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

Zach McGowan
John Salangsang/REX/Shutterstock

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.

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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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  1. Because when you think of the name Benehakaka Kanahele, obviously your thoughts turn to a second-rate, tv-grade, white Irish bro-dude actor. What an insult to a legit hero.

  2. Jennifer Keys says:

    Let’s file an EEOC claim for racial discrimination. Really. Don’t tell me there are too few Hawaiian actors. There is a very public remedy.

  3. megamoze says:

    I wonder what white movie star they’ll get to play the Japanese pilot.

  4. vice says:

    Whiners whine….
    The more generation stupid cries the better.

  5. kr says:

    Casting isn’t the issue here. Statements by actors who have been approached with this project have reported that the script is so flawed that the production could cast an all ethnically appropriate cast and they would still be playing sterotypical caricatures of themselves, all of which have turned down the project for what they percieved as cultural appropriation and insensitivity. Diversity needs to start in the writer rooms and executive suites. As with this project, by the time the trades announce attached cast, it’s probably already too late.

    It’s not necessarily about recommending that Hollywood should cast more minority actors to meet diversity quotas or an actor that is a racial doppelganger of the actual person the character is based on, but that someone in the creative process has some understanding of the life experience and motivation that contributed to the unique identity of the characters portrayed.

    Simply having gone to Hawaii on vacation or watching 50 First Dates can’t possibly prepare a Scottish writer/director or a New York raised actor for the absolutely foreign experience of a pre-war Ni’ihau resident. Most native Hawaiians would have difficulty relating to the experience of pre-war Ni’ihau, let alone an actor whose research consists of a flawed screenplay based on no first hand experience.

    Honestly, the only real solution here is that the production either abandons the project entirely and stick with something they know, or hire some serious cultural advisors actually descended from the Robinson and Kanahele families…and not just as window dressing, which may be difficult since sources close to the families have indicated that no one from the production had contacted them prior to the release of the Deadline report, and now that news of McGowan’s attachment has gone viral, not likely to support any future requests.

    • godzilla502 says:

      Also to blame “Hollywood” as if every producer and artist is of one mind is ignorant. Especially when this project isn’t coming from “Hollywood”. This isn’t a studio film. This is an independently financed production that doesn’t even have distribution.

  6. If I wanted to watch a movie that is historically accurate, I would watch a documentary. Instead of all this damn whitewashing garbage, why aren’t more people up in arms about accurately portraying historical events the way they happened instead of filling it with fluff to up the drama, comedy, action, etc.? Hollywood is Hollywood and people are still gonna pay to see the movies.

  7. dare kuni says:

    This is wrong and not supported by history, in other words, it is simply wrong:

    “The incident — as well as systemic racism against Asian Americans at the time — prompted President Franklin D. Roosevelt to issue an executive order placing thousands of Japanese-Americans in internment camps, widely regarded as one of the darkest hours in U.S. history.”

  8. tl says:

    The #whitewashing is absolutely unacceptable.

    But even more infuriating is the false narrative that this incident contributed in any way to the passage of Executive Order 9066:

    ” The incident also prompted President Franklin D. Roosevelt to issue an executive order placing thousands of Japanese-Americans in internment camps…”

    At best, there is no evidence to support this claim. At worst, it is an outright falsehood:

    J. Edgar Hoover sent a memo to FDR about the incident…a month *after* 9066 was signed:

    “It has never been fully understood why the Japanese-American translator, Yoshi Harada, helped the pilot escape his Hawaiian captors. Two months after the Pearl Harbor attack, on February 19th, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 resulting in the relocation of over 100,000 West Coast residents with Japanese ancestry.

    Although Harada’s actions that day and their consequences still inspire debate, there’s no conclusive evidence that his behavior influenced the president. For example, FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover sent the White House a personal memo describing the events on Niihau. But it is dated March 28, 1942, more than a month after Executive Order 9066.”
    – History Detectives Special Investigations

  9. Wayne says:

    Jenny Yang would Jason Momoa be considered half-whitewashing?! Maybe he is one of the wealthy La elite yuppies mentioned before. Probably not. He grew up in Iowa with his white mother. What is the exact lineage of McGowan again? Does anyone care? Is it just enough that he looks “white”? Also does it not matter that they are making a movie honoring Ben? How can you say they are “erasing who he is”? SMF.

  10. The New Left hates poor people says:

    There are poor, starving whites dying of heroin overdoses, malnutrition, and easily prevented diseases that the white yuppie who wrote this article could concern herself with. However you get more virtue signaling brownie points in snobby Los Angeles and New York social circles by infantilizing and acting condescending towards minorities, hence this article’s existence.

    At least she probably didn’t get paid a lot for writing it. Thank goodness for daddy’s trust fund.

  11. The New Left hates poor people says:

    I bet the poor, helpless minorities are thankful that they have wealthy, white, privileged Los Angeles yuppies like Erin Nyren to infantilize them and take care of them.

  12. RDS says:

    Man you guys whine and cry a lot.

  13. Alex Meyer says:

    They should recast immediately with an actual Hawaiian actor before this goes into filming. Whitewashing has to stop!

  14. keiran says:

    after seeing the long list of black washed superhero characters in films and tv shows race washing characterts is quickly becoming a standard thing. i agree they should cast an appropriate actor but its just amusing how only the white washing castings get the bad media when theirs black vikings running around hah

    • Marc Smith says:

      Name one movie in the history of movies where a black actor was cast to portray a real life white person. Oh, you can’t. Well then, I guess you don’t understand what whitewashing is. Or your fake invention, “black washing.” It doesn’t happen. You’ve just made a false equivalency.

      “But but but… They’ve done it with fictional characters!”

      Yeah… that’s an entirely different story.

      • godzilla502 says:

        The Rock was cast as Sean Porter in the movie based on Sean Porter’s life, GRIDIRON GANG. Sean Porter is white. No one said anything about it. You didn’t even know it existed.

  15. F Hollywood says:

    They might as well cast Matt Damon as the “Japanese” villian and go whole hog with the whitewashing lol.

  16. Nero says:

    Ah, the diverse and inclusive Hollywood strikes yet again. Practice what you preach!

  17. Sam says:

    Remember this is the same Hollywood that ignored complaints of the bad and awful make-up job on Zoe Saldana playing Nina Simone. And the movie tank with a limited release in few theaters. Its just sitting in the stores. Unless whitewashing roles tanks the box office receipts, this stupid tread will continue.

    • godzilla502 says:

      First off, “Hollywood” didn’t make that Nina Simone movie. It was produced and financed by a British company. So blame England.

      Secondly, Hollywood is easily, far and away, the most diverse film industry in the world. Go to India. Despite the fact there are 30,000,000 non-Indians living in India, there are ZERO productions coming from Bollywood that star non-Indians. Japan, China, Korea, every film industry in the world caters 100% to the majority of their population.

      All except the USA.

  18. godzilla502 says:

    On the same day this is announced, a small film with a barely known actor, is raked over the coals another, high profile film goes unattacked. Peter Dinklage was just cast as Hervé Villechaize in an upcoming HBO film.

    Why pick on Zach and not Peter Dinklage?

    We pick and choose our outrage, I suppose.

    No one was upset when THE ROCK was cast in a true story where the character he played in real life was white. Ditto when Halle Berry played someone who was white in real life.

    Clearly the financiers in these 3 latter cases knew they needed a “name” to sell the film, get the money for the film, and they ignored the real life race, color and creed in favor of getting it done.

    It went unchallenged by the Liberals of the world because no one is going to attack Dinklage or members of a minority community.

    Zach? They’ll attack Zach all day, every day. But a dwarf? Can’t attack a dwarf. Right?

    • “Hervé Jean-Pierre Villechaize (French: [ɛʁve vilʃɛz]; 23 April 1943 – 4 September 1993) was a French actor and painter of English and Filipino descent”

      While still somewhat bad, casting a Peter Dinklage to play Villechaize is a bit more defensible on two fronts- one, the real life person at least shares part of his ethnicity with the actor playing him and two, there may legitimately be very few people of short stature capable of playing the role. Neither are the case in the McGowan casting.

      • godzilla502 says:

        Like when Angelina Jolie didn’t get attacked for playing Marianne Pearl. Oh wait, she did get attacked.

        Marianne Pearl’s racial mix is French-born, Afro-Chinese-Cuban-White. But even though Marianne is partly white, Jolie got ripped by the press for “white-washing”.

        It doesn’t work the other way, does it?

        Halle Berry and The Rock both played real life people who were white. Full white. But that goes without attacks.

    • Aux says:

      So two wrongs make a right? The thing with racists like you is that you will always remain opposed to progress, so you resort to petty fallacies to make yourselves feel superior. The fact is, you’re still defending whitewashing and blind racism, by defending your buddy Zach. For a small film, why pick a C-list actor who’s basically a poor man’s Bradley Cooper — something that wouldn’t serve anything, except the same old, same old — instead of a talented Polynesian or Hawaiian actor? That’s the issue here. The HBO film should have cast an Eurasian actor. This film should have cast a Hawaiian actor. But they don’t because this is a racist and supremacist hierarchy.

      • godzilla502 says:

        First off, I never said two wrongs make a right. Secondly, my post wasn’t excusing Zach’s film. It was exposing a liberal hypocrisy. That’s not being racist. It’s being real. Zach got attacked yesterday (and today) for being a straight up white guy. Peter has never been mentioned in any white washing controversy, now over 24 hours, because he’s a dwarf. The liberal media WON’T attack Peter Dinklage. He’s a minority and even though he’s white, no one (like Variety) will dedicate an entire front page story attacking him.

      • JoeHTH says:

        “who elected an unqualified black man twice for president. How could that have happened in a “racist and supremacist hierarchy”? I understand playing the victim gives you an excuse for being a failure at life, but that still doesn’t change the fact this “racist and supremacist hierarchy” elected a black man twice.”

        What the hell does this have to do with anything you idiot? We’re talking about Hollywood. For what it’s worth that black man was infinitely better and more qualified than the oranged-faced clown we have in their now that morons like you elected.

      • Hawaiians can act too, right? Is it ok if we act in Hollywood? Just for a little bit, if it’s alright with everyone. Its a shame we need to justify our reasons for outrage.

      • Mr Reality says:

        “this is a racist and supremacist hierarchy”…who elected an unqualified black man twice for president. How could that have happened in a “racist and supremacist hierarchy”? I understand playing the victim gives you an excuse for being a failure at life, but that still doesn’t change the fact this “racist and supremacist hierarchy” elected a black man twice.

    • Rex says:

      I have no problem attacking Dinklage, and neither do MANY others. Maybe you need to click a little further than THIS ARTICLE, bud. They’re both appalling casting and they must both surrender the roles. It’s not like either of them are top box office draws, and projects like these would be just as compelling with talented unknowns of appropriate ethnicity. BOTH of these castings should be the last straw.

      • godzilla502 says:

        We’re now 3 days since both Zach’s project and Peter Dinklage’s project were announced. Try google. There’s not a single article saying HBO & Peter are whitewashing. Check Twitter. Nothing. Why? The Liberal selective hypocrisy is why they lose every argument and why they lost the WH, senate, & house.

      • godzilla502 says:

        Where IN THIS ARTICLE, does Variety mention Dinklage, bud? HBO?

        Would it have been great if the filmmakers could’ve found a Pacific islander to play Ben Kanahele? Sure. I’m not defending their choice.

        But the article and outrage never bothers to ask the filmmakers how they came to offer the film to Zach. Everyone assumes The Rock or Jason Momoa didn’t get an offer. Do you know for a fact they didn’t? Do you know for a fact they didn’t get an offer and pass?

        My point: I think if you’re going to be outrages over White Actors taking roles that were originally based on POC, then you have to be equally outraged when it happens. This article should’ve mentioned Peter Dinklage & HBO. Zach’s film is a low budget Indy with no distribution. Peter’s film is an HBO, big budget production, a company owned by WB.

        Halle Berry and The Rock got cast to play real life people who were white. No one said anything about this. Why?

        Also, if you get upset over fictional characters like the Ancient One being recast as White Woman, then you have to get offended by Johnny Storm being cast as a Black Man. Sue Storm being cast as a Latina Woman. Aquaman being cast as a Pacific Islander. Etc. You can’t be selectively outraged.

    • Marc says:

      LOL. Zack McGowan is NOT a name. As for Peter D., I imagine there will be equal outrage soon as the news spreads.

      Seriously, erasing a dark-skinned Native Hawaiian from history and replacing his act of heroism with a white guy is a huge screw you. There are Native Hawaiian actors like Jason Momoa, who IS a big name.

      • Raziel says:

        The difference is, us whites aren’t easily offended and don’t really care if others take roles meant for white people. Our pride is not going to get hurt, because we already own many roles in Hollywood. So there is no backlash of “Colorwashing” a role, because we don’t care. Now, POC care because they already feel oppressed and they want to see more of themselves in the public. But also, you have to know the reason first why they whitewashed the role. Maybe they honestly couldn’t find a Hawaiian guy available to play the role? Especially by the time frame they want the film completed by. Maybe they did ask and they all turned it down because it was produced by white people. And most white people only know other white people and don’t have those kinds of connections. Of course they are in the movie business, so they should, but who knows. If minorities want their people in roles, then they need to be the ones to produce the movie. In other countries around the world like someone mentioned above, if the movie is produced in China, they will always fill the role with a Chinese person, if the movie is produced in India, they will always fill the role with an Indian. They aren’t going to cast some minority for their movie, no matter what the movie is about. Yes, I believe they should cast someone of the race the character is playing, but the movie isn’t being made with my money or your money, so honestly the only one’s opinions who matters are the producers and investors or wherever the money is coming from. Whether you see the movie or not is up to you. And whether their movie makes money or not is their problem, not yours.

      • godzilla502 says:

        So you know for an absolute fact that Jason Momoa passed? You know for a fact that The Rock Passed?

        This is a low budget, indy, most likely the money is coming from private equity and foreign pre-sales. There’s no distributer. So all the attacks on “Hollywood” is premature and incorrect.

        Let’s see if Dinklage gets attacked. I say he gets a pass.

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