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Last week it was announced that an upcoming movie you hadn’t heard about from a debut filmmaker you’ve never heard of had cast an actor you might vaguely recognize in the lead role. And yet it’s likely you caught the news. Cameras haven’t even started rolling on Gabriel Robertson’s Ni’ihau, the story of native Hawaiian WWII hero Ben Kanahele, but the movie’s already notorious—namely because of the film’s casting of white actor Zach McGowan as Kanahele. You’ve probably heard that it’s yet another example of Hollywood whitewashing. As the Twittersphere reacted with typically fleeting ferocity, the press greeted the news as though it’s just the latest installment in an ongoing saga that’s by now becoming all too predictable.
You may have noticed there’s always a well thought-out defense ready to meet controversy when white actors are cast in non-white roles. When Tilda Swinton bagged the part of the Ancient One in Doctor Strange, the film’s co-writer C. Robert Cargill said the character was changed from an Asian man to a white woman in order to avoid invoking the “racist stereotype” of the comics. When Emma Stone was cast as pilot Allison Ng in Aloha, writer-director Cameron Crowe assured us that the character was based on a real quarter-Hawaiian, quarter-Chinese woman who “by all outward appearances…looked nothing like one.” Then there was Rooney Mara, cast in Joe Wright’s Pan as the Native American Tiger Lily because Wright reportedly wanted the world of his movie to have an “international and multi-racial” feel.
Most recently, in what some of us assumed might be a watershed moment for Hollywood whitewashing given the public backlash and the film’s ultimate commercial failure, Scarlett Johansson won the lead in Ghost in the Shell, a blockbuster remake of a Japanese animated sci-fi set in an indeterminate east Asian city with what appeared to be a majority Asian population. Though producers reportedly ran VFX tests in a soon-abandoned effort to make Johansson appear “more Asian” in the film, it was later argued that Johansson could be cast because the character of Major had no fixed ethnicity. Sam Yoshiba, a director at the publishing house of the original Ghost in the Shell manga, insisted “we never imagined it would be a Japanese actress in the first place.”
While Ghost’s casting prompted criticism from the media, most of us just assumed there were more Scandinavian than Japanese names in the principal cast of this anime adaptation because the producers (wrongly) thought those names would sell more tickets. (It’s the same reason Ridley Scott gave for casting white actors as Egyptians in Exodus: Gods and Kings three years ago.) It’s not an airtight theory: the age of selling a film on the name of a star alone is arguably over, with concept now king. But still many of us gave the Ghost in the Shell team the benefit of the doubt even in our outrage—maybe the producers really were so misguided as to think a $180 million sci-fi fronted by Scarlett Johansson would make more money than one fronted by, say, the less recognizable but more role-appropriate Rinko Kikuchi. Perhaps naivety was just another valid excuse to add to the pile.
With Ni’ihau, the picture perhaps becomes clearer. Zach McGowan, the white New Yorker cast as Ben Kanahele, could not be physically confused with the subject a la Stone, nor is McGowan’s a ‘name’ the producers can use to sell the movie a la Johansson, nor is the project set to be a big budget one like Exodus or Ghost, on which producers want to reduce financial risk by casting a (semi-)recognizable face. Audiences aren’t exactly flocking to small WWII dramas in 2017; those who do come won’t be there to see a former supporting cast member of Showtime’s Shameless playing Kanahele.
There appear to be no good excuses for the unusual casting behind this one. Perhaps Ni’ihau’s producers really are so naive as to think a white unknown is just as good as a native Hawaiian one. Maybe McGowan nailed the audition. Maybe it was laziness, producers looking no further afield than New York for their lead actor. Whatever the thinking behind handing the role to McGowan, it inescapably looks like plain racial insensitivity. As uncomfortable as the practice was some five decades ago, when the likes of Tony Curtis could be cast as Native American Iwo Jima vet Ira Hayes in The Outsider, it merely seems like Hollywood is still keen to tell tales of non-white heroism with the non-white faces airbrushed out.
Whitewashing is about more than just denying non-white actors roles. Implicit in Hollywood’s eagerness to cast white actors in lead roles of non-white origin is the idea that the only heroism is white heroism. And when it comes to fact-based films like The Outsider half a century ago, or Ni’ihau today, it’s also about the co-opting of non-white history by white culture. It has to be largely inadvertent—Hollywood is so liberal that those within the industry who are openly Republican are tantamount to pariahs—but inherent to whitewashing, whatever the reason for it on a given feature film, is the suggestion of an old-fashioned kind of racial superiority.
There should be no more excuses. There are countless stories of white heroism out there for studios to buy up; if Hollywood wants to claim stories of non-white heroism too, the least it can do is cast non-white performers in the appropriate roles.