‘Whitewashing’ Accusations Fly as Zach McGowan Cast as Hawaiian WWII Hero

Actor Zach McGowan has been cast as Hawaiian native Benehakaka “Ben” Kanahele in the upcoming WWII film “Ni’ihau,” reigniting the “whitewashing” controversy in Hollywood where Asian/Pacific Islanders are portrayed by white actors.

The film chronicles the true story of the Ni’ihau Incident, in which Kanahele rescued Shigenori Nishikaichi, an Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service pilot who participated in the bombing of Pearl Harbor, after he crashed his plane onto the Hawaii island of Ni’ihau. After Nishikaichi escaped and banded with three local Japanese to terrorize American locals, Kanahele and his wife ultimately killed him. Kanahele, who was shot by Nishikaichi, was later hailed by the U.S. government as a hero for helping prevent a takeover on the island.

McGowan, who has appeared in “Shameless” and “Black Sails” as English pirate Charles Vane, is Caucasian with brown hair and blue eyes. Kanahele was a native Hawaiian with brown skin and dark hair. McGowan’s casting is the latest in a series of “whitewashed” roles.

Other recent examples include Emma Stone’s casting as a half-Hawaiian/half-Chinese character in the Bradley Cooper film “Aloha,” and Tilda Swinton’s casting as The Ancient One in “Doctor Strange,” a mystic who was depicted as Tibetan in the original comics. Swinton and the film’s producers defended the casting choice but still took lots of flak.

Finn Jones responded similarly after his casting as Danny Rand aka Iron Fist in Netflix’s “Marvel’s The Iron Fist” series. While Rand is canonically white, many felt that his association with martial arts and East Asian culture should have resulted in an Asian casting choice in order to reclaim the narrative. Scarlett Johansson also came under fire after being cast as the lead in “Ghost in the Shell,” which was adapted from a Japanese manga comic series.

This latest installment of Hollywood whitewashing has prompted backlash from Twitter. Some posted side-by-side photos of Kanahele and McGowan.

Filming for “Ni’ihau” will begin later this month at Pinewood Iskandar Malaysia Studios and McGowan will also executive produce along with Ileen Maisel of Amber Entertainment and Peter Morris of Affirmative Entertainment. The film will be directed and was written by Gabriel Robertson. The studio has not commented on the controversy.

Correction: Variety has removed a sentence linking the Ni’ihau Incident to President Roosevelt’s executive order that resulted in the internment of thousands of Japanese Americans. This change was made after reviewing conflicting historical accounts.

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