HOLLYWOOD HULA ::: Pacific Islander Film Hui

Hawaiian ali’i gets Hollywood treatment

Posted in Film by hollywoodhula on August 27, 2008

Princess Ka'iulani movie poster

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
Honolulu Advertiser

Princess Ka’iulani film outrages some Hawaiians
Honolulu Advertiser

Princess Ka’iulani Film Causing Stir
Hawai’i Film Blog

Senators seek overthrow of ‘Princess’ film tax help
Honolulu Star Bulletin


5 Responses

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  1. Dan Taulapapa McMullin said, on August 28, 2008 at 8:13 am

    it’s the case that people form opinions from media and we Pacific islanders are too often prejudged by movies made by non islanders whose own mistaken knowledge is built from other movies and books by other non islanders so that it’s become an entire world of inaccuracy and lies by which the world too often relies on in looking at us and communicating to us islanders…

  2. eyelander said, on August 28, 2008 at 1:44 pm

    There are many things that the filmmaker has done that indicates he doesn’t respect indigenous culture and history. Doing two years of research does not mean anything if he didn’t provide an avenue for discussion and dialogue with local people. If he brought in an indigenous perspective into the process of developing the film, then there shouldn’t have been any controversy over casting, the script and filming locations because he would have known all of that before hand. It really shows how displaced he is from Hawaiian culture.

  3. D. Kriegl said, on October 1, 2008 at 12:32 am

    As a documentary researcher in Hawaii, I have NEVER EVER met ONE Hawaiian who angrily complained about “Non-Hawaiians talking about Hawaii’s history” and who at the same time had actually researched what he complained about. The people with the most bias and the least interest in the facts of their own culture and lacking most information ARE people with a little bit of Hawaiian blood. They disrespect all the other lines of their ancestry, and this is not “pono” at all.
    Ka’iulani was HALF EUROPEAN, and her mother Likelike CHOSE a white man over ALL the Hawaiian out there! That’s a fact. To talk about “commoners” in a time when the highest Hawaiian chiefs had worked so hard to abolish the kapu-system with the division between “commoners” and “alii” is actually an afront against the Hawaiian chiefs of old who chose to join the civilized world instead of killing more of their own people.
    It is in any event the right of a white man / European to make a film about a person who shares HIS ancestry! And the actress who plays adult Ka’iulani is a brilliant actress. Hawaiians are racists, that’s the point. And very few of them know their own history, otherwise they would know that some of their ancestors came from Peruvian and some from Indo-European tribes, the actress’s origins.

  4. Richard Kapuaala said, on February 12, 2009 at 5:13 pm

    Mr. Kriegl,
    While I do not object to Non-Hawaiians talking about or writing about Hawaiian history or culture, I do object to people (kanaka and haole) fictionalizing, or inaccurately portraying my ancestors on both sides.
    I believe that history and facts are much more interesting than glamor and fiction and from what I have heard of this movie, it is a gross fictionalization of very important event in Hawaiian history, and that is the over throw of the kingdom of Hawaii as seen through the eyes of princess Kaiulani. Of course, no one knows exactly what the princess was thinking or for that matter who she was in love with during that darkest time. We do know what she did, where she was and the difficulties that Hawaiians faced in those years preceding annexation and following to the illegal over throw in 1893.
    I don’t know many full blooded Hawaiians, perhaps only 3 or 4 in the 55 years I’ve been walking the earth, but I do know that a persons ethnicity isn’t dictated by the quantity of their genetic markers, its how you are raised that counts. It is a shame that so many Hawaiians don’t have a clue about their history, the same could be said about so many Caucasians as well. And while the film maker may share a common European ancestry with many HAWAIIANS of today, he does not share our culture.
    From what I know of the movie it is just another a formula theme, a Hawaiian Pocahontas story, and I believe Princess Kaiulani deserves better treatment than that.
    The actress is most certainly beautiful,,, beautiful in the ways that Kaiulani was beautiful, but there are actress that are kanaka and I think it would have been more culturally significant if the producers of this movie chose one of those actress’s.
    I realize making movies is a money making venture, and using Mz. Quilcher makes more box office sense than using an unknown Hawaiian actress no matter how brilliant that actress might have been. That being said, it is all the more important to focus on as accurate a portrayal of her life as is possible with a focus on the effect the overthrow of Hawaii had on the main character and not on her imagined love life. As if she didn’t have enough to deal with in that time of political and cultural turmoil.
    Also what impact did being Hapa have on her? Has the film maker even considered that? I think not. It couldn’t have been easy for her. Caucasians and Hawaiians weren’t very tolerant of mixed ethnicity during those times. I can recall some very uncomfortable situations my father and I faced in the Southern states during the times of segregation. What hostilities did Kauilani face during her tour of the U.S. pleading for the sovereignty of her kingdom? I think its important at this point as a Hawaiian who does know a little about history both kanaka and haole to point out that Hawaiians were very racially tollerant prior to western culture. I don’t remember the exact date, but I think it was the great Hawaiian history Malo that said “Ike ka ili” “look at the skin” back in the early 19th century after the Haole demonstrated their own prejudices towards people of dark skiin.
    A person has the right to make any film he wants, but he also has the duty to pay history its due.

  5. Richard Kapuaala said, on February 12, 2009 at 8:39 pm

    BTW, I would like to correct the quote that I attributed to David Malo, it is “Nana ka ili”

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