Welp, another white actor is headed to an Asian role near you: Actor Zach McGowan is slated to take on the central role in the film Ni'ihau, a biopic about native Hawaiian Benehakaka “Ben” Kanahele. Deadline reported Tuesday that McGown would play Kanahele, a decorated World War II hero known for preventing the Japanese takeover of the island of Ni'ihau, in the Gabriel Robertson-helmed project. McGowan is also set to executive produce the movie.
This is whitewashing at its most obvious. In this case, McGowan isn't playing a character written as Asian or Pacific Islander — as Scarlett Johansson did in Ghost in the Shell or Emma Stone did in Aloha — he's playing a role based on a very real person who was actually a native islander. Benehakaka “Ben” Kanahele, a resident of the island of Ni'ihau, was awarded a Medal of Merit and a Purple Heart for his role in protecting the island of Ni'ihau.
Twitter already has words for the casting choice. Mainly, people are perturbed at the blatant whitewashing. Users are also puzzled at McGowan's accreditation. As Vulture points out, McGowan describes himself as "that guy from that show" on his own website. Usually, when a white actor is cast in the place of a minority one, it is for the sake of ticket sales. Johansson was supposed to serve this function for Ghost in the Shell — though the movie ultimately bombed following intense whitewashing controversy. McGowan is still a relative unknown. So, what's the purpose of his casting, beyond proving yet again that Hollywood has a problem casting minority actors?
Another reigning opinion is that the movie is destined to be a flop. History shows that movies plagued by such controversies rarely perform well at the box office. The Great Wall, which features Matt Damon as a savior of sorts for the Chinese people, was poorly reviewed, as was Ghost in the Shell, Aloha, Doctor Strange with Tilda Swinton, Pan with Rooney Mara, and Prince of Persia with Jake Gyllenhaal. (There are countless other cases of controversial casting choices. In fact, we made a list of them — it numbers at 32, and counting.)
McGowan, as previously stated, will serve as executive producer on the movie. This means he has some control over the project. Some Twitter users are tweeting at McGowan, asking him to do the "right thing" and back out of the project.
Representation for McGowan did not immediately respond to Refinery29's request for comment.