Backlash over white actor chosen to play Hawaiian

By Elahe Izadi

Zach McGowan will play Benehakaka "Ben" Kanahele. Photo / Getty Images
Zach McGowan will play Benehakaka "Ben" Kanahele. Photo / Getty Images

Apparently the Emma Stone lesson still hasn't been fully learned.

The latest spark in the debate over whitewashing Asians and Pacific Islanders from film and TV came with news reported earlier this week by Deadline: A Glasgow-based writer/director and a British production company are dramatising the little-known story of the World War II Ni'ihau incident - with a white actor cast as the Hawaiian war hero who stopped a foreign takeover.

Zach McGowan will play Benehakaka "Ben" Kanahele, who was awarded the Medal for Merit and the Purple Heart by President Franklin Roosevelt for his actions on the island of Ni'ihau.

In 1941, a Japanese World War II pilot crash landed on the Hawaiian island after the Pearl Harbour attack.

Kanahele and his wife Ella, taken as hostages, killed the pilot. News of McGowan's casting was met with backlash on social media among those frustrated with seeing white actors cast for roles they feel should be played by Asians and Pacific Islanders.

It's the same kind of outcry that bubbled up when Stone played the part Native Hawaiian, part Chinese character Allison Ng in Aloha - a casting choice director Cameron Crowe ended up apologising for.

A now-expired casting call for the feature-length project specifies many roles as Asian, Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander.

The Ben Kanahele role doesn't appear on the roster. "They could have tried Jason Scott Lee, they could have tried Kala Alexander, they could have tried Jason Momoa," Guy Aoki, president of Media Action Network for Asian Americans, told Hawaii News Now.

"Unfortunately, a lot of people in Hollywood believe that in order to have a better chance of making a profit on their films, they have to get a white actor."

- Washington Post

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