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White guy cast as Native Hawaiian hero in ‘Ni’ihau’ – A N I T H
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White guy cast as Native Hawaiian hero in ‘Ni’ihau’

White guy cast as Native Hawaiian hero in ‘Ni’ihau’


If there’s one screamingly obvious lesson to be learned from the recent casting controversies over Ghost in the Shell, Doctor Strange, Aloha, Gods of Egypt, Exodus: Gods and Kings, etc., it should be that audiences aren’t putting up with whitewashing anymore.

But it seems not everyone got the memo.

The latest bit of questionable casting involves Black Sails star Zach McGowan, who’s been cast to star as Ben Kanahele in Ni’ihau. Gabriel Robertson’s historical drama takes place in 1941, when Shigenori Nishikaichi, an Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service pilot, crash-landed on the Hawaiian island of Ni’ihau. 

Nishikaichi, who’d participated in the attack on Pearl Harbor, spent the next several days terrorizing the island in an attempt to retrieve his papers (which the locals had confiscated) and make his escape. Kanahele and his wife, Ella, eventually stopped Nishikaichi by killing him, and Ben Kanahele was later awarded a Medal of Merit and a Purple Heart for his efforts.

So far, so good, right? It’s a dramatic event that could make for an exciting drama in the right hands. But “in the right hands” is the operative phrase here. You see, the real-life Benahakaka Kanahele was a Native Hawaiian who looked like this

And McGowan, who’s playing him in the movie, is the blandsome, blue-eyed white guy in the header image above. It’s a case of whitewashing even more egregious than Emma Stone’s in Aloha (an entirely fictional story written by Cameron Crowe).

At this point, the movie industry has no excuse for not knowing better. Time and time and time again, fans have taken Hollywood to task for racially insensitive casting.

Crowe and Alex Proyas apologized for their poor casting choices in Aloha and Gods of Egypt. (something Ridley Scott refused to do for Exodus: Gods and Kings.) The episode of Urban Myths that had Joseph Fiennes playing Michael Jackson got pulled from the broadcast schedule. Ghost in the Shell tanked at the box office, in part because audiences were turned off by the controversy.

These weren’t isolated, obscure incidents. They made headlines in major publications across the country and, in some cases, across the world. 

And yet, Robertson – and McGowan, and producer Ken Petrie, and executive producer Ileen Maisel, and executive producer Peter Morris – have somehow remained totally oblivious. Or maybe they’re well aware that they’re stoking controversy, and have simply decided they don’t give a shit. 

Either way, it’s a bad look. Apparently, “historical accuracy” only matters in movies about white people – when the lead is supposed to be Native Hawaiian, suddenly, filmmakers are colorblind.

Shooting on Ni’ihau begins later this month in Malaysia, as reported by Deadline. No release date has been announced. Here’s hoping they use that time to wise up. And if they don’t? Tune in for the inevitable headline-grabbling controversy once the first trailer hits.



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Anith Gopal
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