Introducing ‘Ni’ihau,’ the Latest Subject of a Whitewashing Controversy
It’s been a whopping one-and-a-half months since Ghost in the Shell came to theaters and reignited the conversation over why we‘re still casting white actors in nonwhite roles, so we’re overdue for another dose! Luckily, the new project Ni’ihau has arrived just in time to kindly oblige us by freely misinterpreting (when not outright rewriting) one of the most sensitive chapters in American history. Here’s a quick litmus test to establish whether or not you’re prepared to run a movie studio: When you hear the name “Kanahele,” do you picture a native Hawaiian, or a guy who looks like he just missed out on the lead role in Me Before You?
Deadline has the exclusive that the role of real-life islander Ben Kanahele will be played by confirmed white person Zach McGowan in Ni’ihau, a clear message that someone high up learned nothing from the whole “Emma Stone plays Asian in Aloha” brouhaha. (What is it about going to Hawaii that makes casting directors lose track of themselves?)
That’s bad enough on its own, but the core premise of the film sounds just as tricky: Ni’ihau dramatizes a real-life incident in which a Japanese soldier during WWII crash-landed on a remote Hawaiian island, where news of Pearl Harbor had not yet spread. He tried to remain inconspicuous until the locals learned of the global situation and imprisoned him. The pilot recruited the help of three Japanese-descended villagers to stage an escape and take revenge on his captors, but before he could strike, Kanahele killed the invader and saved the island.
Happy ending, right? Except that the Ni’ihau Incident was used by then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt as proof that Japanese nationals living in America would hold allegiance to their Far East motherland rather than their new home, and got the executive order establishing internment camps passed. So our hero’s gonna be in tanface, he kills a guy, and his legacy is a shameful stain on the American history books? This is what we in the biz call a “hard sell.”