Variety reports today that actor Daniel Dae Kim (Hawaii Five-O, Lost) is in talks to join the upcoming Hellboy reboot as Major Ben Daimio, a role vacated by actor Ed Skrein (The Transporter: Refueled, Deadpool) following online controversy over whitewashing. The character of Major Ben Daimio is Japanese American. Skrein is not Asian American, whereas Kim is Asian American (but not Japanese American).
Among the Asian American community’s most prominent Hollywood actors, Kim is wildly popular both for his professional success as well as his willingness to leverage his position to advance Asian American causes. He won me over as an early fan of his work as an activist-actor when he launched a contest to improve Asian American voter turnout in 2012 by offering a vacation to Hawaii as a raffle prize for voters. (Kim later withdrew the contest after he discovered that offering incentives to vote was a violation of federal election rules, but his heart was definitely in the right place with the effort.)
More recently, Kim earned accolades across the Asian American community for joining co-star Grace Park in leaving the main cast of Hawaii Five-O over pay inequity compared to the show’s white actors. In a statement, Kim said of the decision:
Since his acting career has taken off, Kim has also launched a career as an executive producer. He founded a production company — 3AD — and has three shows in development, all based on South Korean books and shows. Two of the shows star Korean American leads, while the third — The Good Doctor — features a white male lead as a surgeon with Savant syndrome as well as a multiracial cast of supporting characters, and is set to premiere on ABC later this month.
So, it is hardly a surprise that the producers of Hellboy sought to earn back some goodwill with the Asian American community by entering into negotiations to cast Kim as Major Ben Daimio. And, indeed, many within the Asian American community are already heralding the possible casting choice, noting that with his casting, Daimio’s character would be safe from whitewashing and would instead be played by an Asian American actor.
However, some — myself included — remain concerned that in our enthusiasm, the Asian American community may miss out on the fact that Kim is not Japanese American, and that his casting to play a Japanese American character washes away the ethnic nuance of Asian American identity while it perpetuates the “all Asians look the same” stereotype. While there remains plenty of room for discussion over inter-ethnic casting, that topic warrants — at the very least — a conversation. In Hawaii Five-O, Kim — who is Korean American — stirred controversy when he was cast as Chin Ho Kelly, a character of Chinese and Hawaiian heritage; Grace Park’s Kono Kalakaua is also written as mixed race Native Hawaiian even though Park is Korean American. Neither Kim nor Park have Native Hawaiian ancestry. Indeed, although Hawaii Five-O took place in Hawaii and featured numerous characters of both Asian and Native Hawaiian background, Native Hawaiian actors were shut out of the main cast and instead limited to secondary, supporting, or guest roles alone.
To their credit, both Park and Kim did fantastic work with their roles on Hawaii Five-O, and the show remains an important cornerstone for the contemporary representation of Asian Americans in media. It was among the first prime-time television shows to deal with Japanese American incarceration, and it courageously did so in an episode that aired in commemoration of the anniversary of Pearl Harbor in 2013. It is also, as far as I know, the first prime-time television show to tackle the issue of Hawaiian sovereignty and independence. But, these achievements occurred against a backdrop of general invisibility and marginalization of Native Hawaiian people and actors that, frankly and unfortunately, remains largely unaddressed by Asian American fans of Hawaii Five-O.
Now, in a move that has some echoes of the casting of Hawaii Five-O, Kim is again poised to take a role of a different ethnicity (although, in this case, of the same race). And, don’t get me twisted: I am happy that Daniel Dae Kim is being considered for a major role in the Hellboy feature film. Kim is a talented actor, and he seems like a great guy; there are few people more deserving of making it big in Hollywood. I am absolutely certain that if Kim is cast in Hellboy, he will do a lot to ensure that the character is portrayed fairly and authentically. Furthermore, the Asian American community is within our rights to be delighted that our online outcry halted another pending episode of Hollywood whitewashing.
However, I hope that in our celebration, we take a minute to remember that although (unlike Skrein) Kim is Asian American, (like Skrein) he is not Japanese American. If Kim is cast as Daimio (and no script rewriting occurs to change Daimio’s backstory), that casting will preserve the race — but not the ethnicity — of the character.
Maybe this matters, or maybe it doesn’t — I don’t honestly know. But, as a community, we need to start having the difficult conversation about how we see inter-ethnic casting as fitting in to our desire to see more Asian Americans in front of the camera.
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