I end every show with an editorial on one pressing and personal cultural topic. This week’s editorial discusses the Cameron Crowe romantic comedy, Aloha and its use of Hawaiian language. My hope with this piece was to highlight Hollywood’s long history of appropriation of Hawaii and the culture of its native people and the continual erasure of Kanaka Maoli, indigenous Hawaiian people. This is a direct message to those with power and influence in media who use Hawaii as a backdrop and its language and concepts without properly framing the history and current state of its people, language and culture. Watch the segment and read the transcript below.
So I have something to tell you: I’m addicted to romantic comedies. There is nothing more affirming to me at the end of a horrible day than to see Rachel McAdams get the guy at the end of the movie. Every. Single. Time.
So this week I was so ecstatic to see the trailer for her latest film, until I meditated on its title. Take a peek at Cameron Crowe’s “Aloha”.
The rom-com, which was filmed in my hometown on the island of Oahu, follows Bradley Cooper as a military contractor caught in a love trial with his long-lost love (played by McAdams) and an Air Force watchdog (played by Emma Stone). The premise is traditional romantic comedy fare and it also upholds Hollywood’s long tradition of exoticizing Hawaii and erasing Native Hawaiian people.
Like the 2011 George Clooney vehicle, The Descendants, it is a Hollywood product where whiteness is centered, Hawaii and Hawaiian culture is appropriated, and Native Hawaiians are nowhere to be seen. And when I say Native Hawaiians, many people may not know this, I am not referring to people who live in Hawaii. I am referring to Kanaka Maoli, like my grandmother, my mother, my siblings and myself — the native indigenous Polynesian people of the Hawaiian Islands whose ancestry actually predates colonialism and the arrival of Captain Cook in 1778.
Last weekend on PBS, one such Kanaka Maoli – Kumu Hina Wong-Kalu, was central in telling her own story in the documentary Kumu Hina.
Echoing Kumu Hina, I wrote in my book, “What’s difficult about being from Hawaii is that everyone has a postcard view of your home.” Hawaii lives vividly in people’s minds as nothing more than a weeklong vacation – a space of escape, fantasy and paradise. But Hawaii is much more than a tropical destination or a pretty movie backdrop — just as Aloha is way more than a greeting.
The ongoing appropriation and commercialization of all things Hawaiian only makes it clearer as to why it is inappropriate for those with no ties to Hawaii, its language, culture and people to invoke the Hawaiian language. This is uniquely true for aloha – a term that has been bastardized and diminished with its continual use.
Most who invoke the term aloha do not know its true meaning. Aloha actually comes from two Hawaiian words: Alo – which means the front of a person, the part of our bodies that we share and take in people. And Ha, which is our breath. When we are in each other’s presence with the front of our bodies, we are exchanging the breath of life. That’s Aloha.
When writer-director Cameron Crowe uses the language of a marginalized, indigenous people whose land, culture and sovereignty have been stripped from them, he contributes to a long tradition of reducing Native Hawaiians to his own limited imaginings – and this is dangerous.
As Native Hawaiian activist and journalist Anne Keala Kelly said in an interview with Deep Green Resistance:
“Embedded in every American theft is the denial of that theft, be it theft of land, culture, nationhood, all the things that define a people, all that they need to survive as a people. The exploitation and appropriation of Hawaiian identity and cultural identifiers, like lei and lū‘au is in keeping with that centuries old tradition…The sort of appropriation is possible because we’ve been remade, turned into a strangely passive icon that represents entertainment to Americans. “
A message to those in Hollywood: If you are not Kanaka Maoli or a person from the Hawaiian Islands, you do not get to spread the message of aloha through your product because it is not yours. It is not yours for appropriation or profit or even a Rachel McAdams rom-com.**
**My target of this editorial is Hollywood and mainstream media. The video piece is titled “Hollywood’s appropriation of Hawaiian culture” which is addressing an entire system that more often than not silences Native voices, rather truly includes Native voices. I am also aware that though I am centering Native Hawaiian/Kanaka Maoli voices, I do not wish to erase the presence of the people *of* Hawaii, who may not be Native, but who have contributed to local Hawaii culture which also embraces the concept of Aloha.
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