Actor Zach McGowan (right) is slated to play Native Hawaiian hero Ben Kanahele in “Ni’hau.” (via YOMYOMF)

A new movie about the Ni’ihau Incident is drawing criticism on two fronts — “whitewashing” in the casting of a Native Hawaiian character and misrepresentation of Japanese American history.

The movie’s producers unveiled their plans on Facebook on May 9: “We’re thrilled to announce Zach McGowan (‘Black Sails,’ ‘Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,’ ‘The 100’) will star in Gabriel Robertson’s historical drama ‘Ni’ihau.’ Based on an incredible true story, Robertson wrote the screenplay and will make his feature directorial debut on the film, which is currently in pre-production.

“McGowan takes on the role of Ben Kanahele, an island leader who saves a Japanese pilot after he crash-lands on the Hawaiian island of Ni’ihau — only to find he was shot down attacking Pearl Harbor.”

A report goes on to say: “When the circumstances became apparent, [Shigenori] Nishikaichi was apprehended but received assistance from locals, taking hostages and attempting to overcome his captors. Kanahele ultimately killed Nishikaichi and was decorated for his part in stopping the takeover.

“The Ni’ihau Incident led to President Franklin D Roosevelt issuing Executive Order 9066, which directly led to the mass internment of 119,803 Japanese American men, women and children until the end of the war. The film is about the incident itself, which was seen to be the catalyst of fear that spurred Roosevelt’s decree. In 1976, President Gerald Ford rescinded Executive Order 9066.”

Comparing the story to “a Shakespearean tragedy,” Robertson said, “ 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.”

According to Deadline, filming begins at the end of May in Malaysia.

Historical Accuracy

In an article about the film for Densho, Brian Niiya addressed the claim about the EO 9066 connection, which has been picked up by other media: “Though such statements have appeared many times over the years (most notably from Michelle Malkin and other missionaries of the Gospel of Incarceration Apologism), there is no actual evidence that the incident played any such role. The fact that officials in Hawaiʻi, where the incident actually took place, advocated against mass incarceration says a great deal about the real impact of Niʻihau.

“Here in Hawaiʻi, this same issue came up about a decade ago. The Pacific Aviation Museum on Ford Island, near Pearl Harbor, had put up a display that included the remains the Japanese Zero airplane that crashed on Ni’ihau along with labels describing the incident. One of the labels repeated the claim about its link to EO 9066.

“Local Japanese Americans objected, and a coalition led by the Honolulu Chapter of the JACL cited scholarship disputing this claim. Eventually, the museum agreed to change the label to remove the claim.”

The remains of Japanese pilot Shigenori Nishikaichi’s Zero plane, at the crash landing site on Niʻihau. Dec. 17, 1941. (Wikimedia Commons)

In his 2009 book “A Tragedy of Democracy,” Greg Robinson wrote, “There is no evidence that the Niʻihau Incident influenced later policy — in none of the mountains of transcripts and memoranda of War Department and White House discussions regarding Japanese Americans on the West Coast that I have reviewed is the Niʻihau Incident even once mentioned.”

“It is easy to understand the appeal of the Niʻihau Incident to those who would argue that the wartime exclusion was justified, since it involved a Nisei aiding the Japanese pilot,” Niiya writes. “And it is an interesting — and strange — story that has been the subject of a novel … an episode of the TV show ‘History Detectives,’ and many non-fiction accounts … But we should be clear that it was a single incident whose impact on larger trends of the war — including the forced removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans — was minimal.”

Tomita’s Take

Actress Tamlyn Tomita, after reading the script in February, sent a scathing response to the producers, which was posted on Facebook. Excerpts follow:

“The writer/director has absolutely done no research whatsoever in writing about Native Hawaiians and Japanese Americans in Hawaii pre-1941 – has he ever been to Hawaii? Has he heard how Hawaiians speak? The dialogue is atrocious in tone, setting, and authenticity …

“The absolute WTF casting Benehakaka Kanahele with Zach Mcgowan – hey! Brit-twit! Ever hear of ‘whitewashing’?

“A fictionalized account of a true incident and he has the audacity of tagging the film with the statement that it’s often cited as the reason for bringing about the Japanese American internment camps – if he had dug a little deeper, the truth is, America’s concentration camps came about because of ‘wartime hysteria, racial prejudice, and a failure of political leadership’ – how dare he be a proponent of Michelle Malkin’s sub-par research to lend his film a fart of credibility …

“And hey! [FBI Director] J. Edgar Hoover did not write about the incident until after Executive Order 9066 was issued …

“As to why Yoshio Harada and Irene Harada did what they did – this writer/director has no imagination as to the inner conflicts of dual heritages, identities, and allegiances and what the stakes are in making such a choice …”

She added, “This continued practice of ‘whitewashing’ characters and fictionalizing history is not only total bulls–t, but further perpetuates the idea that only white people can play the heroes.”

Hawaiians Playing Hawaiians

Kanahele was shot three times before he and his wife, Kealoha “Ella” Kanahele, were able to kill Nishikaichi. For his actions, Kanahele was awarded the Medal for Merit and the Purple Heart.

The casting of McGowan, which was announced during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, comes at a time when Hollywood has come under fire for its casting decisions, such as Scarlett Johansson as Major in “Ghost in the Shell” (the character was Motoko Kusanagi in the original anime) or Emma Stone as the one-quarter Hawaiian, one-quarter Chinese Allison Ng in “Aloha.”

“We have a really serious issue here, and that’s Polyface. Instead of blackface, it’s Polyface,” writer and filmmaker Anne Keala Kelly told NBC News. “We in Hawaii have seen George Clooney and Shailene Woodley [in ‘The Descendants’] and Emma Stone play Hawaiians. And Grace Park, who is Asian American, plays Kono Kalakaua every week on ‘Hawaii 5-0.’ So it’s only Hawaiians who can’t be Hawaiians on screen.”

“They could have tried Jason Scott Lee, they could have tried Kala Alexander, they could have tried Jason Mamoa,” said Guy Aoki, founding president of Los Angeles-based Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA). “There’s a lot of good actors out there that could have played this part. 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.”

Brothers’ Defense

Reappropriate blogger Jenn Fang wrote that the criticism has not been well received: “Actor Zach McGowan (@Zach_McGowan), who features centrally in the controversy, has been largely silent. However, over the weekend [May 13-14], McGowan’s brothers — Doug and Matt McGowan — took to Twitter … to accuse Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders of racism and cyberbullying.

“In a lengthy Twitter conversation (that I was also a part of), Matt McGowan (@matt_mcgowan) demanded to know why his brother’s earlier roles playing a Native American in ‘Shameless’ and a Romani character in ‘Dracula Untold’ had not elicited similar controversy. (Twitter user @lsirikul helpfully pointed out that McGowan’s past forays into brownface did not excuse his latest effort to do the same.) …

“Older brother Doug McGowan (@doug_mcgowan) then pointedly implied it was racially discriminatory and/or factually inaccurate to argue that a white actor could not play a character of any race. That tweet garnered the support of Zach McGowan superfans but was otherwise widely denounced …

“The conversation ended with an assurance by Matt McGowan that ‘Ni’ihau’ filmmakers and actor Zach McGowan were receptive to AANHPI’s [Asian American-Native Hawaiian-Pacific Islander] concerns and would ‘do [their] best’ …

“However, in seeming contradiction to the supposed sincerity of that promise was McGowan’s parallel insistence — posted just a few hours later — that the filmmakers of ‘Ni’ihau’ had been bullied into silence by a targeted cyberbulling (or #Cyberbullying) campaign …

“Against the backdrop of a film that profoundly misappropriates Native Hawaiian and Asian American history and people, McGowan’s hyperdefensive invocation of the cyberbullying issue — which predominantly victimizes people of colour and other marginalized peoples — is yet another co-optation of people of colour and our politics by those attached to the ‘Ni’ihau’ film project. McGowan’s accusation that anti-racist AAPI activists are engaging in cyberbullying is an effort to delegitimize what we are saying by focusing on tone-policing how we say it.

“When McGowan cries cyberbullying, what he really seems to be saying is that he’s tired of hearing angry AANHPI talk so loudly.”

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  1. So where are we at with this film? I am researching online if the film is in production, and I can’t find anything on it. I wish they would have chosen one of the many talented actors in Hawai’i to fulfill this role. Such a shame.

  2. So where are we at with this film? I am researching online if the film is in production, and I can’t find anything on it. I wish they would have chosen one of the many talented actors in Hawai’i to fulfill this role. Such a shame.