The Samoan actor, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, has caused an uproar in the Hawaiian community with his announcement that he plans to play King Kamehameha, a benevolent chief and sacred ancestor of indigenous Hawaiians, in a Hollywood movie that will be written and directed by white men. This movie promises to be a hundred-million-dollar concoction of fact meets fiction and Hawaiian history meets Western fantasy.

The community response has been split with some seeing this as a financial opportunity to play an extra in a top billed-movie while others see this is as yet another attempt by the movie industry to exploit the indigenous people and culture of Hawaii and whitewash history.

Like the 2016 Disney cartoon movie, “Moana,” this motion picture may very well be a blockbuster — shaping how others see Hawaiians and even how we see ourselves.

In fact, Hollywood has a century-long history in the creation of stereotypical images of Hawaiians as lazy, carefree, untrustworthy, backwards and promiscuous, contributing to a political narrative that justifies 125 years of U.S. and corporate subjugation and exploitation of Hawaiian people, lands and culture.

photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
The Kamehameha statue fronting Aliiolani Hale. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

Beginning in the 1920s, white actresses began playing the leading roles of lovestruck native characters who enticingly danced a distorted version of Hawaiian hula. Throughout the decades, movies have continued to portray Hawaii’s indigenous people as less than human and marginal.

In fact, the only time Hawaiians are allowed to portray themselves in movies is when they are either on the periphery or portrayed as cartoonish buffoons, savages and “mammy” type characters reminiscent of the “Old South.”

Racist Notions

Hollywood has spread horrible myths about Hawaiians, one of the most egregious being the racist notion that Hawaiians practiced infanticide, which, ironically, was common in 19th-century Britain.

While Hollywood’s version of Hawaiians portrays us as utterly incapable of ruling ourselves, controlling our own lands, and even caring for our children, it also serves to lure millions of tourists to our shores each year with its powerful images of hula girls and romantic savages.

In 2017, about $6 billion in state tax revenue and 200,000 jobs were generated by tourism. Yet, despite a booming industry heavily vested in showcasing Hawaiian culture, Hawaiians remain at the bottom of nearly every socio-economic statistic.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson at the 2017 Academy Awards. The actor has been cast to portray King Kamehameha. Flickr: Disney | ABC Television Group

We comprise only 23 percent of Hawaii’s population, yet make up 33 percent of the houseless and 40 percent of Hawaii’s incarcerated populations.

According to the 2017 “Study of Financial Hardship in Hawaii,” 57 percent of Hawaiians are struggling financially in our own homeland; meanwhile our culture and language fuel a multibillion-dollar industry.

The Rock plans to continue Hollywood’s and the tourist industry’s colonial legacy of exploiting and marginalizing Hawaii’s indigenous people with his plans to produce and star in a feature film about King Kamehameha, one of the most important Hawaiians to have ever walked this Earth.

A still from the 2016 animated film “Moana.” Dwayne Johnson voiced the character of Maui. 

He is one of the most influential leaders in our story as a people, a major historical figure in a heritage that collectively belongs to Hawaiians. His meaning and place in our hearts, minds, and history is without measure, and his mo’olelo is one of the few things about us as a people that has not been raided, merchandized and exploited by Hollywood.

He represents that moment when we became more than an indigenous people. He united us as a nation at a time when the Pacific was being overrun by colonialism, which makes the attempted theft we are facing right now all the more tragic. Because we, the first people of this place, are still reaching for recovery from the occupation and colonization of our world.

Hollywood has spread horrible myths about Hawaiians.

We are still struggling to survive an overwhelming settler, tourist and military presence that has displaced us, divided us and colonized our own minds to such an extent that lots of Hawaiians are hoping for a role in the film.

Instead of trying to protect their mo’i from exploitation, and themselves from becoming Hollywood fodder and fetish, many Hawaiians are so desperate for acknowledgment that they’d unwittingly betray their own culture for short term financial gain. 

I’m writing this, not just because I’m a politically and culturally engaged Kanaka Maoli, not just because I am a mother of two young Hawaiian-Samoan men, but because I love my people and understand the threat.

Honor The Ancestors

I know that the billions of dollars this film will generate will, like the tourism industry, do nothing to help the Hawaiian people.  I know that when our most sacred mo’i is remade into a fictional idea that sprang from the minds of non-Hawaiians intent on mining our culture for profit, it will negatively impact how generations of Hawaiians come to see themselves.

So, I am saying to the Hawaiians who are willing to collaborate on the Hollywood narrative, consider the words of our kupuna, who wisely said, “Do not dry out the bones of the ancestors.” What that means is do not share your ancestors with strangers because when you do that, you dishonor them — you expose their bones for all to see.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Robert Zemeckis (director) and Randall Wallace (writer) are not Hawaiian. They cannot adequately tell our story without tainting it with their own foreign lens and perspective. They can only disparage a great Hawaiian man.

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About the Author

  • M. Healani Sonoda-Pale
    M. Healani Sonoda-Pale is the chair of Ka Lāhui Hawai'i Political Action Committee and is one of the organizers of the "Stand for Aloha" trademark movement. She has genealogical ties to the chiefs of Kona of Hawaii island and the Levu family of American Samoa. Currently, she helps advise the undergraduate student government at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and resides in Kuliouou valley on the island of Oahu with her husband and two sons.