Why we should care about the casting of Zach McGowan in Ni’ihau

Zach McGowan

Credit: Starz

As an Asian-American, it’s sometimes difficult to discuss the whitewashing controversies surrounding recent Hollywood casting decisions without coming off sounding angry. I truly respect the creative process in making a movie or television show. And I tend to give the creators a fairly wide latitude when it comes to casting. I defended director Scott Derrickson’s decision to cast Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One in Doctor Strange because he had creative reasons for his casting that made sense. Would I have liked to see an Asian in that role? Of course. But was the choice of Swinton a good one that worked for the movie? I believe so. After all, we are ultimately talking about a fictional universe with fictional characters. And there are the directors who want to put their own unique stamp on the proceedings. But what I can’t begin to understand is the decision-making process behind the recent casting of Zach McGowan as Hawaiian native Benehakaka “Ben” Kanahele in the upcoming film Ni’ihau.

Ni’ihau is a historical film that retells the Ni’ihau Incident during World War II. During this infamous incident, Kanahele encountered Shigenori Nishikaichi, a Japanese Naval pilot. Nishikaichi crashed on the small island of Ni’ihau after participating in the attack on Pearl Harbor and proceeded to take Kanahele and his wife hostage. He then rallied a group of local Japanese to try and take over the island until he was killed by Kanahele and his wife. For his actions, Kanahele received the Medal of Merit, the highest civilian decoration awarded in the United States at the time.

This (and I’ll repeat the word because it’s important) historical account of an American hero who fought against our enemies on one of the most infamous days in American history should be a celebration of everything we love and admire about America. Fighting against the odds to take down a villainous threat. And doing whatever it takes to protect our families and our country.

Zach McGowan, a blue-eyed Caucasian who plays English pirate Charles Vane in the Starz series, Black Sails, was somehow the best choice to depict the brown-eyed, brown skinned Kanahele. This goes beyond simple creative license, all the way to an overt displacement of ethnic heritage in a film. Now I cannot comment on whether McGowan will play the role well. And I don’t blame him for taking a role in a Hollywood film when it was offered to him. But I question the rationale the director and producers had in taking a role that is pretty clearly Hawaiian in every way, and then just completely ignoring this fairly important fact.

This is far more insidious than casting Matt Damon as the hero in The Great Wall. A film I disliked not for its white savior undertones, but rather because, well, it really sucked. It’s even worse than Scarlett Johansson’s casting as Major in the recent Ghost in the Shell film. At least in those instances, I could make the (admittedly cynical) case that executives wanted a “big name” at the top of the marquee to help sell tickets. Not that such a rationale makes the decision any better. But at least it makes business sense, in a sad and twisted way. After all, we’re talking about an industry that wants to make sure Italians know that Brad Pitt was the real star of 12 Years a Slave.

But what is the reason for taking a role of someone from history, and just flippantly deciding to cast someone that is pretty much the exact opposite to play him? We are talking about a real person with a real history and connection to people still living in Hawaii today. And we’re honoring him by filling his role with a Caucasian born in New York City? Now I’m sure they’ll be applying the bronzer pretty liberally. And perhaps, through the magic of the Hollywood makeup chair, they can take someone who looks like this and make him look like this.

But was there really not a single Hawaiian or Pacific Islander actor they could have cast in this role? There wasn’t anyone available who likely grew up reading about this story and its implications on World War II? Actors talk about how identifying with a character helps to create richer acting performances. How understanding character motivations enable an actor to tap into the character’s psyche. Yet in this case, it feels like the producers just decided, “Meh…let’s just cast…<throw a dart at random board of white actors> that guy.”

Again, this is not a knock on Zach McGowan. (I hear he’s a perfectly fine actor in both Shameless and Black Sails.) But he’s hardly a household name. And I sincerely doubt his casting will move the needle at all in terms of box office receipts. So in the absence of a clear business reason for whitewashing this role, then why do it? Why take a story that has such a strong historical foundation and connection with local Hawaiians, and not do everything you can do make sure it is as authentic as possible? We’re not talking about mythical superheroes or girls created in Cameron Crowe’s mind.

Historical Movies Should Value Character Authenticity in Casting Decisions

It would be easy to dismiss this uproar simply by saying that perhaps, Zach McGowan truly was the best actor for this part. And if the director and producers are all in agreement on this fact, who are we to really argue otherwise? They saw all the auditions. They made the final call. But if that truly was the case, then perhaps the decision makers on this film should consider being more receptive to the fact that sometimes, a role should not simply go to who can deliver the best line readings.

Movies, particularly historical movies, should value character authenticity in casting decisions. And if that means that the casting process is a bit harder and takes a bit longer, then that’s a price that they should all be willing to pay. Because although we are a far cry from the days of Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the progress Hollywood has made should not be forfeited simply due to casting complacency.

What do you think of the Zach McGowan casting choice for Ni’ihau?

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