The Unbearable Whiteness of Cameron Crowe’s ‘Aloha’: A Hawaii-Set Film Starring Asian Emma Stone

In Cameron Crowe’s Aloha, Hawaii is 99 percent white and Emma Stone is…Asian. Yes, the Bradley Cooper and Bill Murray starrer is a bigger disaster than Pearl Harbor.

Neal Preston/Columbia Pictures

In the cinematic universe of Cameron Crowe, douchebag heroes find redemption—and they’re always exclusively white. Why should Aloha, Crowe’s latest romantic dramedy set in Hawaii, where local tradition still bristles under the weight of over a century of cultural displacement by white interlopers, be any different?

Crowe wrote, directed, and produced Aloha, a well-meaning island tale reminiscent of Alexander Payne’s The Descendants. That Oscar- and Golden Globe-winner starred George Clooney as a very tan white Hawaiian, but at least explored the tricky terrain of identity and ownership bubbling under the surface of local politics in modern Hawaii.

Alas: Aloha falls more in line with the Elvis Presley tradition, in which Hawaiian concerns serve as plot-driving stepping stones for a white hero’s personal and romantic misadventures.

It’s also a puzzlingly disjointed ditty that falls much closer to Elizabethtown than Jerry Maguire on the spectrum of Cameron Crowe hits and misses. Amy Pascal was right in those leaked Sony emails when she bemoaned a story that made no damn sense and declared, “I’m never starting a movie again when the script is ridiculous.”

Charming Bradley Cooper plays charming Brian Gilcrest, an emotionally obliterated but morally dubious defense contractor who returns to the Hawaiian military base he once called home after royally messing up a shady exchange in the Middle East.

There, he reunites with the ex-girlfriend he ran out on 13 years ago (Rachel McAdams), who’s now married with kids to one of his old Air Force buddies. He bounces lightning-fast into a fling with the manic pixie junior fighter pilot assigned to keep an eye on him (Emma Stone).

Gilcrest has sold his soul to the devil, a cunning billionaire with an interest in satellites (Bill Murray) and is in town to hustle together a deal to get local Hawaiian sovereignty leaders to bless a ceremonial gate opening that has something to do with a U.S. military rocket launch.

It says a lot that Aloha is a bigger disaster than this weekend’s actual disaster flick, San Andreas, merited only by a cast that admirably acquits themselves of the movie around them, and the fact that we can assume the well-meaning Crowe meant well. But not even the combined forces of Cooper, McAdams, Stone, Murray, Alec Baldwin, and John Krasinski can save Aloha. Characters collide so hard and fast, it feels like entire scenes are missing. The plot devolves into a nonsensical race against the clock involving missiles and Chinese hackers just to give Gilcrest something heroic to do.

Meanwhile, Aloha’s already caught heat from Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders for appropriating its title from a word laden with meaning and history. The outraged should be more incensed that for a movie set in Hawaii, there are precious few non-white faces onscreen.

A scathing statement issued by the Media Action Network for Asian Americans fired the first shot. “60% of Hawaii’s population is [Asian American Pacific Islanders]. Caucasians only make up 30 percent of the population [of Hawaii], but from watching this film, you’d think they made up 99 percent,” said MANAA President Guy Aoki. “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 an insult to the diverse culture and fabric of Hawaii.”

Watch the first 8 minutes of "Aloha."

MANAA and other Aloha critics didn’t get to see the film before issuing their statements; Sony didn’t conduct a press day for the movie (translation: no stars did interviews) and hid the film from everyone, including journalists, until three days before it opened. If they had, they might be even more perplexed. Because Aloha actually features one of the more prominent Asian/mixed heritage female leads in any studio movie in recent memory.

She just happens to be played by Emma Stone.

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The Amazing Spider-Man star locks horns and lips with Cooper as Allison Ng, a promising pilot moving up the ranks. She loves the stars. She’s focused on her career. She impressed Hillary Clinton with her discipline that one time! And she’s all about her native culture. Native, because the blond, green-eyed Ng is one-quarter Chinese, one-quarter Hawaiian, and one-quarter Swedish, making Aloha the first major studio movie to explain to white folks how you pronounce the name “Ng” (like ‘ring,’ without the R).

Crowe might’ve even gotten away with it if he’d cast any of his supporting characters with minorities, more accurately repping the ethnic makeup of the islands. Instead, his “love letter” to Hawaii feels about as authentic as a mainlander’s #TBT to that one exotic Oahu vacay years ago, sipping Mai Tais on the beach at sunset while watching the hula show.

And yet Crowe injects Aloha with a brief taste of local cultural concerns when Hawaiian nationalist activist and King Kamehameha descendant Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele shows up playing himself, giving voice to the frustrations of Native Hawaiians who see American rule as an unwelcome imposition. Americans took the land away from its rightful owners long ago, he says with friendly reserve, resisting Gilcrest’s offer to get in bed with the U.S. government. But everyone has a price, Gilcrest tells Ng.

Responding to the whitewashing backlash, Sony jumped to Crowe’s defense citing years of research and “many months” spent immersed on location in Hawaii. “While some have been quick to judge a movie they haven’t seen and a script they haven’t read, the film Aloha respectfully showcases the spirit and culture of the Hawaiian people,” the studio said.

Sony also pointed to Kanahele’s involvement in the film as proof of validation by endorsement: “Filmmaker Cameron Crowe spent years researching this project and many months on location in Hawaii, cultivating relationships with leading local voices. He earned the trust of many Hawaiian community leaders, including Dennis ‘Bumpy’ Kanahele, who plays a key role in the film.”

Unfortunately, the plot thread involving Kanahele and the Native Hawaiian cause dissipates like the mythological Menehune into the misty Hawaiian night. Aloha’s minority characters take the backseat, left to look for signs in the sky as Cooper’s flawed hero saves them from a fate of his own making, transformed by the island’s mana, and by love. More tellingly, Kanahele relents on his moral high ground and trades his people’s blessing for two mountains and better cellphone reception. Welcome to Cameron Crowe’s Hawaii.