Hawaiian History at the Movies

In recent years two major feature films related, at least tangentially, to Hawaiian history have come out: Princess Kaʻiulani and The Descendants. In this article I examine the historical veracity of the two films, and the ways in which they deploy Hawaiian stereotypes to satiate “Western” appetites for guilt-free viewing.  The producers of Princess Kaʻiulani, categorized as a “Historical romance,” originally cast a student of mine (Hawaiian, but with no acting experience) as the Princess, but after at least two changes, landed on Q’orianka Kilcher, a one-time resident of Ewa Beach, and known for her portrayal of Pocahontas in The New World. As most in Hawai’i already know, the film premiered at the Hawai’i International Film Festival with the title Barbarian Princess, a reference to a New York Times description of her before meeting her. The famous local radio (and bizarrely un-local right wing) personality Michael W. Perry got to disabuse the audience of the notion, by proclaiming her “not even a semi- hemi- demi-barbarian!” Hawaiian groups protested vociferously against the title, and rightly so, as the irony would be lost on many audiences, and merely insulting to Hawaiian ones. As Arnie Saiki commented: “Forby’s defense of the [title] Barbarian Princess was … pathetic. His arrogance was incredulous, defending the title, explaining its artistic merits as if the audience somehow just didn’t get the irony.” Finally, before wide release, the title was changed to Princess Kaiulani, alternately with and without the ‘okina (glottal stop) in her name.

The film plays very loose with the history, and at times portrays precisely the opposite of what happened. Much of the history is seen second-hand through letters to Kaʻiulani and through flashbacks. In one scene, sheʻs told by her father Archibald Cleghorn of Robert Wilcoxʻs rebellion (Wilcox is not mentioned) after the overthrow, and of how it was “a massacre.” In truth, one person on each side was killed – hardly a situation that would evoke pity for Kaʻiulaniʻs people, but one that shows the extent of Hawaiian resistance. In the climax, Kaʻiulani hosts a dinner for the American delegation, which is surveying its new acquisition with the intention of crafting laws for its administration. The filmic Kaʻiulani uses the opportunity to press for native voting. The real Kaʻiulani pressed to undo annexation – quite a different matter. The collaborationist bent of the film is seen in its portrayal of Sanford Dole, who plays the ever-present sympathetic white (in the film of Michener’s Hawaii, it was Julie Andrews). In reality he was complex, but not sympathetic. I’ve read his papers in the archives, including one that showed dark, black Xs over the names of men involved in Wilcox’s 1895 rebellion, presumably written as each was captured. This is no guilt-ridden haole.

The Descendants makes no real attempt to be historically accurate, yet contains many historical fragments. George Clooney’s “Matt King” (the pun is, I believe, intended) is a descendant of a princess clearly based on Bernice Pauahi Bishop (who had no children), who married her banker named “King” (Charles Reed Bishop). While attempting to smash stereotypes of paradise (“F*uck paradise!” he proclaims right at the start), Matt is the trustee for thousands of acres of “virgin land” (no stereotype there) inherited from the Princess. The family has seven years to sell the property and break up the trust. This is based on at least two local families, including the Campbell Estate, forced to sell and take the money, which makes them all incredibly rich, as Matt King glibly notes. Abigail Kawananakoa is claimed to have been “forced” to pocket over $200 million in such an arrangement. Hawaiʻi’s private schools are amply represented here. Filming took place, or was meant to represent, Kamehameha, Mid-Pacific, and Hawaiʻi Prep, and of course, the President’s alma mater.

There the similarities with history end. While one review in the Honolulu Weekly raved over the film’s authenticity, this is not my Hawai’i. The audience at Kahala Theatre oohed and aahed because many scenes were literally filmed yards from the theatreʻs walls. I thought most part-Hawaiian families were like mine, with the cousins who look haole, the Chinese-looking cousins and the Hawaiian-looking ones. But the King family apparently hasn’t married any Hawaiians – or locals – since the time of the Princess herself. The film’s shifts between grim brooding and gallows humor were also very un-local (if that’s a word).

What the two films have in common, and which is their weakness, is their perpetual outsider view, which attempts to placate their voyeuristic audiences. They are failed attempts to reckon with the trauma of Hawaiian loss – of land, of sovereignty and dignity. By casting non-Hawaiians in lead roles, the films almost assure this. I and others had guarded, but high hopes for both these films before their release, but with disappointment we still wait for our Whale Rider.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Hawaiian History at the Movies

  1. The Princess Ka’iulani movie was a soap opera vaguely based on her life, if at all. Roger Ebert, in reviewing the movie “Pearl Harbor, says “It’s a two hour romance interrupted by a fifteen minute war.” This is what we have in this mass haole appeal film of one of Hawai’i’s most beloved personages. a bloody soap opera full of irrelevant, false, non experiences and un-events that clearly did not occur. It gave us not much at all of who the Princess was, and so played fast and loose with the subject of her life, that the only positive thing we can hope for from the release of this comic book come alive, is that some of the audience then go off on their own and delve into Hawaiian true history of that era.
    The Descendants I don’t think was meant at all to be anywhere near an historically accurate view of a local family. And most emphatically, were the locals very haole. acted and sounded FOB haole all the way thru. Although taken from a book written by a local wahine, and the screenplay assisted by her, I believe, they really needed a ‘local flavor consultant” on this. Of course Hawaii 5-0 does too, painfully so. But then it wouldn’t be palpable to the conusa, would it? More’s the pity.

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  2. David May

    I’ve only seen *Princess Ka’iulani* and will confine my comments to that film. I enjoyed the movie as much as I enjoy any costumed historical romance, but knew as I watched it that it was full of holes which were down right frustrating, or even foolish. While one would never say it’s history, I think a sympathetic portrayal of Hawaiian Royalty was a welcome relief after the cursory and dismissive depiction of Her Majesty Queen Lili’uokalani in *The Hawaiians* (which was nothing more than PG propoganda.)

    Historical romances serve a purpose, but with so few movies about Hawai’i to chose from, one longs for accuracy. The recent movies “Elizabeth” and “Elizabeth and the Golden Age” were both laced with inaccuracies, the film makers chosing an impressionistic view of history rather than an accurate one. But in the case of Elizabeth Tudor, there are plenty of more historically accurate films and teleplays at hand.

    Is it just me, or was Disney’s “Lilo and Stitch” the most Hawaiian movie made about Hawai’i thus far?

    The part of the movie that bothered me most was the depiction of Dole, whom I knew from my reading not to be so sympathetic to the Hawaiian people. This was clearly done to placate white liberal guilt. It reminds me of happy movies about gay men (like “Big Eden”) that portray homophobia as internalized rather than real. Equally as frustrating.

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