Film Review: Cameron Crowe’s Controversial “Aloha” Co-Stars Hawaiian Independence Leader

[NOTE: This piece contains plot spoilers.]

A lynch mob is attacking writer/director Cameron Crowe’s new movie “Aloha”, which opens May 29.  The 2014 leaking of confidential messages after Sony Pictures Entertainment executives’ email accounts were hacked (allegedly by North Koreans angered by “The Interview”) revealed critical comments of “Aloha” by anxious execs.  The Media Action Network for Asian Americans alleged “Aloha’s” cast is too white for a movie shot in Hawaii, where Caucasians are a minority.  The 50th State’s film commissioner complained “Aloha’s” title misappropriated the spiritual meaning of that word, which translates as “love,” “hello” and “farewell.”  Even panelists on Fox News’ “The Five” – a program specializing in aggressive imbecility- debated “Aloha.”

While introducing a May 26 private screening at a Los Angeles theater Crowe seemed to dismiss his detractors, pithily saying: “Lots has been heard from people who have never seen the movie.”  In any case, the most controversial thing about “Aloha” may be Crowe’s casting of Hawaiian independence leader Dennis “Bumpy” Kanahele.  Despite the typical Hollywood disclaimer during the closing credits about the motion picture’s characters being fictitious, Kanahele is very much a real person and the non-actor plays an onscreen version of himself bearing the same name.

In “Aloha” military contractor Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper) and Air Force Captain Allison Ng (Emma Stone, who’s identified as part-Hawaiian, Chinese and Swedish) visit the Pu’uhonua o Waimanalo village on Oahu.  Although Gilcrest and Ng are initially coolly received by Hawaiians there, Bumpy warmly welcomes them, fist bumping Gilcrest, whom he clearly knows.  The duo has come to ask Kanahele and his group to perform a blessing at a new project’s gate.  This leads to wheeling and dealing, with Kanahele negotiating a land swap – and cell phone service – in exchange for performing the traditional ceremony.

Marketing masterminds are ballyhooing “Aloha” as a romantic comedy, but it is also arguably the best Hollywood feature ever made about the Hawaiian Sovereignty movement.  Pu’uhonua o Waimanalo, which Natives won through a beach occupation, is introduced as a mystic, misty place that, as Ng says, has lots of “mana,” which Gilcrest translates as “power” and “spirit.”  At the mountainous site Kanahele and his indigenous supporters have established what appears to be an embryonic sovereign Hawaiian nation.

But during a contentious exchange Gilcrest reminds Kanahele Hawaii is now part of America, prompting the nationalist to retort that in 1893 Washington backed the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom and that the so-called “Aloha State” became U.S.- ruled through military occupation of the islands.  Kanahele wears a T-shirt proclaiming: “Hawaiian By Birth, American By Force.”

Earlier in the movie, Tracy Woodside’s (Rachel McAdams) son Mitchell (Jaeden Lieberher) calls Cooper’s character “Lono,” reputedly a white god of Hawaiian mythology.  In the 18th century some Polynesians mistook explorer Captain Cook for Lono, while some likened him to Jesus Christ – which the name Gilcrest suggests.  In “Aloha’s” opening montage archival footage of a rocket blowing up on a launching pad is briefly seen.  This may be at Johnston Atoll, located 700 miles south of Hawaii, a nuclear test site from 1958-1963.  A 1962 atmospheric thermonuclear blast produced a fireball visible in Honolulu, where it knocked out traffic lights.

The title sequence’s aborted launch foreshadows a key “Aloha” plot point: Touched by Hawaii’s much-vaunted “Aloha Spirit,” Cooper’s character evolves from a murderous “American Sniper” into a Lono-like savior heroically halting the weaponization of space.

Crowe met Kanahele in Oahu around 2005 and the Sovereignty advocate educated the director of 1996’s “Jerry Maguire” and 2000’s “Almost Famous” about Hawaiians’ history and ongoing struggle for land, water, spiritual and political rights.  Kanahele and the Nation of Hawaii group he leads support independence from America and restoration of the Kingdom of Hawaii.  In “Aloha” Kanahele is identified as being descended from Hawaii’s Kamehameha royal dynasty and is repeatedly called “king.”  However, in a phone call to Oahu Kanahele insisted Nation adherents don’t call him “king,” although Kanahele claims he traces his lineage to King Kamehameha the Great, the Kingdom’s first monarch.

Over the years Kanahele has endorsed militancy.  In 1987, when this journalist covered the Hawaiian Sovereignty movement for Radio Australia, Pacific Islands Monthly, Radio New Zealand, etc., he was introduced to Kanahele by activist attorney Mililani Trask.  Kanahele was on trial in connection to the occupation of Makapuu lighthouse by Hawaiians, which was similar to the 1969-1971 Alcatraz reclamation by American Indians.  Kanahele said he’d been armed and standing guard when police arrived to evict the so-called “squatters.”  According to Kanahele he spun around holding his carbine ready to shoot at authorities when he saw children and ohana (family) members in the line of fire.  So he dropped his weapon, was apprehended without firing a shot and served almost a year behind bars.

During the 1990s, to observe the anniversary of the 1893 toppling of Queen Liliuokalani, Kanahele and supporters demonstrated with the widow of Malcolm X’s mentor, Elijah Muhammad, and other Nation of Islam members.  The Nation of Hawaii also staged a protest march in Waikiki, nerve center of Hawaii’s tourism industry.  In a phone interview Kanahele noted that while Bill Murray’s amiably evil billionaire character Carson Welch in “Aloha” is fictitious, a real life Silicon Valley billionaire backs construction of a huge telescope atop Big Island’s Mauna Kea, which Hawaiian activists oppose.

According to a crew member speaking on condition of anonymity, “Aloha’s” original screenplay, then called “Dark Tiki”, focused more on Hawaiian issues and culture, although this was cutback for the final Hollywood production.  Nevertheless, Hollywood is creating more culturally authentic, nuanced portrayals of Hawaii and its indigenous people than its old celluloid South Seas stereotypes of happy-go-lucky grass skirt-clad Natives.  Just as Black-themed movies such as “Selma” are a major trend, Hawaiians are increasingly – if not always – being depicted accurately with dignity.

The 1970 epic “The Hawaiians”, starring planter Charlton Heston married to a troubled Hawaiian nationalist played by Geraldine Chaplin, was the first studio movie depicting – albeit briefly – the Kingdom of Hawaii’s overthrow.  This coup against Hawaiian royalty took center stage in 2009’s indie “Princess Ka’iulani.” 2004’s “The Big Bounce” opened with Hawaiians demonstrating against developers.  George Clooney’s depiction of a part-Hawaiian heir foiling development of a pristine beach in Alexander Payne’s 2011 “The Descendants” earned Clooney an Oscar nom.

When Cameron Crowe introduced the private screening of “Aloha” he referred to it as his “love letter to Hawaii.”  Bradley Cooper’s portrayal of a prince of peace thwarting militarism may win him the Academy Award that eluded Cooper for 2014’s biopic about the “American Sniper” who shot 150 people.  And who knows – perhaps Bumpy Kanahele will receive a Best Supporting Actor Oscar-nomination?

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