One of the most poignant moments in the new George Clooney movie, “The Descendants,” is when Clooney, who plays the attorney Matt King, gazes down at a pristine sweep of coastland on Kauai. The land has been owned by the King family for generations.
A descendant of Hawaiian royalty, King holds the deciding vote in the family trust that holds the land. He’s torn over whether to go along with other members of his family who want to cash out by selling the land to real estate developers. Rooted in history and law, similar decisions have been faced by a number of Hawaiian families in recent years.
Jim Burke, the producer of “The Descendants,” approached making the film almost like a documentary. As a 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.
Burke and the film’s director, Alexander Payne, traveled to Honolulu nine months or so before shooting began. Once there, they were guided by a number of well-known locals, including the author of the novel that the film was based upon, Kaui Hart Hemmings, historian and author Gavan Daws, and University of Hawaii law professor Randall W. Roth. 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 on the soundtrack with the filmmakers, which is music written and performed entirely by Hawaiian artists. Indeed, one of the songs on the soundtrack was written by Liliuokalani, Hawaii’s last queen, who reigned briefly at the end of the nineteenth century.
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. It’s a key point in the plot: Matt King and the other descendants of a Hawaiian princess and haole (white or foreign) banker have 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 Hemmings did not base her novel on any one real family, she did draw 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 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 death of the last 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,” Professor Roth says about the decision facing the fictional King character 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.
Even the fictional lineage of the King character has some basis in fact. He is a descendant of a Hawaiian princess who was a member of the powerful Kamehameha dynasty, and her husband, an American banker. His background is similar to that of one of Hawaii’s most influential old families, which founded what was formerly known as the Bishop Estate: the American banker Charles Reed Bishop, who married the Hawaiian Princess Bernice Pauahi.
Similarly, author Kaui Hart Hemmings herself traces her ancestry back to Abner and Lucy Wilcox, Christian missionaries who made the treacherous 116-day passage from Boston to Hawaii in 1836. One of their eight sons, Albert Spencer, married a Hawaiian woman named Emma Kauikeolani, whom Kaui was named after. The family still owns a large estate on the island of Kauai.
What producer Burke calls the “link in the chain” scene in which 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 the islands’ history of closely intertwined families and fortunes in the course of writing a history of the once sovereign nation of Hawaii, this movie resonates for me on many different levels. It’s not only a very funny and moving family story, but also an astute portrait of modern day Hawaii.
Julia Flynn Siler is the author of the forthcoming history, Lost Kingdom: Hawaii’s Last Queen, the Sugar Kings, and America’s First Imperial Adventure. Contact her at [email protected] or visit www.juliaflynnsiler.com.