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This post has been updated to clarify historical accuracy.
Actor Zach McGowan has been cast in the lead role as Hawaiian native Ben Kanahele in the historical drama “Ni’ihau”, prompting backlash in yet another instance of whitewashing.
Filming will begin later this month at Pinewood Iskandar Malaysia Studios and McGowan will also executive produce along with Ileen Maisel of Amber Entertainment and Peter Morris of Affirmative Entertainment, according to Deadline.
Directed by Gabriel Robertson, “Ni’ihau” is based on a true story during WWII when Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service pilot Shigenori Nishikaichi crashed his Zero fighter aircraft on Ni’ihau, Hawaii’s “Forbidden Island”, after taking part in the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Played by McGowan, island leader Kanahele saves Nishikaichi before finding out that he participated in the attack.
However, even though Nishikaichi was shown hospitality, he, along with the help of locals of Japanese-descent, kidnapped and terrorized the locals of the island. Nishikaichi was eventually apprehended and killed by Kanahele, who was decorated for his part in preventing a takeover.
The film is about the Ni’ihau Incident, which Robertson incorrectly reduces to the event that influenced the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt to issue an executive order two months later that sent 119,803 Japanese-American men, women and children to concentration camps in February 1942. To date, no evidence directly connects the Ni’ihau Incident to the passing of Executive Order 9066.
Roosevelt suspended the order in December 1944 and President Gerald Ford rescinded order 9066 in 1976.
Robertson, who also wrote the film and will make his feature directorial debut, said he has always been attracted to the story’s “huge historical significance” with a narrative that “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.”
Ken Petrie of 27 Ten Productions, who serves as producer for the project, added that with any true story, “there is a weight to be shouldered, and the material requires the utmost care and authenticity.”
However, many people took to social media to point out Hollywood’s lack of recognition for Asians and Pacific Islanders, yet again.
— Laura (@lsirikul) May 9, 2017
— Nancy Wang Yuen (@nancywyuen) May 9, 2017
they’re making a movie about an incident used to justify Japanese internment and they cast a white guy as a Hawaiian https://t.co/RLpuMISItX
— Matt Pearce (@mattdpearce) May 9, 2017
My guess at reaction from #Niihau camp: “We understand, we’re listening, and we ask that you wait to see how we handle this story.”
— Studio Glibly (@NoTotally) May 9, 2017
Thread. This shit needs to STOP – Zach McGowan To Star In ‘Ni’ihau’; WWII Pic Directed By Gabriel Robertson https://t.co/1KHSSfYhDQ
— Celeste Noelani (@runningnekkid) May 9, 2017
— Kat Choe (@Kchoester) May 9, 2017
#Niihau is also /actual/ history involving a real place and a real person. Benehakaka Kanahele. Whitewashing him is insulting to him.
— Mallory Yu (@mallory_yu) May 9, 2017
— Tina Mata’afa-Tufele (@TMataafaTufele) May 9, 2017
Weren’t we all just singin’ praises for Moana’s casting…that’s something filmmakers should try to emulate. Not Aloha…#Niihau
— ferdosa (@atomicwick) May 9, 2017
Literally EVERYONE in this story is Asian & Pacific Islander, from heroes to villains. WE CAN’T OWN OUR OWN HISTORY!https://t.co/yMD4Q1YsvP
— Jeff Yang (@originalspin) May 9, 2017
— TheMixxTV (@The_MIXXTV) May 9, 2017
How many biopics have we seen about a Hawaiian guy? And a Hawaiian guy doesn’t even get to play him??? Like?? #Niihau
— Jenny Han (@jennyhan) May 9, 2017