Accepting Emma Stone as an Asian-American in Aloha requires a certain suspension of disbelief and no small amount of magical thinking. In the Hawaii-set romantic comedy-drama, she portrays Allison Ng: an aggressively peppy Air Force fighter pilot of Chinese-Hawaiian-Swedish decent who falls for an existentially angst-y military contractor played by Bradley Cooper.
But in order to process this idea of Stone as a bi-racial character, as someone whose genetic lineage can be traced back to the Middle Kingdom by way of Polynesia, you must first get past the obvious stumbling blocks: her alabaster skin and strawberry blond hair, her emerald eyes and freckles—past the star’s outwardly unassailable #Caucasity—if only because the movie hammers home her cultural other-ness in just about every other scene.
Thanks to the character’s half-Hawaiian-half-Chinese father, Ng (“Rhymes with ‘ing’!”) is a Hula dancing expert with a functional knowledge of Hawaiian folk guitar who rhapsodizes about the islander spiritual energy mana when she isn’t attempting to save the archipelago from a creeping military-industrial complex.
It’s asking a lot for someone like me—a longtime fan of Aloha’s writer-director Cameron Crowe who happens to be of mixed Asian-white heritage—to make any kind of identification. And to be frank, it made me feel kind of queasy to realize our constituent parts are supposed to be nearly the same. Yet she’s wholly absent any shred of ethnic je ne sais quoi.
Unlike Stone’s character, I have a darker complexion and black hair. Moreover, like most Eurasian people I know, have never been able to “pass.” If anything, my racial identity has necessarily entailed a great deal of explanation to clarify that I am in fact Chinese-American/French-Canadian and not, say, Brazilian, Tibetan, Colombian or Filipino.
Which doesn’t and shouldn’t take anything away from Stone, a commanding screen presence whose bona fides as an Oscar nominee-come-Jimmy Fallon lip-sync battle champion and Millennial lodestar are beyond reproach. It’s just that the actress’ casting begs a number of sticky questions. Chief among them: If Ng’s Hawaiian pedigree is so crucial to the movie’s plot, why not simply cast an actress—Olivia Munn for instance—whose racial profile is within the genetic ballpark? Or, if the endgame was to hire a proven box-office draw like the Birdman and Amazing Spider-Man co-star, why not back-burner the issue of Ng’s race while focusing dialogue around her cultural heritage as a native Hawaiian?
Maybe it’s because multiracial people aren’t known to vote, spend or even patronize films as any kind of cohesive political block; our cinematic presence is exceedingly rare. In the modern movie era, you’re statistically more likely to encounter an alien marauder or murderous android splashed across multiplex screens than any identifiably bi-racial character. Yet, according to a 2013 Census Bureau report, we comprise the fastest-growing population in America. Which makes Crowe’s choice of Stone as the melanin-free embodiment of Hawaiian soul and one of the most prominent part-Asian characters ever to appear in a mainstream Hollywood film so baffling.
Meanwhile, in all likelihood, the race-bending issue may be the least of Aloha’s problems. The historic 2014 computer breach suffered by its distributor Sony Pictures revealed—in addition to the film’s original title Deep Tiki (um, ew)—a pre-release run-up of abysmal test screenings and ceaseless script-tinkering that culminated in November with then-studio co-chairman Amy Pascal writing in a famously leaked email about the film: “It never, not even once, ever works.” Recent reviews seem to back up that perception with Aloha tarred as an “incoherent pu pu platter” by the Washington Post and “Cameron Crowe’s Worst Film Yet” by Variety.
Talk about putting the howl in Haole.