Editor’s Note: Earlier this week, entertainment news outlets reported that film project “Ni’ihau” was in pre-production and had cast actor Zach McGowan (Black Sails) in the lead role of Ben Kanahele, a Native Hawaiian man who featured centrally in the historic so-called ‘Ni’ihau Incident’. That announcement sparked accusations of white-washing and historical inaccuracies from online commentators.
In terms of the film production of “Ni’ihau” itself, there’s not much I could say that hasn’t already been said. Business-wise, I don’t see any support for this film from any communities (outside of hard core Zach McGowan fans). At this point, it seems almost certain that this project will fail.
However, news of the “Ni’ihau” film project re-raised a particular issue dealing with Asians and Pacific Islanders that I feel should be talked about. Specifically, does the term “Asian Pacific Islander” contribute towards a tendency for many Asians to claim Pacific Islanders as part of the same monolithic racial community, and thereby unknowingly erase the Polynesian narrative?
Last week, Deadline broke the story that writer/director Gabriel Robertson (EastEnders, Bucket, The Gift) was attached to write and direct a feature film based on the infamous so-called “Ni’ihau Incident”. Deadline further reported that actor Zach McGowan (Dracula Untold, Terminator: Salvation, Black Sails) — who is not Native Hawaiian — had been cast in the leading role of Benehakaka “Ben” Kanahele, a historical figure and Ni’ihauian who was awarded a Purple Heart for his role in the incident.
News of McGowan’s casting triggered immediate backlash from Asian American and Native Hawaiian & Pacific Islander activists, who accused the filmmakers of using “Polyface” to whitewash the character of Ben Kanahele. In addition, Asian Americans criticized early buzz surrounding the planned “Ni’ihau” film, which described the incident as a “catalyst” for Japanese American incarceration (Editor’s Note: see JACL’s Power of Words handbook).
In truth, the events of the Ni’ihau Incident was co-opted by hardline conservatives to provide a veil of legitimacy to obscure the racist and anti-Asian motives behind Japanese American incarceration. History has since confirmed that Executive Order 9066 — which led to the forcible removal of over a hundred thousand Japanese and Japanese American civilians — was not based in significant military intelligence showing that Japanese Americans were untrustworthy; rather, Japanese American incarceration emerged as the latest escalation in a decades-long pattern of legalized anti-Asian and anti-Japanese harassment and criminalization.
Online outcry against “Ni’ihau” was fervent, taking the shape of memes, Twitter threads, and long-form thinkpieces. As it turns out, the filmmakers behind the planned “Ni’ihau” film were listening; and, they weren’t very receptive to the criticism.