Will ‘Hawaii Five-0’ Flap Lead to Changes for Actors of Color?

Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park’s exit from CBS drama raises renewed questions about Hollywood diversity

“Hawaii Five-0” series regulars Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park are exiting the show after contract negotiations broke down, and the situation has added fuel to a bigger discussion as to whether Hollywood is making advancements toward inclusivity.

CBS said in a statement on Wednesday that it offered “large and significant salary increases” to Kim and Park in an attempt to retain the two cast members, who have played Chin Ho Kelly and Kono Kalakaua respectively since its launch in September 2010.

But Kim’s goodbye message in a social media post earlier this week suggested that he felt that white actors — including Alex O’Loughlin (McGarrett) and Scott Caan (Danno), who are both staying with the series — get a fairer shake than he and Park did. “The path to equality is rarely easy,” Kim wrote.

Matthew Hashiguchi, a documentary filmmaker and assistant professor in multimedia film & production at Georgia Southern University, pointed out to TheWrap that the “H50” situation follows a number of recent Hollywood projects — including “Ghost in the Shell,” “Aloha” and “Doctor Strange” — in which key roles that could have gone to Asian-American performers instead went to white actors.

“American society continues to be reluctant to accept an Asian-American as a leading star, and CBS probably knows that, or at least believes that,” Hashiguchi said. “So if CBS believes their audience won’t miss Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park, that tells you a lot about what CBS thinks its viewers think: that Asians are replaceable.”

Guy Aoki, founding president of Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA), told TheWrap that the problem was set in place when CBS chose to cast white actors in the roles of McGarrett and Danno, mirroring the set-up of the original version that launched in 1968.

Aoki, who was born and raised in Hilo, Hawaii, said that he had a conversation with the head of casting for CBS in January 2010, where he suggested Kim and Jason Scott Lee as cast members. The show ended up casting Kim in his lead role as Chin Ho Kelly, but Lee, who was raised in Hawaii and is of Hawaiian and Chinese descent, was cast as a villain who recurred in only three episodes.

“They used Kim but cast Lee as a cop killer, which really made me hit the ceiling and led to a separate meeting in 2011 with CBS about the show’s penchant for using API [Asian-Pacific Islander] guest stars as villains or suspects vs. leaders in the community, as APIs are in real life in Hawaii,” Aoki said.

He added that the show still appears more inclined to hire white actors, even in non-speaking roles.

“A guest actor on the show told me that the executive producer flies in blondes to be extras!” Aoki said. “Extras? Who don’t speak any dialogue? That tells me he doesn’t like the way Hawaiian locals look — he wants to make the show look more white! Maybe some of that money wasted on blondes could’ve gone to the salaries of Kim and Park.”

Joann Chow, assistant professor of communications at William Paterson University, told TheWrap that the exit of Kim and Park is a “huge loss,” particularly given that the two are “among the very few visible Asian-Americans in television.”

“Once again, we are reminded that regardless of how talented or successful we may be in our professions, Asians continue to be viewed as somehow being of ‘lesser’ stature,” said Chow, who is the author of several oral history books, including one on Asian-Americans. “A sad statement for Asians in America, and a very poor decision by CBS.”

Peter X Feng, professor at the University of Delaware and an expert on Asian-Americans and the media, told TheWrap that the fault lies in a Hollywood system that perceives a show centered on a white lead as a more sound investment.

“In short, this was a completely predictable outcome based on the structure of network television production,” Feng said. “This is the result of structural inequality, not of individual racist decisions. It is completely understandable that CBS would build a show around O’Loughlin and use Kim and Park as supporting players.”

Feng explained that the only way for CBS to now view Kim and Park as worthy of salaries commensurate with their white counterparts ahead of Season 8 “is if virtually every decision made along the way were different.”

Could the flap over the exits help affect change to this system? Mary Romero, professor of justice and social inquiry at Arizona State University, told TheWrap that the “H50” situation highlights the struggle that actors of color face every day in this business.

The public needs to applaud Kim and Park for their principled stand and taking on the fight for equality and justice in the workplace,” Romero said.

Aoki sees Kim and Park’s decision to walk away as potentially encouraging performers on a similar path to take a stand: “I think many are emboldened by their stance that they’d walk away from a series they worked on for seven years.”

Despite the attention that the “H50” casting news is getting, “Angry Asian Man” blogger Phil Yu is still skeptical whether tangible differences will be made in the near future.

“Now people seem to care, but it remains to be seen if it’s a buzzword or if it feels more like change is really coming,” Yu told TheWrap.

Meriah Doty contributed to this report.