian culture is one thing, but how much research did Stone do into the history the whitewashing and misrepresentation of Asian characters in cinema?
Similarly hazy defenses have been made in other cases of whitewashing or red, yellow and blackface. In 2013, Johnny Depp’s role in "The Lone Ranger" as a Native American was justified because of his vague Cherokee ancestry, and honorary membership in the Comanche tribe. In December Christian Bale told The Hollywood Reporter that critics of his controversial film "Exodous" should stop “pointing fingers,” at director Ridley Scott, and blamed movie-goers, not himself, for the heavily whitewashed movie. Often, actors don't comment at all on the implications of taking these roles.
For successful white actors, the ability to play characters who come from identity groups different from their own is an experience of privilege. It’s not just the fame and fortune, but access that defines this kind of success. And that same access is not afforded to non-white actors and actresses.
In just a few short years, Stone has risen from an unknown teen comedy actress to a legitimate A-List star with an Oscar-nomination and a constant stream of new films in the works. She is an influential figure, whose words could make a difference. Her silence on "Aloha" speaks volumes.
Last year, Jessica Chastain took to the Critics Choice Awards stage to give a moving speech on diversity in Hollywood, calling on industry peers to “stand together against homophobic, sexist, misogynistic, anti-Semitic and racist agendas.”
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter,” she said. “And I would like to encourage everyone in this room to please speak up."
The systemic racism that continues to thrive in Hollywood is ultimately to blame for these constant instances of erasure. However, if actors were challenged more on their decisions to accept such problematic roles, perhaps there would be fewer problematic roles. It’s time for the Emma Stones of Hollywood to start speaking up -- especially when they make mistakes. It’s these teachable moments, after all, that push the conversation about race forward, in Hollywood and beyond.