WWII Film Casts White Actor as Native Hawaiian, Critics Accuse Production of Whitewashing

By Sameer Rao May 10, 2017

Yet another Hollywood project faces Whitewashing accusations for the casting of a White actor to play a person of color. This time, the backlash is focused on World War II drama "Niʻihau,"* as Asian and Pacific Islander Americans and allies criticize Zachary McGowan‘s ("The 100") portrayal of real life Native Hawaiian Benehakaka "Ben" Kanahele.

Deadline first reported on McGowan leading role yesterday (May 9). Directed and written by British filmmaker Gabriel Robertson ("East Enders"), "Niʻihau" depicts the "Niʻihau Incident."

As described by the Hawaii Reporter, the episode takes its name from the Hawaiian island of "Niʻihau, where Japanese fighter pilot Shigenori Nishikaichi crash-landed his damaged plane shortly after participating in the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack. Haliwa "Howard" Kaleohano saved the pilot from the wreckage before the island’s residents about the Japanese military’s nearby bombing. Several residents later placed Nishikaichi under armed watch, intending to turn him over to authorities, but locals of Japanese descent helped Nishikaichi overcome his captors and take hostages, including Kanahele and his wife Kealoha.* The couple attacked the pilot, who shot Benehakaka three times before being killed by his former captive. Kanahele later received a Purple Heart and Medal for Merit for his actions. 

McGowan has not publicly discussed his ethnicity, but Variety describes him as "Caucasian with brown hair and blue eyes." Critics protested McGowan’s casting and suggested other actors in the following tweets, primarily compiled by Variety and NBC Asian America:

McGowan and Robertson have not yet responded to the controversy.

*Post has been updated since publication to correct the spellings of "Niʻihau" and "Kealoha," as well as reflect that Hawila "Howard" Kaleohano saved Shigenori Nishikaichi from the flight wreckage.