Waimanalo Blues

The political and cultural pitfalls into which Cameron Crowe’s Aloha tumbles go far beyond poor Allison Ng.

Hawaii in hollywood: Emma Stone and Bradley Cooper in Aloha, Grace Park in Hawaii Five-0, Mila Kunis in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and George Clooney in The Descendants.
From left to right: Emma Stone and Bradley Cooper in Aloha, Grace Park in Hawaii Five-0, Mila Kunis in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and George Clooney in The Descendants.

Illustration by Slate. Photo by Fox Searchlight, Universal Studios, Columbia Pictures, and CBS Broadcasting.

Late last week, on the precipice of an inevitably calamitous opening weekend, Sony Pictures posted the first eight minutes of the new Cameron Crowe film, Aloha, to the Web. The gesture rang of weary resignation: In the preceding days, the studio had come under fire for the movie’s title (crass cultural appropriation!), for its primary cast (nary a nonwhite face!), and for its jumbled incoherence (we’ll get to that!). Given that the earliest pan had come from Sony Pictures’ then-co-chairman, Amy Pascal (“I’m never starting a movie again when the script is ridiculous,” she vowed in an email leaked in last year’s hack), the studio should have been well primed for damage control.

Simply tossing the movie’s first eight minutes on YouTube, like so much shark chum, hardly counts as a sound strategic defense. The movie’s opening montage—set to “Hanohano Hanalei,” a beam of prewar ebullience by the Hawaiian crooner Alfred Alohikea—crisply establishes a core tension, intercutting nostalgic old clips of hula dancers, surfers, and royal pageantry with footage of rocket launches, satellites, and other hallmarks of the Cold War–era space program. That juxtaposition feels crudely oppositional, which is surely the point, setting the stage for cultural collisions a good deal more complicated, and perhaps even more insidious, than the prerelease uproar might have led you to believe.

On its face, Aloha is an archetypal Cameron Crowe redemption story, in the same basic talented-jerk-chooses-love tradition as Jerry Maguire. Bradley Cooper is Brian Gilcrest, a space expert turned military contractor working for an Elon Musk–y billionaire (gamely played by Bill Murray) who has designs on launching his own satellite into orbit, with less than honorable motives. His new assignment, a bit murkily drawn, is to persuade native Hawaiian groups to bless a gate that will enable access to a launch site.

I was born and raised in Honolulu, and though it has been just over 20 years since I left, I try to keep up on local issues. This story line, involving a clash between native land rights and space-related development, feels uncannily of the moment. Starting last fall, planned construction of the world’s largest telescope—the Thirty Meter Telescope, atop Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano regarded by Hawaiians as sacred—spurred protests by local activists, complete with work-halting blockades, mass arrests, and a global social media solidarity campaign. As recently as last Tuesday, Gov. David Ige was making announcements to broker a compromise.

Aloha was made before any of these specific developments, but the larger context of Hawaiian sovereignty, an activist movement that took shape in reaction to historical events—the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, the illegal annexation of its lands, the disenfranchisement of an indigenous people—provides a central plot mechanism in the film. The movie takes a straightforward course toward proving its bona fides on the issue, giving a prominent role to the cultural firebrand Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele, who appears in the movie as himself in scenes shot on location at Pu`uhonua o Waimanalo, an independent settlement whose very existence stems from an activist occupation not unlike the one on Mauna Kea. Kanahele, the leader of the Nation of Hawai`i, a prominent sovereignty group, has been vocal in his defense of Aloha, dismissing the criticism of cultural insensitivity. Which is a pretty strange turn of events, especially in light of what happens in the film.

There’s a subcategory of film and television made in Hawaii that effectively mirrors the Caucasian tourist experience, in that most of the action occurs within a bubble of privilege or power. Among the more prominent recent examples are the CBS remake of Hawaii Five-0, in which the bubble is a special task force, and the 2008 romantic comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall, in which the bubble is actually a resort hotel. Both of these entertainment properties feature white mainlanders in the leading roles, and both happen to use the same character actor—Taylor Wily, a Hawaiian-born former sumo wrestler of Samoan descent—as a token emissary of local color, an oversize teddy bear who speaks pidgin English and lightens the mood. Aloha has no such character, but the bubble it inhabits is obvious: The movie’s main setting is Joint Base Pearl Harbor–Hickam, which partly explains the all-white principal cast.

Thematically, Aloha recalls a more coherent, more nuanced and far better film, Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, in which George Clooney plays a trustee deciding the fate of a parcel of family land on the island of Kauai. Both movies involve issues of land and legacy, and both attempt to address complex issues while plainly luxuriating in lush landscapes and lilting slack-key guitars. Surprisingly, given the advance grumbling about Aloha, I found the film’s texture to be just as convincing as that of The Descendants. It’s in the little touches: a huli-huli chicken truck. TV weatherman Guy Hagi. The extras cast in a keiki hula class. The Hawaiians in Kanahele’s circle, including two real-life slack-key heroes, Ledward Kaapana and Mike Kaawa, jamming on “Waimanalo Blues.”

Undermining the effort to nail these details is the movie’s most embarrassing flaw. Blue-eyed Emma Stone is, as you may have heard, a preposterous casting choice for Allison Ng, the idealistic fighter pilot who embodies Gilcrest’s rom-com destiny match. Ng describes herself as one-quarter Chinese, one-quarter Hawaiian, and half Swedish, making her “one of the more prominent Asian/mixed heritage female leads in any studio movie in recent memory,” as Jen Yamato wrote in a scathing piece for the Daily Beast. That mixed heritage means that Ng is hapa haole, a Hawaiian phrase that literally means “part Caucasian” and has become a standard term among the many casual ethnographers that make up the population of the Aloha State.

As a hapa haole myself, I can attest to the keen interest that locals take in the parsing of ethnicity. It’s a tendency that stretches back to 19th-century sugar plantations, and an influx of labor from China, Japan, Korea, and the Philippines. To hold on to the customs of the homeland—keeping them distinct from those of other immigrant groups—was to claim a scrap of humanity under conditions that said otherwise. (“What nationality are you?” is the way many locals still apprehend ethnic difference.) So the catchall terms Asian and Asian American are of little use in Hawaii, except in the designation of a census majority. And the attempt to pass Stone off as Ng stinks of bad faith: It’s an affront to the culture and an insult to the intelligence.

Making matters far worse is the fact that Ng supposedly has native Hawaiian ancestry. “I am a quarter Hawaiian,” a chirpy Stone informs a wary Cooper, adding: “Ho`olaule`a.” She pronounces that Hawaiian word, which means “celebration,” with the awkward care of someone who just spent 20 minutes repeating it to her dialect coach. Besides which, why on earth would Ng just randomly say that? (I’m picturing Stone in some other movie, declaring: “I am part Cajun. Bonnaroo!”)

Throughout the film, Ng serves as a docent of Hawaiian terms and beliefs, though Stone never sells the idea that she has a passing familiarity with them. And so it happens that the truest portrayal of a native Hawaiian ever seen in a mainstream film (Kanahele) coexists with one of the most glaringly false (Stone). Hawaiian spirituality and myth are presented as child’s play, by way of a wide-eyed little boy, and when Ng is compelled to address the subject, she becomes childlike, too. There’s a supernatural sighting of night marchers, the ghosts of Hawaiian warriors—treated about as gravely as the Brady Bunch tiki curse—and a scene in which Stone gingerly says the word menehune, and explains that it means “like, Hawaiian leprechauns.” Cooper’s reply: “Or chipmunks! Or something!” They both giggle cutely.

But if there’s one scene that fully encapsulates the weirdness around cultural issues in Aloha, it’s the one shot on location at Pu`uhonua o Waimanalo, which you could describe either as a village or a compound, depending on where you stand on the issue of Hawaiian sovereignty. Gilcrest and Ng meet with Kanahele as if petitioning a tribal elder, which is essentially the case. He appears in a sleeveless T-shirt with the slogan “Hawaiian by Birth” on the front and “American by Force” on the back.

“Military, big time respect for them—when they’re doing the right thing,” Kanahele says at one point in the negotiation. It’s a shocking thing to hear from someone who maintains that the United States has always been an occupying force in the Hawaiian Islands. Then Gilcrest and Kanahele fall into a bargaining patter, and Kanahele agrees to bless the site—which, we’re led to believe, includes a burial ground—in exchange for the rights to two nearby mountains and better cellphone reception.

Kanahele’s critics have, over the years, accused him and others of sly opportunism, of using sovereignty as a political lever. His portrayal in Aloha radiates dignity but hardly dispels this idea. “That was all about land, cash, and cellphones,” Gilcrest tells Ng as they’re leaving Waimanalo. “Nothing sacred. It’s all for sale.” We’re supposed to identify with Ng’s starry idealism on this issue, but the movie lands heavily on the side of Gilcrest’s dead-eyed pragmatism.

Later, as the closing credits roll, we see a wordless postscript: Kanahele and Gilcrest, in what looks like a heiau, or sacred Hawaiian site, performing a somber ritual. Intended to be touching, this scene feels as deeply suspect as anything else in the film—a magical endorsement that is clearly intended to apply not only to Gilcrest but also, by extension, to Crowe. If you’ve seen one smart haole’s morally dubious route to redemption, perhaps you’ve seen ’em all.