“The Descendants” at the Napa Valley Film Festival

Opening night at the inaugural Napa Valley Film Festival began with a walk along a red carpet into the city’s refurbished  Napa Valley Opera House, a grand name for a frontier theater dating back to 1880. Screen actors, a few  industry executives, and a good sampling of Napa locals (some dressed glamorously in boas and satin evening gowns, others in work boots and down vests) sipped on wine and nibbled ice cream lollipops from Napa’s Eiko restaurant.

Catherine Thorpe, who helped research both The House of Mondavi and Lost Kingdom, joined me at the opening reception, where we quickly spotted a bespectacled man wearing a lei, or garland, of green leaves. Making our way through the crowd, we introduced ourselves.

He was Jim Burke, the producer of that evening’s lead film, The Descendants. A down-to-earth and engaging man, he told us that author  Kaui Hart Hemmings had sent him her novel before it was published in 2007 and read it over a single weekend. As father himself, he was convinced that her dark comedy about a father struggling to cope with his two daughters following an accident that left their mother in a coma would make a great movie, with its themes of isolation, betrayal, and forgiveness.

Jon McManus, who plays the role of “cousin six” in The Descendants and Jim Burke, the film’s producer, at the inaugural Napa Valley Film Festival on November 10, 2011

Approaching the project almost like a documentary, both he and Payne traveled to Honolulu nine months or so before shooting began. Once there, they were guided by a number of well-known locals, including author Hemmings, historian and author Gavan Daws, and University of Hawaii law professor Randall W. Roth. Opening night in Napa, Burke was accompanied by Jon McManus, who played “cousin six” in the film. They were his “tour guides through Honolulu society,” he said.

Daws, the author of many very fine books about Hawaii, including Shoal of Time: A History of the Hawaiian  Islands,  helped by reading the script and by providing his thoughts with the filmmakers on music, which is entirely by Hawaiian artists. Indeed, one of the songs on the soundtrack was written by Liliuokalani, Hawaii’s last queen.

Roth, the co-author of Broken Trust: Greed, Mismanagement, & Political Manipulation at America’s Largest Charitable Trust, provided guidance on trust law to the filmmakers, particularly on the somewhat arcane subject of the rule against perpetuities (which is important to the plot, which involves the descendants of a Hawaiian princess and haole (white or foreign) banker who’ve inherited a piece of land, which is held in trust. They must decide whether to sell it because the trust itself, under the rule against perpetuities, must be wound down by a set date.

The back-story of a trust with large land holding in Hawaii echoes the realities of land and power in Hawaii. Although Kaui told me that she did not base her novel on any one real family, she drew from a number of family trusts which were in the news around the time she was writing her book. Indeed, large amounts of land are still held in Hawaii by what are known as the Ali’i trusts – the charitable organizations set up, in most cases, more than a century ago to hold the land and other assets of Hawaiian royalty. The most prominent of these was known as the Bishop Estate, until the scandal revealed in Broken Estate hit it and it renamed itself Kamehameha Schools.

Perhaps the strongest echo of a situation facing the George Clooney character was faced in real life a few years back by the trustees of Hawaii’s Campbell Estate. Under the terms of the trust, the 107-year-old Campbell Estate was required to dissolve in January of 2007, twenty years after the last death of the direct descendants who had been alive at the time of the trust’s creation. Some of the heirs took large cash pay-outs, according to an account in the Honolulu Advertiser (now the Honolulu Star Advertiser), while others chose instead to roll their assets into a new national real estate entity, the San Francisco-based  James Campbell Co. LLC.

Professor Roth says there have been perhaps a half dozen family trusts in Hawaii in recent years that have faced this same situation. The rule against perpetuities only applies to trusts where the beneficiaries are individuals, rather than charities – as in the case of the Ali’i trusts. “It’s a very realistic scenario,” he says about the decision facing the fictional Matt King character, played by George Clooney, and his cousins. “I was impressed that Jim and Alexander were so concerned about getting the details right, even small details that most people wouldn’t be aware of.” The filmmakers credited both Professor Roth and author Gavan Daws at the end of the film.

Matt King is a descendant of a Hawaiian princess, who was a member of the powerful Kamehameha dynasty, and an American banker. It’s a fictional lineage similar to that of founder of what was formerly known as the Bishop Estate — the American banker Charles Reed Bishop, who married the Hawaiian Princess Bernice Pauahi.

What producer Jim Burke calls the “link in the chain” scene in which Matt King looks at a series of black and white photos of his ancestors. He’s asking himself whether he’s doing the right thing by selling the land that had been entrusted to his family.  It’s a question that many of the descendants of Hawaii’s old families surely must have asked themselves in recent years, as much of what makes Hawaii so achingly beautiful has disappeared beneath resort developments and condominiums. These are the same people whose ancestors came to Hawaii to do good and ended up doing very well indeed.

After having spent the past four years examining Hawaii’s history of closely intertwined families and fortunes, this  movie resonates with me on many different levels. Go see it. It’s not only a very funny and moving family story, but also a very astute portrait of modern day Hawaii.



  1. […] this article describes, The Descendants’ situation is based on some real-life Hawaiian family trusts.  Spoiler […]

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