My friend, Connie Hale, grew up in Hawaii and was educated at Punahou (the elite college prep school that is also Barack Obama’s alma mater.) From there, she earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Princeton University and a masters in journalism from U.C. Berkeley. She is now a gifted author, journalist, and editor who works at San Francisco’s famed Writers’ Grotto. I’m honored to run this guest blog by Connie on the Alexander Payne film, “The Descendants,” which is set in Hawaii. Here’s her thought-provoking take on the film and the many issues surrounding land, power, and one-percenters in the Aloha State.
By Constance Hale
Folks who know I grew up in Hawaii have inquired about my response to The Descendants. At the risk of sounding dyspeptic, here it is. First, if you evaporate all the Hawaii stuff out, you’ve got a pretty banal story, albeit a tearjerker. “Back-up” dad (aka George Clooney), alienated kids, failing marriage, loss that brings kids closer to dad.
Now put the Hawaii subplot back in. Kudos to the filmmaker for giving slight attention to the tragic political history of Hawaii, and hooray that the character Matt King doesn’t sell out–yet.
But auwe! (Translation: alas! bummer! too bad!) This film over-focuses on the rarefied lives of Hawaiian one-percenters, instead of the real lives and real concerns of 1) folks with more connection to their Native Hawaiian roots than Matt King; 2) folks who don’t get to live in glorious houses in Nu’uanu Valley and send their kids to expensive schools; 3) the racially interesting, socioeconomically diverse, medically and psychically vulnerable hoi polloi that are shown in the first few minutes of the film, then abandoned.
What isn’t touched in this film: The larger story of the ways that the deeds and misdeeds of Hawaiian royalty, New England missionaries, and the haole oligarchy left bruises still tender to the touch. The story of how a determined band of haole are suing Hawaiian institutions like the Kamehameha Schools to get a share of the very small privileges Native Hawaiian still enjoy after having lost their land, their communal way of life, their full access to mountains, shorelines, waters. The story of how some Native Hawaiians are trying to wrest back some sort of sovereignty analogous to that held by other Native Americans and how other Native Hawaiians are making sure that music and dance and language come roaring back from near extinction.
The film might also have quoted the state motto–Ua mau ke ea o ka ‘aina i ka pono (“The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness”) or probed the deeply esoteric Hawaiian notion of “pono.” (I prefer to translate the word as “moral correctness,” which doesn’t carry the Christian overtones of “righteousness.”) A more adept filmmaker might have jettisoned certain comedic touches (Clooney’s full head of gray hair floating over an ironwood hedge the way a coconut floats on the water) in favor of more artfully exploring the idea that only if we are all good stewards of the land, from which Hawaiians believe all culture flows, can we ensure that what is truly magical about Hawaii endures.
OK, it’s not fair to expect a film to do this much, but I would have been happy with more layers in the story.
All that said, I thought that the depiction of surfer-dude adults, denizens of the Outrigger Canoe club, students at Hawaii Prep and Punahou was spot on. So was the depiction of life at the top for families like the Kings: they live like that, they talk like that, they dress like that. (The only false note: Matt King wore topsiders instead of slippers–”flip flops” to you mainlanders. No self-respecting islander wears those preppie moccasins.)
And the best thing: the film features some of the unbelievably good Hawaiian music that remains unknown to most mainlanders–I hope this film helps change that. I loved loved loved the scene in that bar in Hanalei with the musician’s cousin singing in falsetto. That was pretty authentic, though you probably won’t find it in Hanalei. I’ve spent two separate reporting trips looking for Hawaiian music in Hanalei hotels, restaurants, and bars and can say it’s mostly absent. There is, though, a wonderful (haole) couple who play and talk slack-key on Friday and Sunday afternoons at the Hanalei Community Center: Doug and Sandy McMaster.
Let’s hope Kaui Hart Hemmings writes another novel set in Hawaii, showing yet another dimension of life in the islands, and that another filmmaker chooses to make it.
Imua! (Let’s keep moving forward!)
You didn’t see the taro patches of Hanalei in the movie, but they are a hugely important part of Hanalei and one of the signs that Native Hawaiians still have a foothold here.
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