HomeAAPI ActorsHow Diverse is 'Hawaii Five-0'? Activist Speaks Out About Struggle with CBS...

How Diverse is ‘Hawaii Five-0’? Activist Speaks Out About Struggle with CBS Over AAPI Representation in Five-0

by Akemi Tamanaha, AsAmNews Associate Editor

For one Asian American activist, “Hawaii Five-0’s recent cancellation represents the end of years of trying and often failing to improve the show’s diversity.

Guy Aoki, an Asian American activist and media advocate who grew up in Hawaii, spoke with AsAmNews about his decades-long fight to help the cop drama reboot accurately reflect the state of Hawaii, where over 60 percent of its residents are Asian American and Pacific Islanders.

Aoki has spent many years pushing to increase Asian American and Pacific Islander representation on screen. He is the founding president of Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA), a non-profit organization advocating for equitable representation of Asian Americans in media. He is also a founding member of the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition (APAMC), which works with CBS, ABC, NBC and Fox. The networks give APAMC data on the AAPIs they’ve hired each season. APAMC grades each networks’ performance in a number of categories and makes recommendations that are meant to improve representation.

In 1996, Aoki was granted a meeting with then-CBS President Leslie Moonves and other CBS executives. He praised Moonves for casting a Japanese American police captain in Nash Bridges, a show set in 1990s San Francisco where nearly a third of the population was Asian American. He challenged Moonves to accurately reflect reality in his new shows and Moonves accepted his challenge.

The 1997 “Hawaii Five-O”: A Show that Never Came to Be

Aoki’s fight to improve AAPI representation on Hawaii Five-O began with a 1997 continuation of the original show years before the 2011 reboot was developed. The 1997 show was not a reboot of the 1960s Five-O, but rather a continuation of the original story.

The series would retain some original cast members while also adding new leads. By that time, Jack Lord had already retired from acting due to his Alzheimer’s. In early 1997, CBS was casting for the pilot episode of this 1997 series.

According to Aoki, one of the lead descriptions was someone “who worked at the FBI and moved to Hawaii.” Another described someone “from Southern California who moved to Hawaii and is accepted by the locals.” The third description asked for someone who “looked like he stepped out of a GQ Magazine.”

Aoki contacted the writer and asked why Asian Americans couldn’t fill these roles. He was told that the pilot was supposed to be shot in two weeks. In order for CBS to recast, the descriptions would have to be rewritten. This confused Aoki who saw nothing in the casting descriptions that would explicitly exclude Asian Americans from auditioning.

“This is the mindset of these people only seeing authority figures as being White even in a show in Hawaii,” Aoki said.

When the pilot aired, it starred Gary Busey, Russell Wong, Steven Flynn and Elsie Sniffen, who is hapa, as the fourth member of the cast. Only one Asian American actor had been chosen for a new lead role. The pilot was not picked up.

Hawaii Five-0 Season 5 Promotional Photo. From left to right: Chi McBride, Scott Caan, Alex O’Loughlin, Grace Park, Daniel Dae Kim

The 2010 Reboot

Nearly 15 years later, CBS began working on the Hawaii Five-O reboot that viewers across the country now tune in to watch every Friday night.

Aoki got a hold of a script for the reboot.. He contacted Peter Golden, who was head of casting at CBS and gave him a few suggestions for cast members. He floated names like Jason Scott Lee and Daniel Dae Kim for the role of Chin Ho Kelly. He suggested that perhaps half Japanese American actor Ian Anthony Dale could play McGarrett.

Aoki presented Golden with the same challenge he gave them in 1997.

“I said, ‘Look, you have the opportunity to not repeat the racial hierarchy of the original Hawaii Five-O. You don’t have to have two main White actors and the next two be Asian and Pacific Islanders,'” Aoki said. “But that’s exactly what they did.”

Golden and the showrunners cast two White men as their leads: Alex O’Loughlin as Steve McGarrett and Scott Caan, son of James Caan, as Danny Williams. O’Loughlin had previously starred in Moonlight and Three Rivers, two shows for CBS that flopped.

“This just goes to show White actors can fail over and over again and somebody will still give them another chance,” Aoki said. “If you had an Asian American actor starring in two flops with the same network he wouldn’t be given a third chance.”

CBS cast Daniel Dae Kim as Chin Ho Kelly and Grace Park as Kono Kalakaua. Kim had risen to mainstream prominence for his role in the critically acclaimed show Lost. Park had gained popularity for starring in Battlestar Galactica. They cast Aoki’s suggestion Ian Anthony Dale as Kono’s love interest Adam, the son of a Yakuza boss.

Hawaii Five-0 Season One Promotional Cast Photo. From left to right: Grace Park, Scott Caan, Alex O’Loughlin, Daniel Dae Kim

According to Aoki, the president said that she considered all four to be the stars of the show. Aoki, however, knew this wasn’t true. The order in which the names were listed reflected the order of the character’s importance Aoki said. He understood that the show would focus on the dynamic between Danny and Steve and the personal, familial lives of both men more than it would for Kim and Park.

Both Kim’s and Park’s true value to CBS was reflected in their 2017 pay dispute. In July 2017, both Kim and Park announced that they were leaving the show after they could not reach an agreement on their contracts. Reports at the time said that Kim and Park were seeking pay parity with their White colleagues O’Loughlin and Caan. Executives said that both actors were offered “unprecedented raises,” but chose to ultimately walk away after seven seasons on Five-0.

Aoki said he was surprised when he heard Kim and Park were demanding equal pay but not surprised that the network refused. His goal had always been to subvert the racial hierarchy in casting, which may have prevented the dispute in the first place.

“This would not have been an issue if they had been the stars,” Aoki said.

The show added Ian Anthony Dale as a main cast member for Season 8. Up until that season, Dale had only been a recurring cast member who played Kono’s love interest. The show also added Meaghan Rath who is half South Asian and Beulah Koale who is of Samoan descent as main cast members.

It wasn’t just the main cast that concerned Aoki. He says he also struggled to get CBS to improve AAPI representation in more minor roles. During the first few seasons, it added AAPI recurring characters like medical examiner Max (Masi Oka) who became a regular in the second season, shrimp truck owner Kamekona (Taylor Wily) and Kamekona’s cousin Flippa (Shawn Mokuahi-Garnett). Oka, however, also left after seven seasons.

While CBS cast a few AAPI actors in recurring roles, Aoki noticed during the debut of the first season that they struggled to incorporate AAPI in certain minor roles. The first two governors of Hawaii, for example, were played by a White woman and a Black man.

The show also struggled to incorporate AAPI guest actors. Often AAPI guest actors were forced to play suspects and villains. Many of those villains were killed and the actors couldn’t be used again because the audience had already seen their faces. Rarely did AAPIs guest star as characters that helped Five-0 solve a case.

After the debut of the first season, Aoki contacted Moonves and Golden. They arranged a meeting with Golden, along with the head of diversity and programming, to discuss the possibility of casting more AAPIs, specifically more AAPIs from Hawaii as guest stars.

The meeting was initially canceled after Aoki sent CBS a letter detailing his concerns. The letter included a column written by Wayne Harada in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that expressed concerns over the way AAPIs were largely cast as villains and suspects. It also included comments from locals expressing similar concerns.

Aoki was told his letter was not well received. Now, Golden wanted him to provide a list of Hawaiian actors who were just as good as someone like Tom Sizemore. At this point, Aoki had not lived in Hawaii for nearly 30 years. He reached out to a casting director in Hawaii and did his best to create a list. After he provided the list, the meeting went ahead as scheduled.

At the meeting, Aoki says he was mocked for including some actors who were no longer alive. This frustrated him. Finding and casting AAPI actors, he felt, should be the job of the people actually working on the show. Although his list might have been undermined, Aoki insisted that there were great AAPI actors out there.

“I told them, ‘For every White actor you’re using as a guest star there is an Asian American equivalent who could have done just as well and who would have made it look like this is actually in Hawaii and not Idaho,'” Aoki said.

After the meeting, the show held “a series of panel discussions, headshot workshops and auditions at the University of Hawaii at Manoa” in the summer of 2012. The sessions held at the university were meant to sniff out local talent.

Despite those sessions, Aoki said that in the earlier seasons the patterns continued. In 2013, he wrote about his frustrations in a column for Rafu Shimpo, a Japanese American newspaper based in Los Angeles. Lenkov, he says, read the column and, according to Aoki, became very defensive.

In the summer of 2015, Aoki had a conference call with the CBS head of diversity and another person in current programming who was in charge of Five-0. He said he began to see small changes halfway through the sixth season.

Still, some things have remained the same. Aoki says he wishes they had cast more AAPI guest stars to assist Five-0 in their investigations.

“And in the history of the show (240 episodes when the series ends), I can only recall one episode where an API guest star tagged along with the team to help catch the bad guy,” Aoki added.

From left to right: Peter Lenkov, Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park at Comic Con. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Representation Behind the Camera

As Hollywood struggles to increase minority representation, diversity behind the camera as well as in front of the camera has become a topic of conversation. Aoki pointed out that the show has hired very few AAPI writers and directors over the years.

“How can you be a network that says you care about diversity and there are several seasons of Hawaii Five-0 where Peter Lenkov did not hire a single Asian American writer or director?” Aoki said. “How hard is that to do?”

Five-0 has hired a few AAPI writers in later seasons, but a large portion of the writing staff is not AAPI. IMDB does not list any AAPIs as lead writers on the show.

What Diversity Looks Like on Shows Set in Hawaii

CBS has championed Five-0 as an example of diversity. In 2017, Lenkov defended the diversity of the cast after Park and Kim left the show.

“Over our 168 episodes, Hawaii Five-0 has and will continue to showcase one of the most diverse casts on TV: Chi McBride, Jorge Garcia, Mark Dacascos, Ian Anthony Dale, Will Yun Lee, Masai Oka, Dennis Chun, Taylor Wily, Shawn Garnett, Kimee Balmilero, Kekoa Kekumano, Shawn Anthony Thomsen, as well as Daniel and Grace … all of these great talents regulars or recurring,” Lenkov said in a statement he posted on Twitter. I’m proud of that roster and of our show.”

Five-0’s AAPI representation is unprecedented when compared to several other network television shows. But Five-0 is also a show set in Hawaii where over 60 percent of residents are Asian American and Pacific Islanders. What may seem like an “overabundance” of AAPIs to mainland viewers is very much the norm in Hawaii.

So it’s natural that people like Aoki, who grew up in Hawaii, might be frustrated when they see White men running the show in front of and behind the camera.

“Look I grew up in Hilo Hawaii,” Aoki said. “The mayor was Japanese American. The head judge was Japanese American. The civil defense head was Korean American. In reality, we run the state. To constantly have White guys running the show is just patronizing and really an insult because the reality is we are in charge of the state.”

Aoki, however, also pointed out that CBS is currently bungling another opportunity to create a network television show that reflects the diversity of Hawaii. In 2018, CBS aired the first season of a Magnum P.I. reboot, which is set in Hawaii.

The new “Magnum P.I.” is also being produced by Lenkov. Aoki says that when the show announced initial casting, none of the four leads were AAPI. Later, they added AAPI cast members Amy Hill and Tim Kang.

Diversity at CBS

CBS has had a diversity problem that extends beyond Hawaii Five-0 and Magnum P.I. Last year former manager of CBS Entertainment Diversity and Inclusion Whitney Davis wrote an open letter to CBS about its “white problem,” which was published in Variety. Davis published the letter in April 2019 after she decided to leave CBS upon reflecting on the company’s lack of diversity.

As a member of the Diversity and Inclusion department, in her letter, Davis alleged that she did not believe Golden was committed to casting minority performers.

“It is my opinion that Peter Golden doesn’t find minority performers to be as talented as White actors,” Davis wrote. “He continues to reject the outstanding talent from the Actor’s Showcase because they aren’t good enough, they’re too green or they aren’t “right” for CBS.”

In 2016, minority advocates criticized CBS for its nearly all-white programming. Casting executives decided to bring in 12 performers of color they had carefully selected to do workshops and screentests. Davis says that Golden expressed disappointment that none of the performers “popped.”

“Two years later, one of the participants, KiKi Layne, is the star of Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, for which she has received rave reviews,” Davis wrote.

Davis concluded her letter by asking CBS to make strides towards improving diversity within the network. Aoki expressed similar sentiments.

“It’s not that we don’t have enough talented people of color actors. It’s whether the people at the networks or at the movie studios decide to use them or not,” Aoki said.

Golden and Moonves, two of the men who played key roles in Aoki’s long saga with CBS, are no longer with the network. Moonves announced his resignation in September 2018 after following numerous sexual harassment and abuse allegations.

In May 2019, Golden stepped down as head of casting after complaints from CBS workers like Davis and other complaints made against him surfaced during the Moonves sexual misconduct investigations. Golden had worked as a casting executive at CBS since 1996.

A changing of the old guard might bring new opportunities. Aoki hopes that one-day network executives will produce a show set in Hawaii with an AAPI star.

“Moving forward, this is a challenge that CBS — and all the networks, for that matter — must reflect upon and take steps to correct,” Aoki said.

AsAmNews reached out to the Entertainment Communications Department at CBS. Members of the department were not immediately available for comment.

(Editor’s Note: This article has been updated from its original version to correct the timeline of events and some the details. We apologize for the errors)

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