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White Man Saves the World Again: The Problems with "Aloha"

Cameron Crowe's “Aloha" is a movie for people who have never been to Hawaii, know no one who is part ethnic Asian or Pacific Islander, are completely ignorant of genetics and don’t mind that questionable genre of White Man Saves the World. Released at the same time as “San Andreas,” the movie that Cameron Crowe wrote and directed is a different kind of disaster. As a romantic comedy, it requires one to suspend belief on so many fronts, one must almost be a cinematic atheist and believe in nothing but what the auteur wishes one to believe. 

Receiving no press screening invite from Sony, I dragged my reluctant Hawaiian-born and raised-hapa husband to a Saturday morning show. In the interest of full disclosure, I have been to Hawaii more than once and am somewhat familiar with Oahu. I have cousins living in Oahu and my husband is from Oahu. I have hapa or Hafu (mixed blood) relatives although I myself am 100 percent ethnic Japanese. My husband is half-Chinese and half-Japanese.

In "Aloha," a former U.S. Air Force man, Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper), who had switched over to a private sector career in space and recently suffered a spectacular fall from grace in Afghanistan which left him with a limp, has the opportunity to redeem himself in Hawaii. He’s brought back by dissolute rich guy Carson Welch (Bill Murray).

Gilcrest lands at Hickam Field in Pearl Harbor, Oahu, at the very same time that his ex-girlfriend, Tracy (Rachel McAdams), is greeting her husband, John “Woody” Woodsie (John Krasinski). Tracy and Woody have two kids, the 13-year-old Grace (Danielle Rose Russell) and the 9-year-old Mitchell (Jaeden Lieberher). Mitchell is a budding documentarian, always filming and spouting off about Hawaiian lore, including the one about Lono, the god of peace, music and fertility. 

Hawaiians will be familiar with the Captain James Cook and god Lono connection. This seems like a perfect way to introduce a white savior into a modern movie: Gilcrest is Lono. Young Mitchell isn’t the only one explaining the myth and mysticism of Hawaii. Gilcrest is assigned a watch dog, U.S. Air Force pilot Captain Allison Ng (Emma Stone). Ng is a Cantonese-Chinese surname. Ng goes on to explain that her father was half-Chinese and half-Native Hawaiian. 

Gilcrest has a special relationship with the “king” of the Hawaiian sovereign nation, Dennis Bumpy Kanahele (as himself). For good PR and vibes, as part of a joint venture between the U.S. Air Force and Carson Welch’s conglomerate, Gilcrest is needed to broker a deal with the native Hawaiians. Wearing a black T-shirt with the sentiment ”Hawaiian By Birth, American By Force,” Kanahele has the opportunity to spout some of the Hawaiian views of history. He barters better cellphone service and some land in exchange for a blessing. Ng helps smooth out the negotiation at a luau that according to was filmed at Kanahele’s 45-acre compound and Kanahele was also a cultural advisor for the film. Even so, some Hawaiians were offended by the title itself according to an Associated Press article in the New York Daily News.

I don’t want to argue Hawaiian culture with Crowe or Kanahele, but I can argue genetics and statistical information. Hawaii is very different from the mainland. Only 26.6 percent of the population is white alone (compared to 77.7 in the U.S.) according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander is 10 percent (2.2 percent in general U.S. population). The black population in Hawaii is 2.3 (compared to 13.2), the Latino population is 9.8 percent (to 17.1 percent) and the Asian population is 37.7 percent (to 5.3).

Kanahele might represent that 10 percent Pacific Islander, but Emma Stone as Ng does not. We do actually know what hapa look like, not only because Hollywood has favored the casting of hapa women for roles of full-Asian and Pacific Island roles such as Nancy Kwan and France Nuyen but also because of Kip Fulbeck's "The Hapa Project." We also know that genetically brown eyes are dominant and dark brown eyes and dark hair are most common in East Asian and the Pacific Islands, and that worldwide, brown eyes and dark hair are more common. Emma Stone is a natural blond, coming from a Pennsylvania Dutch (German), English, Scottish and Irish background. She is white. We can be grateful that Stone isn't resorting to yellow face, but the casting is little better than that of Katharine Hepburn and Walter Huston in the 1944 "Dragon Seed."

There are other problems with Crowe's script. Placing a high tech private space launch station in Oahu's Chinatown could have been funny if Crowe had pushed the concept and the mood of the whole movie more, but in this rom-com as it is, the choice doesn't make any sense, particularly with the continued threat of Communist Mainland China. The narrow streets of that side of Oahu wouldn't allow for the inconspicuous hauling of a nuclear secret any more than they would allow Godzilla 2014 to pass through in between buildings as I pondered in my blog essay "Does Tokyo Make My Butt Look Big?" Moreover, I could be wrong, but I'm assuming that the government and its secret service agencies keep tabs on space operations and nuclear materials as diligently as the Avengers and SHIELD track Hydra and Loki's scepter.

Asian Pacific Islanders are routinely ignored in the cultural conversation. Consider that the Huffington Post has a Voices section which includes Women, Black, Latino, Voces (Spanish), Gay, Religion, College, Teen and Impact, but not Asian, Pacific Islander or Native American/Indigenous Peoples. The Media Action Network for Asian Americans has protested and promoted Asian Pacific Islander issues in the media and did issue a protest statement, writing that "Aloha" is part of "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."

Emma Stone's portrayal of a half Asian Pacific Islander reminded me more of the futuristic Hawaii in the 2012 Warner Bros. release, "Cloud Atlas," where dark hair had vanished in favor of lighter hair, skin and eyes. Two years before, Paramount Pictures' casting of white actors prominently in "The Last Airbender" also raised controversy. While I loved the animated series, I skipped the movie because things cannot be unseen.

Ironically, while "Aloha" struggled to a sixth place finish at the weekend box office, a movie starring a real hapa, Dwayne Johnson, claimed the number one spot: "San Andreas." Johnson is part Samoan on his mother's side. If it wasn't for this essay, I would have skipped the Crowe disaster in favor of seeing The Rock take on the ultimate SoCal disaster scenario. Sometimes you have to make a sacrifice, even if you aren't going to jump into a volcano, for the greater good.

Jana Monji

Jana Monji, made in San Diego, California, lost in Japan several times, has written about theater and movies for the LA Weekly, LA Times, and currently, and the Pasadena Weekly. Her short fiction has been published in the Asian American Literary Review.

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