Cameron Crowe apologizes for casting in 'Aloha': How prevalent is racial 'whitewashing'?

Cameron Crowe apologized Wednesday after receiving a stream of criticism for casting Emma Stone, a white actress, as Allison Ng – a character of Hawaiian-Chinese-Swedish descent.

Neal Preston/Sony Pictures Entertainment/AP
From left, Emma Stone, Bradley Cooper, and Rachel McAdams, are shown in a scene from Columbia Pictures' 'Aloha.' The movie was released in US theaters on May 29, 2015.

After widespread accusations of "whitewashing" about his latest film, "Aloha," Oscar-winning writer and director Cameron Crowe apologized today on his blog to those who felt the casting, particularly that of Emma Stone as a half-Asian character, was dismissive of the people of Hawaii.

“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," Crowe wrote.

But Mr. Crowe defended Ms. Stone and said his decision to cast her as Allison Ng was because the character was based on a “real-life, red headed local.”

"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," he wrote.

"Whether that story point felt hurtful or humorous has been, of course, the topic of much discussion," he wrote. "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."

In the movie, which opened May 29 and has an 18 percent rating on the film site Rotten Tomatoes, Stone plays Allison Ng – a character of Hawaiian-Chinese-Swedish decent. Casting a Caucasian actress in the role of an Asian-American, critics say, contributes to the exclusion of minority voices from Hollywood – and takes away a rare starring role from minority actors, instead relegating them to the background.

“60 percent of Hawaii’s population is AAPIs (Asian American and Pacific Islander). Caucasians only make up 30 percent of the population, but from watching this film, you’d think they made up 90 percent,” said Guy Aoki, Founding President of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans and a former Hawaii resident, in a statement.

“This comes in 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.  It’s like tourists making a film about their stay in the islands, which is why so many locals hate tourists.  It’s an insult to the diverse culture and fabric of Hawaii.”

Numerous critics have said that "Aloha" is far from an anomaly, and that “whitewashing,” casting Caucasian actors in minority roles, has been around for decades. In fact, the practice has been around since Luise Ranier was cast in "The Good Earth" and Warner Oland played Charlie Chan in the 1930s. Other examples include John Wayne as Genghis Khan, Katherine Hepburn in "Dragon Seed," in 1944, and Mickey Rooney, whose portrayal of I.Y. Yunioshi in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" has been widely condemned as offensive. 

“Asian erasure is so normalized (and much worse, codified in patterns of professional advancement) that I can’t even get my blood up about the idiocy that allowed these castings,” wrote Jia Tolentino for Jezebel.  

“Emma Stone as Allison Ng, but also Josh Hartnett as an Inuit sheriff, Jake Gyllenhaal as the Prince of Persia, Carey Mulligan as the “Latina” love interest in Drive, Scarlett Johannson as the Asian lead of Ghost in the Shell.” 

Interestingly, some of the most successful multiracial actors in Hollywood aren't widely known for their Asian heritage.

“Often the logic is that if they can pass as white, they're assumed to be white: Darren Criss on Glee. Elyes Gabel on Scorpion. The films of Keanu Reeves, Rob Schneider, and Vanessa Hudgens, to name just a few of the many part-Asian actors who end up playing white characters,” wrote journalist Alex Jung for Vulture.

“The fact is that Hollywood narratives haven't been able to wrap their minds around the fact that Asian-Americans are multiracial.”

As the blog Nerds of Color was quick to point out, despite the assertion by a certain noteworthy American playwright and director that there “aren’t any Asian movie stars,” Asian-American actors such as Lucy Liu and John Cho have raked in billions of dollars during their careers. (And as it also noted, that's not even beginning to discuss the many Asian movie stars, such as Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Rinko Kikuchi, who have enjoyed international box office success.)

Moreover, there are some noteworthy examples of diversity in entertainment. Observers say the cast of the "Fast and the Furious" series – the latest entry of which, Furious 7 was released in April, accurately represents America’s racial diversity.

“At last, here was a cast that reflected the reality of our country’s racial makeup: 37 percent of Americans now identify as nonwhite, and the US Census Bureau projects a “majority-minority” population in 2043,” wrote Chris Lee for Entertainment Weekly.

And television provides additional examples of racially diverse casts. 

This winter, ABC released the first sitcom to star Asian-American actors in 20 years, "Fresh off the Boat," although it also faced controversy, some critics said, for perpetuating Asian stereotypes.

And "Hawaii Five-0," the remake of the classic television series, has been praised for depicting a wide variety of Asian and multiethnic characters.

"The cast is ... fabulously diverse, which allows a good chunk of the viewing public to recognize itself on-screen," wrote Slate culture critic June Thomas.

"The supporting cast, meanwhile, is more multiracial than the riders of the R train to Queens—Asian, Caucasian, African-American, Latino, Pacific Islander, and Canadian First Nations actors have all earned a paycheck on the show."

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