By Wil Forbis
March 1st, 2012
I would imagine that by now the millions of people who are loyal fans of my writing are aware that I grew up in Hawaii. One need only read my rumination on the challenge of growing up haole (Caucasian) in the ethnic stew of the islands to ascertain this fact. Also of interest would be my article on the Hawaiian adolescence of Pres. Barack Obama.
There was one facet of the experience of a Hawaiian childhood that never made it into my aforementioned articles. It was the sense I had that I was living in the one state in the United States whose cultural milieu was seldom --- really, never --- represented in American entertainment media. I could watch John Hughes films about teenage angst (the Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink etc.) and, while I enjoyed them, these movies about white, middle-class youth never really matched my reality. In my world, whites were a minority and my classmates came from a wide range of ethnicities and nationalities: Samoan, Filipino, Asian and Portugese to name a few. Most of my peers didn't speak the various teenage dialects of the mainland (Valley girl speech, Ebonics etc.) but rather a form of pidgin English unique to the islands. My sense was that teenagers in the other 49 states saw their reality reflected in the films of the day, while I did not.
There was another aspect to all this as well. My experience in Hawaii, as mentioned in my initial article, was intimidating --- there was a lot of racial animosity between different nonwhite groups, but they all pretty much agreed that they hated haoles. This was, however, not a view that the politicians and cultural arbiters of the state wanted to project. In order to lure in tourists, they wanted Hawaii seen as an island paradise. I knew the odds of a film being made that presented the "real" Hawaii, warts and all, was unlikely.
There was, during my youth in the 80s, one well known media depiction of Hawaiian life. This was the television show "Magnum PI." I was a great fan of the show, but almost everyone in Hawaii agreed that it offered a dubious interpretation of the islands (specifically, the island of Oahu where Magnum lived.) For one thing, almost all the main characters were white (the exception being Roger Mosley's African-American character "TC") and seemed to have infrequent interactions with Asians or Pacific Islanders. (There were a few exceptions. Actor Kwan Hi Lim played a police detective who often worked with Magnum. In an episode when his character was killed off, Magnum consoled that character's son who was played by a high school classmate of mine, David Ige*.)
* I'm not 100% confident of my recollection that Ige's character was Lim's character's son. He might've been a nephew or something.
Another complaint about "Magnum" was its nonsensical portrayal of the layout of Hawaii. Magnum would be driving along the North Shore, then turn a corner and somehow be magically in the streets of downtown, despite the fact that many miles separate the two areas.
Recently the film "The Descendents," starring George Clooney, and set in Hawaii, was released. I saw it and with a few caveats was fairly pleased; it got me thinking yet again on the topic of capturing Hawaiian island life on the big screen. As I mused on films that have made the attempt in recent years, I realized they've all had pluses and minuses. And it dawned on me that my audience was yearning for an analysis of such films I could only be attempted by a keen intellectual mind such as the one housed in my skull. So I present to you...
North Shore (1987)
As I mentioned in the introduction, when I was a teenager, I felt like the real Hawaii was seldom seen on film. Thus I was interested when the teenage-romance-drama "North Shore" showed up in theaters during the pinnacle of my teenhood. For a "first pass" Hollywood attempt at capturing the culture of Hawaii "North Shore" did pretty well. The story echoed the underdog theme of the then recently released "Karate Kid" movie. A haole surfer from Arizona, Rick Kane, moves to Hawaii to surf, but immediately offends a local surf "gang." A surfing Mr. Miyagi - the haole Chandler -takes Rick under his wing and teaches him about the skills and spirituality needed to truly surf. This leads up to a surfing showdown on the banzai pipeline of the North Shore.
Pretty cheesy stuff, but I remember being impressed by the film for two reasons: 1) though most of the leads were haole, the movie embraced the racial makeup of the islands; and, 2) many of the characters actually spoke a reasonable facsimile of Hawaii's pidgin dialect. In fact, one of the local antagonists was played by my aforementioned thespian classmate, David Ige, and I recall being amused by much of his broken English dialogue (since David himself spoke perfect mainland English.)
Another high point of the movie for me: the love interest was played by Nia Peeples, the "hottie" on my then favorite TV show, "FAME" (and an actress of Filipino descent.)
Blue Crush (2002)
Like "North Shore," "Blue Crush" was built around the sport of surfing and set primarily on Oahu's North Shore. The film centers around three young women, one of them of Hawaiian descent, all active surfers. In some ways, the film was merely a gender switching update of "North Shore" --- it mixed romance with drama and built up to another surfing battle on the banzai pipeline --- but the main conflict was really more about the lead character, Anne Marie, overcoming her own fears after a near drowning event.
As a Hawaii resident who never surfed (I did boogie board a lot), the film was a little hard for me to relate to, but even more so than "North Shore" the movie captured the diverse ethnicity and flavor of Hawaii. The film was focused on a sub set of Hawaiian culture -- the North Shore surfing community -- but offered a good presentation of that.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008)
There's no doubt that "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" was a terrific romantic comedy, and absolutely secured actor/writer Jason Segal's place as the new Woody Allen. In the story, Peter (played by Segal), a television music composer, is dumped by his long-term actress girlfriend, Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell.) The news traumatizes Peter, so he tries to salve his wounds with copious amounts of alcohol and promiscuous sex. (Who wouldn't?) Eventually he decides to get away from his surroundings and visit the Hawaiian tourist resort Turtle Bay (where, as a child, I ate many a Sunday buffet.) But -- wouldn't you know it --- Sarah is also staying there with her new boyfriend, a rock star played by British comedian Russell Brand. The only bright spot in Peter's ever worsening situation is his interaction with an attractive hotel clerk played by Mila Kunis.
Hawaii operates merely as a backdrop in the movie and it's perhaps disingenuous to consider this a "Hawaiian" film. Nonetheless, the movie does a good job of capturing non-urban Hawaiian life. Once you get outside of Honolulu, Oahu does take on a kind of small-town vibe, with beefy locals interacting with haole surf bums. And there's a scene in "FSM" that openly acknowledges Hawaii's racial tensions. In the morning, Peter has a pleasant interaction with a Hawaiian waiter, but that evening, the waiter (amidst some tension between Rachel and an ex-boyfriend) has no problem punching Peter in the face and saying something like, "you're not in the buffet line anymore, braddah!" It perfectly captures the sense of conflicted resentment that is felt by many Hawaiians: on one hand, they're dependent on mostly white tourists for economic activity and growth, on the other hand, these islands do belong to them.
The Descendents (2011)
As mentioned, I think "The Descendents" comes the closest of movies I've seen to capturing the rather ethereal essence of Hawaiian life and culture. This might be partly because it is based on a book written by Kaui Hart Hemmings, an author who grew up in Hawaii. Nonetheless, I have some misgivings about the film.
The movie is a multilayered drama with several plot arcs. Matt King, played by George Clooney, is a lawyer who's haole family controls a trust that grants them ownership of a lot of land on the island of Kaui. The trust is about to expire, and the family is strongly considering selling the land to a real state developer who will put up hotels. Concurrent to all this, Matt's wife has a boating accident and falls into a coma forcing Matt --- the archetypical distant father --- to confront the troubled behavior of his two daughters. In the midst of all this, he learns that his wife had been having an affair with a married man, played by the goofy but always fascinating-to-watch Matthew Lilliard.
The movie gets a lot right about Hawaii. For one thing, it does not focus on endless scenes of beautiful beaches and mountains (though there's plenty of that) but rather the humdrum of Hawaiian suburbia, including a lot of shots of Honolulu's Manoa District, the location of my high school. It also does a good job capturing Hawaiian attire: for some reason, well-to-do haoles of the ilk of Matt represents always wear these muted short-sleeved but buttoned up Hawaiian shirts (an awkward compromise between formal and casual), and Clooney's character is forever dressed in one. "The Descendents" also has a scene that perfectly captures the particular cadence and culture of local Hawaiians. Matt accompanies his younger daughter to the house of a schoolmate whom she has offended. They are greeted and accosted by the schoolmate's mother, a (I'm presuming) Chinese Hawaiian woman, who voices her resentment in a way that is peculiar to Hawaii. I dunno... you just have to see it.
Where does the movie stray? Well, it's yet another movie about Hawaii staffed entirely by haoles. All the leads, and even most of the secondary characters are white. Why not make King's wife Asian, or Lilliard's character Portuguese, or Sid, the smarmy boyfriend of King's older daughter, Hawaiian? And I don't ask these questions out of misguided political correctness; such changes would have made a more accurate representation of Hawaii. (As noted, the movie is based on a book, and I don't know the ethnicity of the characters in the novel, but changing details from source material is hardly a Hollywood taboo.)
There was another point that stuck in my craw in regards to "The Descendents." It's implied in the movie that while King's family are largely supportive of the idea of selling the land to the real estate magnate, the rest of the state is against it. The truth is, many "man on the street" inhabitants of the islands would leap at the prospect of a new resort community and the hundreds of jobs it would create. Here the movie falls into that tired old cliché: rich white people = BAD, simple natives = GOOD! That's such tired old chestnuts are still being trotted out in 2011 is disappointing.