Was It Wrong to Cast Emma Stone in ‘Aloha’?

June 5, 2015

The casting of Emma Stone as Captain Allison Ng in the romantic comedy-drama Aloha has triggered widespread outrage. According to IMDb, Emma Stone’s ethnicity is Swedish, English, German, Scottish, and Irish; however, the character she plays in the movie is a combination of Swedish, Native Hawaiian, and Chinese. Many vehemently argue that the actress chosen to portray a partly Asian character–and one who strongly identifies with her Hawaiian heritage–should be at least to some degree Pacific Islander and/or Asian. After all, there are plenty of actresses out there to fit the ethnic description, and research has shown in increasing desire of audiences to see various ethnicities represented in film that more closely match the population in which we live. Indeed, some have pointed out that besides Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele, a Native Hawaiian sovereignty activist, and Kenya-born Edi Gathegi, the primary cast is completely white–demonstrating a missed opportunity to reflect the actual ethnic makeup of the Hawaiian islands. Other starring actors include Bradley Cooper, Rachael McAdams, Bill Murray, and Alec Baldwin. According to Guy Aoki of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, most of the local Hawaiian characters in Aloha are not given names. “You see Spiritual Elder Number One, Spiritual Elder Number Two, Cashier, Hula Instructor, Hula Girl One, Hula Girl Two to Hula Girl Twelve. How substantial are those parts going to be?” he told the Huffington Post.

The film’s writer, producer, and director, Cameron Crowe has issued an apology for his casting choice. Crowe posted on his website a response including the following:

“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.

“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.”

Taking responsibility for the controversy, he says he appreciates the open dialogue, and expresses a determination to tell stories containing more ethnic diversity as clearly people are yearning for them.

At the time of casting, Emma Stone was a booming box-office draw for Sony Pictures’ Amazing Spider-Man franchise (which has a domestic gross of $202,853,933 to date), and she was ready to commit to Aloha. There are many people who feel Cameron should not have to apologize for exercising creative license, as all filmmakers do, to create a movie he wrote, produced, and directed; this includes casting whomever he saw fit for the lead role. Acting, by nature, is pretending, so it’s not unreasonable to believe Emma Stone could portray someone who “looked nothing like” a portion of her heritage distinctive of the character of Ng. Countless films have been made that take casting risks like director Josh Trank choosing Michael B. Jordan as The Human Torch, and John Waters casting drag queen Devine to play Tracy Turnblad’s mother in Hairspray. And some ask shouldn’t Cameron have every right to cast whomever he believes will lead to the best chance of success for his film?

Aloha has brought in thirteen-million dollars to date against its 37-million dollar budget. What are your thoughts about the controversy? Should Sony Pictures and Cameron Crowe have overlooked Stone and made sure to book an actress with Pacific Islander and/or Chinese descent to star in the film?