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Open Collection of Student Writing (OCSW)

Stitching Up Aloha: Hawaiians in American Film

Hula dancing, surfing, ukuleles, beaches, aloha shirts, grass skirts, volcanoes, happy locals—are you thinking about Hawaii yet? You can thank the American cinema’s representation of the island state for that. But what if I mentioned aloha spirit state law, longest life expectancy in the United States, akua, fight for sovereignty, and a crisis-level homeless dilemma? If you’re not thinking about Hawaii anymore, you can still blame American cinema. Let me explain.

The United States annexed Hawaii in 1959 yet, for being so determined to hold onto a state that begs for independence, they do a very poor job of trying to please them in their media portrayals. The American film industry’s tendency to exaggerate and misinterpret are infamous, and Hawaii has not escaped unscathed. From portraying Hawaii as a relentlessly happy paradise to clumping local residents and Native Hawaiians as one group, American cinema has faithfully misreported Hawaii throughout the years. Most recently come under fire for misrepresentation is the film Aloha. The 2015 release was met with frustration and disappointment in Hawaii due to their cheap portrayal of the island and its inhabitants.

Hollywood is an unabashed silencer of Hawaiian voices, but their most recent atrocity, according to Don Wallace’s “Review of Aloha,” was Aloha. Taking the whitewashed road of several other Hollywood set-in-Hawaii hits, Aloha directors cast white Emma Stone as a half-Asian. Regardless of the directors’ excuses, to believe that pale, blue-eyed, blond Emma Stone possesses a drop of Asian blood is an incredible stretch. Not to mention, though the movie is well-stocked on token happy Hawaiians with lines that don’t make the subtitles, only one Hawaiian—Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele—has even a supporting role in the film. Aloha now joins the ranks of box-office hits such as The Descendants, Blue Crush, and 50 First Dates in, ultimately, deciding that native Hawaiians do not portray a Hawaiian as well as a non-Hawaiian, and to bump Hawaiians to the background.

Another problem that Hawaiians face is that their language is packaged and distributed as a setting tool in film, explaining why protestors found one of the greatest negativisms in the film’s title itself. “Aloha” has a much deeper meaning than the face-value “hello” and “goodbye.” The Aloha Spirit is the giving and receiving of positive energy, being one with the world, extending affection and kindness without expecting any in return, spiritual awareness, and a lifestyle. However, the Hawaiian word is not even discussed in the film, merely used as a tool to make white characters seem more intelligent and “one-with-the-island.” Basically, welcome to every other line in 50 First Dates. Good job, Aloha. You brought back Adam Sandler.

So far in American film history, Hawaiian culture is used as a tool to be commodified and packaged to capture an audience. Aloha did include beautiful landscape shots and charming hula scenes, but in the end Aloha was just a movie with sporadic reminders of: “Just so you know, we’re in Hawaii!” Issues such as Native Hawaiians’ fight for sovereignty were touched upon by having nationalist leader Kanehele explain his plight, but these issues were quickly moved to the backseat as mysticism was brought to the forefront. Native Hawaiian myths such as the Menehune spirits and “mana” added no real change or substance, but were instead used as a means to spur the white lead protagonist on his journey.

In hearing this, you would think it some kind of insurmountable task to accurately capture Hawaii. Yet, in Jeff Peterson’s article “What Is The Most Hawaiian Movie Set It Hawaii?” Disney family release Lilo and Stitch was met with nothing but favorable reviews. It was praised for its authenticity in culture portrayal, specifically for its inclusion of Hawaiian leads and supporting characters. The creators of Lilo and Stitch put a great deal of effort and research into delivering an accurate portrayal of Hawaii, consulting with the Hawaiian voice actors on set in order to write the dialect, dialogue, and tone in a real and culturally tolerant way. Lilo’s dedication to tradition manifests itself in her devotion to hula lessons, her use of surfing as a method of self-nurture, by using Hawaiian language in a sensitive, respectful way, and passionate embodiment of “ohana.” However, Lilo and Stitch portrays Hawaii in other ways, such as Nani struggling to find a job in a depressed economy, the use of pidgin in many scenes, tourists being the attraction and not the center of the island’s life, and portraying landscape other than what you find on postcards. Unlike most Hollywood films, the Hawaiian characters do not succumb to the typicality of the “Happy Islander,” but instead are people who have Hawaiian traditions and values but who, ultimately, go through the same things as everyone else.

What separates Lilo and Stitch from movies like Aloha so clearly is simple: research, and the lack of it. With the plethora of information available via internet resources or the money all major Hollywood studios have to send writers to locations in order to accurately capture a setting feel, such rampant misrepresentation is an absurdity in contemporary times. However, ill-prepared movies such as Aloha are still making frequent appearances and well-researched movies like Lilo and Stitch are still—mind-bogglingly—the rarity in cinema. Until Hollywood realizes that not everything is marketable, this will continue to be an issue. To Hawaiians, misrepresentations such as Aloha are not “just movies,” they are a huge measure of disrespect. Instead of defending inaccurate titles by making the outdated claim: “It’s just a movie”, perhaps moviegoers should question the movies they justify with their money. As long as audiences continue to condone Hollywood by being entertained by shallow depictions of Hawaii, then that is all we will get. Give Hawaiians justice by one simple action: stop settling for Hawaii Five-O episodes, and ask for the truth.

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