Depending on where you stake your claim on the internet, there has been a lot of chatter about a movie that tanked at the box office1 and another one that isn’t due in theaters for at least another year. The thing that links these seemingly disparate films is that both thought casting white women as characters who are written as Asian American and Pacific Islander was a good idea.
Last night, the director of one of those films — Cameron Crowe — finally broke his silence and offered this explanation for why he cast Emma Stone (Amazing Spider-Man) as a character called Allison Ng:
Thank you so much for all the impassioned comments regarding the casting of the wonderful Emma Stone in the part of Allison Ng. I have heard your words and your disappointment, and I offer you a heart-felt apology to all who felt this was an odd or misguided casting choice. As far back as 2007, Captain Allison Ng was written to be a super-proud ¼ Hawaiian who was frustrated that, by all outward appearances, she looked nothing like one. A half-Chinese father was meant to show the surprising mix of cultures often prevalent in Hawaii. Extremely proud of her unlikely heritage, she feels personally compelled to over-explain every chance she gets. The character was based on a real-life, red-headed local who did just that. Whether that story point felt hurtful or humorous has been, of course, the topic of much discussion.
Full disclosure: I actually consider myself a fan of Cameron Crowe. His movies Say Anything and Singles and Almost Famous are some of my favorite films ever and meant a lot to me when I was growing up and coming of age — his later work, not so much, though I do own three different versions of his Pearl Jam documentary. So I take no pleasure in calling out the director. But come on! Reading this “apology” sounds like Crowe completely misunderstands the issue at hand.
It reminds me of a similarly tone deaf and oblivious “apology” that director M. Night Shyamalan recently gave in reference to completely whitewashing his 2010 adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender. Instead of acknowledging that casting whites in roles that should be POC as the real issue, Shyamalan and Crowe — and other defenders of whitewashing — assume any controversy stems from people “misunderstanding” the intents of their movies.
For instance, Crowe assumes that the controversy surrounding Emma Stone’s character in Aloha was about her characterization when, really, it was about THE CASTING. What Crowe fails to comprehend is that no one is faulting the idea of a lead character who’s super proud of her 1/4-Hawaiian and 1/4 Chinese heritage who is frustrated because people don’t recognize her identity. Hell, if anything, Hollywood needs more of these characters in lead roles! Instead, we’re faulting the director for casting a WHITE PERSON to play that character!
Seriously, was it really that difficult to find a young mixed-race AAPI actress (in Hawaii, no less!) to play Allison Ng? Or does the director also believe there are no Asian American movie stars? Well, after about five minutes of thinking, I came up with the following names — all actresses with mixed-Asian/Pacific Islander heritage who could have been cast instead. And for what it’s worth, I also lay out their fanboy bona fides; ya know, in case Marvel is paying attention — since they also think white actresses can be better Asians too.
Born Chloe Wang, the 23-year old actress is one of the stars of ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and is one of the only Asian American superheroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. If Cameron Crowe was really looking for an actress who could relate to the experience of being “racially ambiguous,” I don’t see how Emma Stone trumps Chloe Bennet. In an interview with the Toronto Star, the actress even revealed how changing her name — “Bennet” is her Chinese father’s first name — was the only way she could get work in Hollywood. Because people would only cast her once they thought she was white. Funny, that.
I feel like I always have to state this disclaimer, but yes, I was a devout Smallville fanboy for the years between 2001 and 2011. One of the reasons I was initially drawn to the series before it premiered was seeing a photo of Kristin in an issue of Wizard. Originally an all-American, redheaded girl in the comics, casting Kreuk as Lana Lang showed me that the producers were really willing to take the Superman mythos into a different direction, and I stuck with the show ever since. Interestingly, Superman is the only superhero character that has been successfully cross-racially cast without fanboys losing their shit, a point I recently discussed with DC Comics’ Superman team of Gene Yang and Greg Pak.
Ever since breaking through as a co-host on G4’s nerd news program Attack of the Show and as a correspondent on The Daily Show, the Oklahoma native has gone on to be one of the most prominent mixed-race Asian American actresses in Hollywood. After a star-making turn on HBO’s The Newsroom, Munn has parlayed her fame into roles in several blockbuster movies like Iron Man 3 and Magic Mike. Currently, she voices Captain Phoebe Callisto on Disney’s hit Miles From Tomorrowland series. Next year, she’s going to be one of the few Asian American actresses actually allowed to play an Asian American character when she takes on the role of Psylocke in X-Men: Apocalypse.
Best known for her role on ABC Family’s Pretty Little Liars and as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, Janel Parrish is another rising star in Hollywood. Her nerd-friendly resume is a little thinner than others on the list. In addition to being one of the leads of the ill-fated live action Bratz movie, she had a brief run on NBC’s Heroes that same year. That said, she definitely ticks all of the boxes that Cameron Crowe was allegedly looking for when casting Allison Ng. Like Emma Stone, Parrish is a 26-year old ingenue with great, expressive eyes. Unlike Emma Stone, Parrish is actually a mixed-race Asian American from Hawaii. Game, blouses.
If you had a pulse in the early 2000s, you had a crush on Shannyn Sossamon. Didn’t matter if you were a man or a woman, she lit up any screen she was on. Starring opposite Heath Ledger in movies like A Knight’s Tale and The Order, Sossamon would also shine in live action adaptations of Bret Easton Ellis’ The Rules of Attraction and the graphic novel Wristcutters: A Love Story before taking a break from acting. She can currently be seen on M. Night Shyamalan’s (yeah, that guy) Wayward Pines on FOX. If Emma Stone can be Allison Ng, Shannyn Sossamon — who actually has Native Hawaiian ancestry — can too.
Though she might be the youngest actress on this list, 18-year old Hailee Steinfeld arguably has the most impressive resume. When she was only 13, she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in True Grit opposite Jeff Bridges. Currently, she’s being positioned as the breakout character from the Pitch Perfect sequel and is featured as one of Taylor Swift’s Avengers. Her nerd cred includes a starring role in Ender’s Game and voicing the protagonist in the English dub of Studio Ghibli’s When Marnie Was There. More than that, she should have been Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games movies, a role she eventually lost out to Jennifer Lawrence. A casting that was actually controversial at the time since most readers assumed Katniss was a WOC anyway. Funny how that always seems to happen.
But you know, why cast Asian Americans — or any actors of color, really — when there are so many white actors who need work?
- Is it wrong to be happy that Aloha got crushed at the box office by a movie starring an actual mixed race Pacific Islander? If ya smell what The Rock is cookin. ↩