Writer/director Cameron Crowe, the wunderkind who became a writer for Rolling Stone Magazine at 16 and went on to direct movies like “Jerry Maguire” and “Almost Famous,” already had a PR problem on his hands. Sony emails hacked last December revealed that Sony Pictures chairwoman Amy Pascal had slammed his film, “Aloha,” saying the script was “ridiculous,” the test audiences hated it, Crowe didn’t make any substantial changes, and “it never, even once, ever works.”
Then Media Action Network for Asian Americans, the all-volunteer media watchdog organization I helped start in Los Angeles in 1992, realized there were only white actors in the extended trailer. Imdb, a TV and film content site, supplied an extensive list of the cast, down to those who were not credited. Only three Asian or Pacific Islander characters were credited compared to over 30 white ones. Our press release pointed out that Asian/Pacific Islanders made up 60 percent of Hawai‘i’s population and only 30 percent Caucasian, but that this movie was 99 percent white, even though the director said he wanted to use as many Hawaiians as possible to show the rich culture and history of the 50th state. Our release was picked up by just about every mainstream media organization. For the first time, even Hawai‘i TV stations called me to comment.
Only 20 percent of the critics recommended it. Those who didn’t were scathing in their assessment, deeming it the worst film Crowe had ever created. While other APIs were added to the production, the only ones with actual names played themselves, including Hawaiian independence movement leader Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele.
Here’s the story. Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper), a defense contractor, returns to Hawai‘i to negotiate on behalf of wealthy industrialist Carson Welch (Bill Murray) to allow a new gate opening on their movement’s village grounds that won’t interfere with ancient burial sites.
The scene is seven minutes long and the gate bless- ing scene lasts another minute. Kanahele is seen for a few seconds toward the end of the movie and with Cooper over the closing credits for less than half a minute. That’s pretty much the extent anyone Asian or Pacific Islander speaks in the entire film.
Along the way, Gilcrest falls for the chipper Air Force pilot, Capt. Allison Ng (Emma Stone), while listening to the venting of Tracy, the girlfriend he abandoned 13 years ago (Rachel McAdams).
While Ng is helping Tracy set the table, she blurts out, “I’m a quarter-Hawaiian.” Later, we learn Ng’s mother was Swedish, her father Hawaiian-Chinese, so Ng is a quarter-Hawaiian and a quarter-Chinese — one-half Asian Pacific Islander. That’s laughable. Emma Stone looks and is 100 percent white.
Later, when Ng realizes that the Hawaiian independence movement is getting screwed in the deal Gilcrest negotiated, she shouts out, “You made me lie to the Hawaiians! I’m Hawaiian!” In a Glendale, Calif., theater with a predominately white audience, people laughed.
We learn that Gilcrest is a shady character who took $1,000 from Afghans just to line his pockets. Even after making the deal with Kanahele — who had lovingly welcomed him with open arms and concluded he felt a lot of mana (spiritual power) from the two of them — Gilcrest cynically tells Ng that anyone can be bought (in exchange, Kanahele accepted three moun- tains and better cell phone reception).
Ng learns that Welch is planning to launch weapons from a satellite station (how that impactsKanahele’s village, I have no idea). Will Gilcrest do the right thing and stop it, or will he write it off as an- other successful business deal and go on with his life?
Among the many things that don’t make sense: Tracy’s son wants Gilcrest and his mom to get together (wouldn’t he be threatened by this interloper from her past?) and constantly spouts his knowledge of Pele and Kono, as if to make up for real Asian/Pacific Islanders not being around. We do see some hula dancers at Hickam Field and in a class, and Hawaiian music plays constantly in the background. Ooh, culture!
In its debut weekend, “Aloha” made only $9.7 million — the lowest summer movie opening by a major Hollywood studio this year (total gross: $20 million). With a budget of $37 million (and marketing costs usually double that) it probably won’t even break even. But it’ll probably be a major contender for several Golden Razzies, which honors the worst pictures of the year.
Crowe issued a statement (sort of ) apologizing: “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 su- per-proud 1⁄4 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. . . . [she] was based on a real-life, red-headed local . . .”
Then why didn’t we get to meet Ng’s half-Hawaiian/half-Chinese dad so we could feel the actual presence of someone with his ethnic background as opposed to seeing him for one second in a picture? With the exception of about two people, every Hawaiian person I knew while growing up in Hawai‘i was also part-Chinese, so the director is naïve if he finds the mixing of the two races “surprising.”
And, if he really wanted to be true to the real-life Ng, why didn’t Stone sport red hair?
Crowe continued: “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.”
Given that his last three films have been critical disappointments, it’ll be a long time before any studio gives him that chance. And, frankly, he doesn’t deserve it. Because to spend that much time in Hawai‘i, purport to love its people, culture and history, yet cast a “whites-only” movie except for a seven-minute scene, Crowe couldn’t have done worse if he actually hated Hawai‘i’s people, culture and history. HH
Guy Aoki was born and raised in Hilo, Hawai‘i, and now lives in Los Angeles. He is the founding president of Media Action Network for Asian Americans.