Hollywood, in case you haven’t heard, has a bit of a race problem. Debates about racism in tinseltown have manifested in various ways over the years, from discussions around ethnical diversity in boardrooms to interpretations of films themselves – including accusations that history, or entire fictitious worlds, have been sprayed with a can of paint labelled “whitewash”.
Fresh allegations of whitewashing are at the heart of the finger-pointing this week levelled at director Cameron Crowe’s new film Aloha, which opened in Australian cinemas on Thursday and purportedly sets out to explore Hawaii’s culture and traditions. The problem is that its protagonist, “Allison Ng”, who is a quarter Hawaiian and a quarter Chinese, is played by Emma Stone – who is white as white can be.
“I’m so white. My hair grows out blonde, but my colouring is similar to that of a redhead,” the 26-year-old actor told website Refinery29. The rest of the cast of Aloha (which includes Bradley Cooper, Rachel McAdams and Bill Murray) are also all white.
Thus, racism by way of Hollywood Central Casting – and a tsunami of bad publicity for a film that sounded a bit iffy from the outset (the title isn’t as cringe-worthy as an Australian movie titled ‘G’Day’ but it’s in the same ballpark). The Media Action Network for Asian Americans called on audiences to boycott the film but few people turned up anyway: it opened in US theatres last weekend to a lacklustre US $10 million, failing to crack the top five.
Crowe (whose films include Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire and We Bought a Zoo) issued a mea culpa. He took full responsibility for the casting decision in a piece published on his official website which is titled, appropriately enough, theuncool.com. The controversy is particularly interesting in the context of last December’s Sony Hack, in the sense of what the hack didn’t reveal.
Leaked emails clearly showed Sony president Amy Pascal smelt a dud a mile away. “I’m never starting a movie again,” she wrote, “when the script is ridiculous and we all know it.” But the total emails asking what on earth one of the whitest girls in Hollywood was doing playing a mixed race character, or any way broaching the subject, totalled zero.
Is this a blind spot for Hollywood? One of the appeals of producing and directing is the idea of constructing worlds however and with whomever you choose. One of the allures of acting is the idea people can play characters who exist outside their own ideologies and experiences.
But we were reminded this week that “range” can definitely mean “racist.” Over the years an actor’s scope to play whoever they want has contracted, not expanded, and for good reason: being an actor does not grant anybody a free pass to fly in the face of cultural sensitivities. The entertainment industry needs to understand that – and this week’s white-stained lao provides a reminder.
Having said that, uncertainty and/or naivety remains with regards to issues around who can play who (if Emma Stone had predicted this sort of response, she would presumably never have signed on). But certain rules virtually everybody has learned to abide by. Blackface is a no-no – though Chris Lilley gave something very close to it a red hot go in last year’s Jonah From Tonga and subsequently copped a backlash.
Some areas are particularly contentious. Parody for example is a prickly one. British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen’s famous shtick as an etiquette-destroying Kazakh journalist in 2006’s Borat (full title – Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan) deflected the onus away from himself and onto the real-life people he engaged with (unlike Lilley, who riffed with real Tongans playing fictitious characters).
Red necks and college students reacted in racist ways to Baron Cohen’s racist creation (who was never meant to be taken seriously anyway) meaning the ends arguably justified the means and no real offense was caused. The people of Kazakhstan thought differently.
Comedians who take on roles of the ilk of Baron Cohen’s or Lilley’s (or the most jaw-dropping of them all: Mickey Rooney’s notorious performance as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s) must do so with the understanding that they will likely be defending themselves to people for whom words such as “satire” will mean diddly squat. The fallout over Aloha provides actors a simple reminder: with few exceptions being white means you have to play white, and there are very good reasons for that.