Last month, Aloha generated a substantial backlash due to its largely white casting despite the fact that it is set in Hawaii.
This is nothing new. The Impossible is a 2012 disaster drama starring Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor as American tourists on a Christmas holiday in Khao Lak, Thailand who get caught up in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
I know an argument can be made that American audiences don’t want to watch films starring non-American actors in non-American settings – Tom Cruise as The Last Samurai comes to mind. That being said, at least The Last Samurai actually features Japanese actors in prominent speaking roles throughout the film.
Aloha is far more outrageous precisely because it is set in America yet it features a virtually all-white cast. Apparently, Native Hawaiians still aren’t considered American enough to star in their own movie set in their own state.
Now, consider this quote from Sony’s official statement regarding Cameron Crowe’s new film:
“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.”
Bumpy, who is a sovereignty activist, appears in the film and even comments on the US military presence in Hawaii. It may seem odd to cast an anti-colonial political leader in a film that centers on a defense contractor (Bradley Cooper) who falls in love with an Air Force pilot (Emma Stone). However, this apparent ideological contradiction is no accident.
Films starring white leads often make time for a token minority character to make passing comments about the suffering of the very people who are not featured on screen. The trick is that, rather than giving voice to these struggles, this is actually a sneaky way to disregard them. It is an artful way of acknowledging the liabilities of oppression, while also minimizing the importance of them.
Aloha is no exception. The backlash against its whitewashing of Hawaii began even before the film hit theatres. Featuring Bumpy and allowing him to wear a shirt that says “Hawaiian by Birth, American by Force” is a perfect distillation of Hollywood’s ‘that’s sad, now let’s move on’ approach to matters of political oppression.
Let me be clear: I am in no way criticizing Bumpy’s appearance in the film. What I am criticizing is the way in which his appearance and beliefs become tools of appeasement. It allows white audiences to say, “Well, the film addresses American imperialism so…” The implied second half of that sentence is “So we can go back to business as usual.”
What’s fascinating about this political tap dancing is how truly unintentional it is. Aloha is not trying to be a film that supports American imperialism. I mean, it’s a rom-com starring the guy from The Hangover. Rather, the US’s control of Hawaii is simply an assumption that the film makes. It might have even gotten away with this assumption but Hollywood’s white liberal guilt won’t allow for it.
White liberal guilt can be defined loosely as a vague sense of mild uneasiness over something catastrophic that doesn’t directly affect them but that is of their own making. What this means is that we simply cannot depend on white liberal guilt to save us.
Dakota Hadfield attended the University of Michigan and graduated with a degree in film. He spends most of his time in front of a computer trying to turn words into screenplays. Being a Korean-American adoptee, Dakota has a unique perspective on what it means to be a child of this house called America and how we cannot understand the present conditions of our existence in this country without examining our past.