The real Ben Kanahele, after being awarded the Purple Heart and Medal for Merit. (Image: U.S. Army Signal Corps)
HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) -
In a move that's prompting growing condemnation, New York actor Zach McGowan has been cast as the Native Hawaiian hero in an upcoming movie about the Battle of Niihau.
Several are accusing McGowan and others behind the film "Niihau" of "whitewashing" the character and ignoring history.
"They could have tried Jason Scott Lee, they could have tried Kala Alexander, they could have tried Jason Mamoa. There's a lot of good actors out there that could have played this part," said Guy Aoki, founding president of Media Action Network for Asian Americans, which is based in Los Angeles.
"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."
McGowan has been cast to play Ben Kanahele, the man credited with saving lives on Niihau when a Japanese pilot crash-landed on the island after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
After being helped by Niihau's residents, the pilot subsequently colluded with inhabitants of Japanese ancestry to take several people hostage and terrorize the island over the course of several days.
Kanahele was eventually able to kill him in a struggle, but was also shot three times in the process. He later received the Medal of Merit and a Purple Heart.
Historians say the "Niihau Incident" increased fears about Japanese nationals and Japanese-Americans in the United States, and helped lead to the mass internment of tens of thousands of Japnaese-American men, women and children.
"Niihau" writer and director Gabriel Robertson said he wanted to make a film about the Niihau battle because of its "huge historical significance."
He told Deadline that the story "plays out like a Shakespearean tragedy. ... I see circumstance as the true antagonist of this story. These characters, once placed in this situation, were driven by their initial instincts: to help a stranger in need. Indeed, it wasn't until circumstance forced their hands that the characters desperately turned to violence."
McGowan has previously appeared in "Black Sails," "Shameless" and "The 100."
On Twitter Tuesday, he shared a link about the casting news and wrote, "Excited about this project!"
That prompted rebuke from some, and praise from others.
@Zach_McGowan By accepting this role, you support #whitewashing. Don't ever deny it & don't cry when it bombs bc of boycotting. You're on the wrong side.
"You shouldn't be excited, you should be embarrassed to even think about whitewashing history," wrote one Twitter user.
Another responded to the announcement on the movie's Twitter page with: "He's not Hawaiian. Or even Hawaiian-adjacent. He's a white guy playing a Hawaiian man, who was a real not-white person. What are you doing?"
Deadline reports that filming for the project begins at the end of May in Malaysia.
The casting announcement comes in the wake of other controversial movies in which white actors played non-white characters, and as Hollywood continues to generate criticism for its lack of diversity and cultural sensitivity.