When I first heard that there was going to be yet another Asian/Pacific Islander movie starring some rando white dude, I was incredulous. Hasn’t Hollywood learned its lesson yet? Their last several high profile movies involving whitewashing were epic flops, and yet, here we are again. The movie, Ni’ihau, involves a real-life story of badass Japanese immigrant/Hawaiian Benehakaka ‘Ben’ Kanahele and his heroism during World War II. The first article I read only said that Zach McGowan was going to star in the movie, and I flinched because the story is set in Ni’ihau, a Hawaiian island, and the antagonist is Japanese. In other words, there’s nary a white person in sight, so I was imagining the director cramming in the ‘best white buddy’ character so the audience would have a lens through which to view the dramatic events. The social media response was swift, with AAPIs condemning the movie with ferocity. Even mainstream media picked up on it, though they were aggravating me because they put whitewashing in scare quotes, and many of the headlines were phrased in a way to take the onus off the director. “Ni’ihau accused of ‘whitewashing’,” was a common headline, and while I understand why ‘accused’ is in there (I can do scare quotes, too!), it simply IS whitewashing to cast a white guy to star in an AAPI movie.
Whitewashing, in case you don’t know, is taking a story of a minority culture and changing it so that it centers around white folks. The hypothesis behind that is that Americans can’t handle movies that aren’t predominantly white, and while that’s true for some people, I think Hollywood is behind the times in this matter.
I quickly found out that this case was even worse than I previously thought. Zach McGowan wasn’t going to play some rando white guy who aids Kanahele as the latter performs heroic acts; McGowan was cast as Benehakaka Kanahele. What. The. Fuck. This isn’t whitewashing, it’s yellowface, and it’s arguably worse. It’s as old as time–and one of the most notorious and shameful incidents of in modern-ish time is Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
I can’t even watch two seconds of this without cringing and squinching up my face. You would think we’ve moved past this, but while the newer portrayals may not be as aggressively stereotypically offensive, they’re still as exasperating. What’s even more laughable in this case is that the producer is quoted as saying that since this is a movie based on real life events, “there is a weight to be shouldered, and the material requires the utmost care and authenticity.” Are. You. Fucking. Kidding. Me?!?
The base requirement for authenticity is to ACTUALLY CAST A FUCKING ASIAN/PACIFIC ISLANDER IN THE LEAD FUCKING ROLE. I cannot believe I have to say this in 2017, but that is the very least you can do for authenticity. If you don’t meet that very low requirement, I can’t take anything else you say about authenticity seriously. Speaking of which, Tamlyn Tomita, who is still amazing after all these years, has actually seen the script, and she said it was shit. No, seriously. In an email, her first words are, “I appreciate you setting this up, but this script is a piece of shit and I am not mincing words…” She then goes on to list several things wrong with the script, including the notion that this incident led to the Japanese internment camps.