If there is one element of “Hawaii Five-0” fans primarily agree on, it would be the casting of lead actors Alex O’Loughlin as Steve McGarrett, Scott Caan as Danny “Danno” Williams, Grace Park as Kono Kalākaua and Daniel Dae Kim as Chin Ho Kelly.
Most fans love the four main leads and enjoy the cultural and ethnic mix of their characters.
In light of Cameron Crowe’s recent apology regarding casting choices in his new film, “Aloha,” I thought about the casting in “Hawaii Five-0” and why it has survived for five seasons without much of the kind of backlash Crowe experienced.
Granted, there are folks who do not watch or support the show in Hawaii and see it as another group of outsiders trying to use the islands as a marketing tool. It’s not an uncommon feeling amongst local people — both Hawaiians and kamaʻāina alike. (For an explanation of the difference between Native Hawaiians and kamaʻāina, see this blog post from 2014.)
I have to say, unlike Crowe’s casting, “Hawaii Five-0” tries very hard to incorporate Hawaii’s people, language and culture in a positive way. Several of the characters who proclaim they are culturally and/or ethnically Hawaiian are played by actors who are either Asian, Polynesian and/or part-Hawaiian.
They include Sgt. Duke Lukela, played by Chinese-Hawaiian actor Dennis Chun; Kamekona and Mamo Kahike, played by Samoan actors Taylor Wily and Al Harrington, respectively; Flippa, played by part-Hawaiian actor Shawn Mokuahi Garnett; and Kawika, played by Hawaiian waterman Kala Alexander.
On the other hand, Kono and Chin are described as Native Hawaiian but are played by Asian actors — not Hawaiians. Yet according to Guy Aoki, President of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA), “sixty percent of Hawaii’s population (are) AAPIs (Asian American/Pacific Islanders).” So Park and Kim’s portrayal as Hawaiians could be seen as somewhat authentic since many Native Hawaiians are also part Asian and the high percentage of Asian Americans who were born and raised in Hawaii.
While Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park are not accepted as authentic by all viewers, I suppose it’s easier to believe than if their characters were played by non-Asian actors.
If Alex O’Loughlin’s character had been written as a Native Hawaiian, it would be equivalent to Emma Stone’s casting in “Aloha.” Stone’s character is supposed to be one quarter Native Hawaiian, one quarter Chinese and half Swedish. While many part-Hawaiians have that sort of ethnic mix, the problem seems to lie with the fact that a non-Hawaiian and non-Asian was cast in the role.
On “Hawaii Five-0,” Steve McGarrett’s character is clearly written for him to be seen as a kamaʻāina; born and raised in Hawaii, but not Native Hawaiian. McGarrett was taught by his father that their family is not ethnically Hawaiian, but that Hawaii is most definitely their home and they still belonged.
This characterization was well established within the first season of the show and led the team to find their new task force name. “Five-0” honors the 50th state, which is made up of newcomers (Danno), kamaʻāina (McGarrett) and Hawaiians (Chin and Kono).
As a part-Hawaiian, Asian and Caucasian woman who lived for more than four decades in Hawaii, even I find the whole topic both confusing and frustrating. I understand the thought process behind Crowe’s casting as well as “Hawaii Five-0.”
It’s really all about money. Which name will get the studios to back the film and the television show filmed in one of the most expensive places in the world? Without those names coupled with major studio backing, these films and shows would never be made.
I know Emma Stone is not Hawaiian or Asian, but would “Aloha” have ever gotten off the ground without her? I’d like to think it would, but I can’t say for sure.
Would “The Descendants” have ever been made without George Clooney playing the role of part-Hawaiian Matt King? I doubt it, just because of who Clooney is and what kind of draw he is at the box office.
Would “Hawaii Five-0” been made with without Hawaiian actors being cast and without Asians in major roles? Of course it would have. And the studio would not have flinched to do this. But it seemed important to the creators of the show to maintain the authenticity established by the original “Hawaii Five-O.” For example, Kam Fong was a Chinese American kamaʻāina as well as a former HPD officer when he was cast as Chin Ho Kelly.
According to Chun, Fong’s son, “when Dad walked into the audition for ‘Five-O,’ (original creator) Len Freeman said, ‘That is Chin Ho.’ He knew right then that he wanted Dad to play the role.” What mattered to Freeman was that Fong looked and acted like what Freeman saw as the character of Chin Ho Kelly.
“Len took a great risk,” Chun said last week. “He said it was important that Hawaii actors were in ‘Hawaii Five-O.’ He wanted that authenticity and that ʻohana within the show. All the credit really goes to Len for taking a risk and telling the studio ‘no’ when they wanted to cast more experienced mainland actors.”
Along with Fong, Freeman cast Zulu, aka Gilbert Lani Kauhi, a Native Hawaiian actor and entertainer, as Kono Kalākaua; Al Harrington as Ben Kokua; part-Hawaiian Herman Wedemeyer as the original Duke Lukela; Asian American actor Harry Endo as Che Fong; and Native Hawaiian musician and actor Moe Keale as Truck.
Also notable was Freeman’s casting of Khigh Dhiegh, an Egyptian-Sudanese actor who was known for playing Asian roles, as Wo Fat.
Chun also talked about the way executive producer Peter Lenkov has also tried to honor the original show and what Freeman started.
“It is important to Peter as well as Len that the show and the casting be a real ʻohana,” he said.
Lenkov and his crew try very hard to do right by Hawaii. But Lenkov also has a boss, and sometimes that boss is the machine known as Hollywood. In that world, it is fantasy that is bought and sold in order to create reality — and often times Hollywood does not care about authenticity or that characters are played by ethnically correct actors. Sometimes it’s the fantasy that’s far more important.
I’m just glad it’s still important to the “Five-0” team to continue creating ʻohana throughout the show.
REDUX SIDE NOTE
This week, don’t miss a special Saturday showing of “Ho’omā’ike” (“Unmasked”) on CBS. June 12 will feature a repeat of “Ka Hana Malū” (“Inside Job”) with guest stars Carol Burnett and Frankie Valli.
If you’d like to meet some of the Hawaii actors and extras who have shared their “Hawaii Five-0” experiences with me, come to Big City Diner Pearlridge on Wednesday at 6 p.m. We’ll be there to celebrate the end of season five and the summer hiatus. RSVP here and we’ll add you to the headcount.
Wendie Burbridge is a published author, playwright and teacher. Reach her via Facebook and follow her on Twitter.