Hawaiian ali’i gets Hollywood treatment
A new movie about Hawai’i’s Princess Ka’iulani has become a flashpoint for Hawaiian historical, political and cultural grievances.
The Princess, who died young after her kingdom was overthrown by the United States in 1893, is the subject of a low budget independent feature currently in post-production.
Accusations of historical inaccuracies and cultural insensitivity have dogged the project since casting was announced in 2007. Controversy has flared over a range of issues: casting a non-Hawaiian actor in the lead role, filming at ‘Iolani Palace, problematic titles, and criticisms about an outsider’s interpretation of a cherished Hawaiian story.
Crown Princess Victoria Ka’iulani Cleghorn (1875-1899) was the daughter of Princess Likelike and Archibald Cleghorn, Scottish Governor of Oahu, and the niece of monarchs King David Kalakaua and Queen Lydia Lili’uokalani. She was heir to the Hawaiian throne, which was illegally overthrown by Americans while she was overseas at school in England. Ka’iulani returned to Hawaii and died of illness at age 23.
The $9 million dollar film is being made by first-time writer/director Marc Forby, British producer of low budget genre horror and thriller flicks including 29 Palms and Prom Night, the 2007 remake of the 80s teen slasher film. The project’s backer is London-based production company Matador Pictures, which produced the Irish Civil War film, The Wind that Shakes the Barley, winner of the 2007 Cannes Palme D’Or.
Forby decided to make his directorial debut with Ka’iulani’s story after seeing a portrait of the Princess at ‘Iolani Palace, followed by two years of research in Hawai’i and England.
The lead role will be shared by two actors. First-time Hawaiian student Kaimana Pa’aluhi plays the adolescent princess; 18 year-old Q’orianka Quilcher takes over as the older Ka’iulani. Quilcher gained attention as Pocahontas in Terrence Malick’s 2005 feature The New World, with Colin Farrell as English explorer John Smith. Her father is native Quechua from Peru, and her mother is Swiss.
The director jumped into the debate about casting a non-Hawaiian actor in the lead role, detailing his decision on the blog Newspaper Rock: Where Native America meets pop culture. Responding to a post titled “Pocahontas the Hawaiian princess,” Forby writes: “We searched for a Hawaiian actress for two years … In the end, Q’orianka got the role because of her acting ability. We’d rather people walk out of the theatre educated about the overthrow than saying ‘what a terrible actress’.”
Hawaiian musician Palani Vaughn turned down the role of King Kalakaua after rejecting a script he said was marred with cultural and historical inaccuracies, including behavior “unbefitting a princess” such as mouthing off at the king and getting into a violent altercation with her father. “A non-Hawaiian is trying to interpret in an un-Hawaiian way what he is supposing has happened,” said Vaughn, according to the Honolulu Advertiser.
The film’s original title, Barbarian Princess, was intended as an ironic nod to newspaper commentary of the era. After complaints from Hawaiians sensitive about being characterized as uncivilized, producers changed the title to The Last Princess, which was also criticized by Hawaiians who say the real “last princess” is Abigail Kawananakoa, living heir to the Hawaiian throne.
Also problematic is a Hollywood-style love interest. The script beefs up a purported romance with Clive Davies, son of Ka’iulani’s guardian Theo Davies, former British ambassador to Hawai’i. “The young Princess must choose between her true love and the responsibility that comes with her title,” says the Matador Pictures website – a scenario that makes some Hawaiians shudder. “The old ‘dark exotic woman falling in love with the rugged white man’ plot is not only insulting to me as a Hawaiian, but is an over done Disney story, not worthy of our Princess,” wrote Richard Kapuaala of Hayward, CA, commenting on a Star Bulletin article.
Early versions of the script included a sex scene, though there is no evidence that Princess – as both high-born ali’i and Victorian-era Christian – consorted with commoners or relinquished her virginity. Filmmakers say the offending scene was cut after complaints.
Filming on Oahu in March met with anger from several Hawaii state senators, who say the project should not receive state tax credits. Senator Clayton Hee wrote to the state film commission complaining about the “inaccurate and insensitive depiction, an extension of the treatment of others towards the host culture.” Hawai’i Film Commissioner Donne Dawson countered that she was impressed with Forby’s research and commitment to the project, and his use of Hawaiian language and culture consultants.
Concerns about the director’s credentials and budget also led to complaints about the “grade-C movie” with a $9 million budget, “chump change by Hollywood standards,” according to one newspaper commentary.
The film has sparked a flurry of online commentary, raising issues from the overthrow to racism, blood quantum and whether non-Hawaiians should be able to make movies about Hawaiian subjects. More than 200 comments were posted at Topix under the title Princess Ka’iulani film outrages some Hawaiians.
“When someone else tells OUR STORIES they can’t possibly ever really know where we are coming from,” moaned Sick & Tired in Kailua. “As far as the girl not being Hawaiian – well, how many Hawaiian girls tried out for the part? Since when does race supersede talent?” chimed in Kmakai of Santa Ana, CA.
Filmmaker Forby and his producer wife Leilani Estioko Forby, who grew up in Hawai’i, have appealed for a fair hearing. “We are all – the actors, the producers, the crew, everybody – working so hard to make this a good film for Hawaii,” she said on local channel KGMB.
The film is slated for release in 2009.
Filming begins on movie about Princess Kaiulani
Princess Ka’iulani film outrages some Hawaiians
Princess Ka’iulani Film Causing Stir
Hawai’i Film Blog
Senators seek overthrow of ‘Princess’ film tax help
Honolulu Star Bulletin