"King Kamehameha," starring Samoan/African-American wrestling star Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, is currently in production for a planned 2005 release by Columbia Pictures.
©2003 Honolulu Weekly
July 10, 2002
SLOW FADE — SOUNDS of birds and the hum of distant traffic.
There’s an old story about a kid trapped in a room full of shit. When they open the door he’s happily digging around and laughing. They ask him what he’s doing and he says, "With all this shit I figure there’s gotta be a pony in here somewhere." Well, I can relate. I figure, The Rock playing King Kamehameha … there’s a comedy in here somewhere. I just have to dig around a bit.
INT. PRODUCER’S OFFICE — DAY.
THE ROCK, HAOLE SCREENWRITER #1, and PRODUCER #14 sit around the mahogany table of a well-appointed conference room with a view of the Hollywood sign.
Yeah, I like the idea of playing a real King ... as you know, I was the Scorpion King, but I’m sensitive to the racial and cultural issues in Hawai‘i. I wouldn’t want to offend anybody.
HAOLE SCREENWRITER #1
Hey, listen, The Rock … can I call you that?
Uh, sure, but I might think something’s wrong with you. In conversation you can just call me Rock.
HAOLE SCREENWRITER #1
Okay, Rock, I know you’re not Hawaiian, but the way I see it you’re Samoan and African and that’s close enough. All of us — even a white guy like me — are descended from Africans at some point, and Samoa’s another Pacific island chain just like Hawai‘i. Hey, you know, I heard that your people are the master race of Polynesia and Hawaiians aren’t technically a race of people anyway. And with your wrestling prowess and experience as the Scorpion King, this picture could very well have Academy Award written all over it.
Uh, please don’t flatter me. I already have a wife.
Producer #14 laughs like a hyena. Haole Screenwriter #1 and The Rock look at him, frightened by the sound.
HAOLE SCREENWRITER #1
I’m not saying this to flatter you. I worked with Ving Rhames — I know how to write for people of color. You saw the awards last year. The African Americans took it. You’re a shoo-in — you have Polynesia and Africa covered. They’ll eat you up.
CUT TO: SURREAL LIFE
INT. KAILUA APARTMENT — EARLY AFTERNOON.
KEALA sits down on the sofa.
When "The Rock" announced his intentions to play King Kamehameha in an upcoming Sony production being written by Greg Poirier, I had to sit down for the news. The plague, the final solution to the Hawaiian problem, had arrived in the form of a haole screenwriter from Maui and a Samoan/African wrestler from Kalihi. Go figure.
INT. KAILUA APARTMENT — SAME DAY — DUSK
Keala is lying down.
KEALA (VO) cont.
Sitting down for the news turned into lying down on the turquoise Naugahyde sofa of my summer sublet in Kailua. Ah, the joys of subletting. It’s like being a tourist — or a movie company: You show up with your whatevahs and park for a while in someone else’s space, just visiting, never committing.
ECU: Keala’s bio.
KEALA (VO) cont.
I’m a writer and a filmmaker working on stories, articles and films that feature Hawaiians as subjects, not objects or trivialized cartoon characters.
CU: Keala’s face staring blankly up at the ceiling.
KEALA (VO) cont.
I am Hawaiian and haole, and, having spent most of my life in Los Angeles and gone through film school there, I can say that often I feel like I’m walking in two worlds: haole and Hawaiian, filmmaker and Hawaiian filmmaker —but wait, that’s four worlds. Anyway, anyone who’s ever made a film — large or small, good or bad — knows that it’s a struggle with elements most people don’t think about. There’s the script and everything that goes into it. Then there’s the money, and no one ever wants to part with that. And the "lucky" ones have the Hollywood machine backing the project. Sometimes they get it right, and you have a piece of filmmaking that changes your life, like Schindler’s List or Malcolm X.
Keala puts a small pillow over her face, MOANING weakly.
KEALA (VO) cont.
And other times you end up with a tired, deeply disturbing treatment of native people like Windtalkers, a story about how a white guy saved an Indian during WWII. That’s rich, white people saving Indians. And of course, in return the Indians helped save the great white American way with their mother tongue. Does it get anymore psychologically fucked up than that?
CUT TO: Cartoon balloon over Keala’s head that READS:
I no like see more schlock movies li’ dat — it leaves one puka nui in my na‘au.
WATERY DISSOLVE TO: REAL LIFE
Eventually, the sun went down and the living room was dark and still I lay motionless in a haze of turquoise, hugging a pretty little tasseled pillow meant to be appreciated and cozy, not flattened by grief.
Considering the coming pestilence, knowing none of us Hawaiians is inoculated against the new colonial madness that will soon be upon us, I think about the other planned film about Kamehameha from North Shore Pictures Entertainment that will compete with the giant Sony Pictures film, and it occurs to me that two American companies are going to fight over the last piece of Hawai‘i that is not yet occupied by America: the Hawaiian identity and all the stories and legends associated with it. Then I think about Lilo & Stitch. Pukui & Ebert’s definition of the word "lilo" reads: to accrue, be lost, pass into the possession of, be gone ... purchased, taken; or as poet Ku‘ualoha Hoomanawanui says, "It means to pass into the possession of the government." Although it’s been pointed out that no Hawaiian person would ever name their child something with such negative connotations (because to a real Hawaiian, to do so would invoke some real-life consequences), it does sort of make sense that two haole filmmakers would use that word for the name of a female Hawaiian cartoon character. And let’s not leave out that the new Bruce Willis film shooting on O‘ahu has chosen Ali‘iölani Hale to double as a Nigerian presidential palace. It’s rumored that the statue of Kamehameha will stand in for a West African king, although the production company denies it.
The elements of filmmaking that are obvious (story, money, talent, location and the rest) take on a different tone for a Hawaiian filmmaker doing a Hawaiian story. Those of us who write and/or shoot know that we are horribly underrepresented in the film industry; and even though the only time anyone representing a Hawaiian in a movie is in the background dancing hula, even in those instances it’s never clear whether the dancers are actually Hawaiian — they could be anyone. Typically, if there is a Hawaiian character with more than one line, he/she will be played by someone from the "Tribe called Wannabe" (1988 essay by Rayna Green); witness Tia Carrere’s voice in Lilo & Stitch. Carrere, who is Asian, no doubt meets the Hollywood fantasy of how a Hawaiian looks, sounds and behaves. (Personally, I think Kelly Preston could have done a fine job, and she’s a movie star and Hawaiian.)
Those few of us who actually work in this medium know that despite the fact that we are outnumbered by every other ethnicity and overwhelmed by odds that are steep even for white men in the industry, we still have the kuleana of culture. That is something the Hollywood machine is not accountable to.
Things are scary these days: It’s like the illegal overthrow, only now we have to contend with the overthrow of our identity.
Sure, we know who we are, but wake up, kanaka maoli, because down the street in the American court-house a judge recently ruled against the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (again), and now OHA guys have to prove Hawaiians are the indigenous people of Hawai‘i. And check it out, cuz, ’cuz there’s kaona to that story: The courts have legitimized the assertions of the Burgess and Arakaki people in the world, people who are saying Hawaiians aren’t the indigenous "people" of Hawai‘i, that they are just a group of mixed up Polynesians who got lost on their way to somewhere else.
No matter how many different ways we try to ignore and sidestep the reality of how America and its laws view us, it remains that in its courts, culture and in its movies, Hawaiians will always be what is convenient to the American system. That system is not going to help us. It is going to help itself to us and everything that belongs to us. It seems like we, as a people, are consistently getting derailed answering the wrong questions, confused about how to get back to pono and whether we should even bother trying.
Clearly, being Hawaiian isn’t just about surviving oppression. It’s also about resisting the psychological and spiritual chains that bind us to the weakest part of our identity — the stereotypes — or terrorize us into immobility so that all we can do when confronted with the myriad mechanisms of a racist society is lie down on a sublet sofa for six hours, or pound back a double scotch at the local bar or a pint of Häagen-Dazs at home or remain attached like a tumor to an ice pipe or committed to a smiling, loud-and-proud hula gig in Waikïkï because it pays the rent and puts poi on the table. Honestly, Hawaiians, if the lawsuits and Akaka Bills and Lilo and The Rock aren’t the manifestation of a backlash against the consciousness-raising that has taken place over the past 25 years and the independence dialogue happening among us right now, I don’t know what is.
So, where is our mana? Where does our voice reside on the issues surrounding this movie? Am I floating amorphous and havoc-laden out in the wilderness of Kailua, cranking out the occasionally humorous, biting story to an audience of none, or am I for once in my never-on-time life arriving at this bend in the road of racism — the beginning of an epidemic of cultural expropriation — at the same time as others?
Haunani-Kay Trask, Professor of Hawaiian Studies, UH Mänoa
"Hawaiian leaders should say it’s wrong, so our people know what the position is. This sort of film reveals the predatory nature of Hollywood. We can’t support it by participating in it. Really, the larger question is about the prostitution of Hawaiian culture. If we extend that to film, we are the people whose culture is used to make money. Any argument that rationalizes helping them do this film only facilitates the other side. Just because they are going through with it doesn’t mean you collaborate. The Rock is a very good-looking man, but that’s not the point. It’s a representation issue. He’s not Hawaiian."
Lilikala Kame‘eleihiwa, Director of the Center for Hawaiian Studies, UH Mänoa
"I don’t want bad relations between Samoans and Hawaiians, and I would like to ask Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson to withdraw from doing this role. [Screenwriter] Greg Poirier contacted me about consulting on historical aspects of his script, and I agreed to meet. He paid me, but it was for a two-hour consultation. He’s made a lot of headway with that consultation, using it as a stamp of approval. But I told him he is going to have challenges because King Kamehameha is a sacred chief and the intellectual property of the Hawaiian people, and that Hawaiians are outraged that a Samoan is going to play him. Polynesians are not all the same: Are the French and Russians the same? Greg was honest when we met. He said that after he writes the script it will go to the studio and they will do what they want, and he won’t be surprised if they change it. I suggested that they may want to get elders from the Samoan community to ask descendants of Kamehameha for permission to tell this story and Greg’s response was, ‘What if they say no?’ I don’t think Hollywood has the right to make this movie. Hawaiians should tell this story."
Ku‘ualoha Hoomanawanui, Poet, Instructor of Hawaiian Literature and Graduate Student, UH Mänoa
"When I read that The Rock is going to play this role, I flipped. I had just returned from New Zealand where I had conversations with Maori about who has it worse in media, us or them. And coming on the heels of Lilo & Stitch? Now that’s a horrifying film. Lilo is a violent, lazy girl who lies and then hits a haole kid within the first five minutes of the story. We want to believe that America is the land of equal opportunity, but what it really means is that everything is for the taking. If Sony is going to do this film they should admit that they just want to make money, which is no different than hotels in Waikïkï. The Rock should know better. How can the Samoan community support this film?"
Paul Kealoha Blake, President of East Bay Media Center, Berkeley, Calif.
"For me there are two issues. One is the exploitation of Hawaiian culture, and the other one is that you have a multimillion-dollar production coming into town, and they will hire a Hawaiian grip and a couple of Hawaiian extras, call it a day, and then hire people from Hollywood. I’ve seen it in the Native American community. These companies exploit the themes and environments that are Hawaiian and leave the Hawaiians with nothing. I think this is one element of a lot of different things that are happening. It’s as though the lawsuits have made it perfectly OK to do this. The mass media are a nebulous state; they have such a voracious appetite. It would be easy for the general public to say, ‘What’s the big deal? It’s just a story.’"
Jon Osorio, Associate Professor of Hawaiian Studies, UH Mänoa
"What concerns me is that there is no way in the world they are going to present the story in ways that are meaningful to Hawaiians. The screenwriter said it will be the Hawaiian Braveheart. Our story is nothing like that. It isn’t even close. The damage may be in whether or not this film will affect the way we see our own culture. We need to make our stories, and, until we do that, we are going to be victimized by Hollywood, which is no different than any other global industry. I’d like to see people talk about the creation of a Native Hawaiian film company. Maybe this film will convince people that we have to come together and do this."
Noenoe Silva, Assistant Professor of Political Science, UH Mänoa
"My worry is that one of the most important stories to our people is being done by individuals who only have shallow understanding. The screenwriter is from Maui, but his mind is not Hawaiian. And when a studio gets a hold of the script, they will know even less. Kamehameha uniting the islands was not about fear of American or English onslaught; Hawaiians were working out their own stuff in their world. Already, the screenplay gives the outside world all the power, and our story is suddenly not our story. The impact of this links up with all the other problems we have. Our history is taught through foreign eyes, and we and our children are forced to confront the lack of knowledge as if it is truth."
Skippy Ioane, Singer-Songwriter, The Big Island Conspiracy
"The Rock is better than Jeff Chandler [Bird of Paradise, 1951] ... heh, heh, the 50th state is not Hawaiian ... this is not Hawaiian. Far as I’m concerned, Rock is a good-looking Polynesian man, but does it matter whether Hawaiians make their films or if Hawaiians play Hawaiians? Of course it matters, but eh, we no more money so we no more control. Look, it’s a white house and the white guys are in charge. The Rock is a diversion from why they have the ability to pimp the King. The Rock playing the King, this film ... is just the last pimple on the ass, it is not the basis for the ass. Shit is shit. If you look up in the sky and all you can see is shit ... or if I’m 10 feet under shit, I don’t tell the difference if you pile on more shit. When people have been oppressed for so long, you come to believe that shit is a natural smell.
"Whether or not Hawaiians will do anything to stop this production or others like it is unknown. Lilikala Kame‘eleihiwa recently communicated a direct request to the writer to cease. In his response to her he said that the movie is going to get made with or without him (meaning aren’t we lucky he’s on the job?) and that Sony is considering a director from Maui who is an anthropologist and has every intention of being accurate.
"An anthropologist. You see, I knew if I looked deep enough I’d find a comedy in here somewhere.
"So, eh, Hawaiians, hold onto your iwi and your mana and your hä, and try to find your sense of sanity, because the Hollywood machine is coming to an ahupua‘a near you to dig around in your soul and see what looks good for the taking and projecting on the big white screen ... "
EXT. —LAST DAY OF BATTLE — DUSK
Kamehameha’s army charges one last time up the Pali.
CU: A weary, but determined Kamehameha, his hands and arms stained by the colors of battle, looks upon the last of the O‘ahu warriors.
He takes in a chest full of air and shouts, "I MUA!" then proceeds with his army, forcing the warriors over the cliff. He walks slowly to the edge and casts his eyes down upon a victory that feels so hollow now, and in that moment he glimpses his future, the future of all Hawaiians, and knows he will again have to ready himself for battle.
JOHN YOUNG [played by Brad Pitt], wipes the sweat from his brow and climbs up to where Kamehameha is standing. Young puts his hand on his shoulder.
CUT TO: END TITLES OVER crimson sun setting on the Ko‘olau. The dusky color silhouettes the mountain range and the word HAOLEWOOD appears on the ridges.
FADE OUT _