Last month, the Merrie Monarch Festival was held on the Big Island of Hawai’i.

2017 04 22 - Merrie Monarch Festival - Hoike

Courtesy, Merrie Monarch Festival

More than a celebration of Hawai’ian culture, the festival is the continuation of cultural preservation. Those who live on the Mainland may not know that it wasn’t too long ago that native Hawai’ians were denigrated on the islands. Appreciation of one’s indigenous heritage was discouraged, and those who hula danced were looked upon with disdain. I have clear memory of an older native Hawai’ian shushing me for talking about my ancestors and their being chiefs to King Kamehameha. He did this because that is what he was taught. Luckily, my family taught me to be proud of my kanaka maoli heritage, no matter who says otherwise.

The resurgence of native Hawai’ian culture may be strong, but recently Hollywood seeks to decimate it and its people in the same vein that disease and foreign subjugation ravaged the islands in the late 1700s.

Riding the Wave

A number of stories have been mined from the islands, and rightfully so. There’s a multitude of multi-faceted and thrilling stories to be told. Many of these stories, it may come as a surprise, do not involve white people. Yet Hollywood has re-cast native Hawai’ians in the guise of George Clooney, Beau Bridges, Shailene Woodley, and Emma Stone. Yes, there has been intermarriages on the islands, and there are a lot of haole-kanaka mixes as well as a plethora of different shades, shapes, and combos on the islands. In fact, in the Bishop Museum, a photo hangs of my ancestors because they were one of the first Chinese-Native Hawai’ian intermarriages. However I don’t look anything like Emma Stone, and Emma Stone, not I, played a character who was Chinese and native Hawai’ian.

When was the last time a native Hawai’ian played a native Hawai’ian lead character in a Hollywood film based in Hawai’i? Uhh, probably never. And don’t say Moana because that film’s based in Tahitian culture. And that’s 2612 miles away from Hawai’i. That’s further apart than San Diego and North Carolina.

But that doesn’t matter to Hollywood. Rather than give someone of native Hawai’ian descent a few moments on screen, they’d rather turn their lens toward white people, slap some bronzer on their face and arms and call them Hawai’ian when questioned, and thus continue the long-held tradition of cultural white out, save for the relegation to the background of “the natives.”

Image-Benehakaka-Kanahele-holding-Medal-of-Merit-and-Purple-Heart-at-Fort-Shafter-30Jun131 zach-mcgowan

Zach Ain’t Black and He Ain’t Hawai’ian neither

The latest to come down the pipeline is the casting of Zach McGowan as Benehakaka “Ben” Kanahele in Ni’ihau. The story revolves around the real-life WWII incident in which Japanese airman, Shigenori Nishikaichi crash-landed on the tiny Hawai’ian island on December 7, 1941. After a series of events, Nishikaichi held Ni’ihauan Kanahele and his wife hostage while trying to radio for help. Ella Kanahele attempted to seize Nishikaichi’s gun but failed, and Ben was shot three times. Despite being wounded, Kanahele overcame Nishikaichi and killed him. Ben Kanahele was awarded the Purple Heart and Medal of Merit. He was also the subject of a popular song, “You Can’t Conquer Niihau, Nohow.”

Apparently “Nohow” is not how Hollywood sees it. McGowan, who could be seen on Marvel’s Agents of Shield, starred in Black Sails and also appeared in Shameless. There’s nothing in his bio that says he has an ounce of native Hawai’ian blood. So this casting of a white person in a role of a real life human being of native Hawai’ian descent comes in May, which is Asian Pacific Islander Heritage month.

It’s a big Fuck You to APIs.

Adjacent to Hollywood

Sure, Jason Momoa and Keanu Reeves are too big of stars now. This would be a great role for the underrated David Straithairn who is in fact, part native Hawai’ian. Tamlyn Tomita said the script was shit (her Facebook post has been pasted by several people including Gilmore Girls star Keiko Agena) so even if he was asked, Straithairn would’ve passed. But I’m sure he wasn’t asked.

Granted the film is produced by a Hollywood-adjacent film company, the UK-based Amber Entertainment. I bet anything they will tout the fact that they cast Hailee Steinfeld as Juliet in their Romeo and Juliet movie as a testimony to their commitment to diversity. I bet you ANYTHING they will. But whether you’re based in Hollywood or the moon, ethnic-adjacent should not be in the realm of consideration. This casting is not even close to being adjacent, not even close to being 2600 miles away.

What it’s closest to is Hollywood ethnic cleansing.

–Ken Choy


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