Movie under fire for casting Caucasian actor as real-life Native Hawaiian war hero

Ben Kanahele, left, and Zach McGowan (Publicity still courtesy of the CW)


A movie that has not even started filming yet is already drawing criticism.

The movie is called “Niihau,” a historical drama that portrays what happened on the island during the Pearl Harbor attack. It’s based on the true story of Benehakaka “Ben” Kanahele, a Native Hawaiian WWII hero who received a Medal for Merit and a Purple Heart.

A Japanese fighter pilot crash-landed on the island and, with the help of a few Japanese-speaking residents, shot up the town, burned down buildings, and took hostages. Niihau resident Kanahele wound up killing the pilot and was later recognized as a hero by the U.S. government.


The Niihau incident : Ben and Ella Kanahele


Kanahele will be played by Zach McGowan, a blue-eyed Caucasian actor who stars in The CW show “The 100,” and has appeared in “Shameless” and “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”

Native Hawaiians are angered by this, but they’re not the only ones.

“They have so many good actors here why would they do that?” said Honolulu resident Norman Sosner. “So many actors who are Hawaiian or part Hawaiian would be more appropriate to play a part like that.”

“We want to advertise Hawaii, right? People are going to get the impression that it’s all white over here, like anyplace else,” said Honolulu resident Donald Hashimoto.

This is not the first time Hollywood has been accused of whitewashing a movie. The move “Aloha” drew criticism for casting Emma Stone to play a part-Hawaiian, part-Chinese character. “The Descendants” features George Clooney as a descendant of Native Hawaiian royalty.

But some people say this particular movie is even worse than the others. Anne Keala Kelly, a Native Hawaiian filmmaker on Hawaii Island, says that’s because the movie is supposed to be portraying history about real people.

“We call it polyface. I know that in the U.S., they call it whitewashing, but it’s polyface. It’s like blackface except it’s Polynesian. They’re going to polyface it,” she said. “It’s about the fake version of us for everybody else’s entertainment, and it does not help us at all. It does not help this place.

“Everybody could be a Hawaiian on screen except a Hawaiian, according to that industry, and it’s problematic in all these different kinds of historical and cultural and sociopolitical ways,” Kelly added.

The movie will be shot in Malaysia.

The production company was quoted as saying that because it is a true story, the material requires utmost care and authenticity.

We reached out to 27 Ten Productions, which is based in London, but did not get a response.

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