Dissing The Academy Award Winning Movie The Descendants


Go big or go home. It’s the bumper sticker creed appropriated to all champions’ aspirations. But here in Hawaii, taking what’s big beyond the most isolated archipelago in the world requires both going big while bringing it home; and for more than capitalizing on paradisiacal allure. Without a doubt, The Descendants went big–you can still hear the echo of champagne bottles’ pop–but the film’s baffling whitewash squandered an unprecedented opportunity for the celluloid indemnification of America’s most misunderstood piece of history: Hawaii’s.

With envy tinged pride I’ve watched the rise to fame of The Descendants author, Kaui Hart Hemmings. She’s the kanaka maoli, Sarah Lawrence College-educated dazzler who’s everything I wish I was but couldn’t be, unless under a kind knife (propitious lobotomy included, obviously). Papers ranging from the San Francisco Bay Guardian to the New York Times praise Hemmings for her “beautiful and blunt prose” and how “her comic sense is finely honed in this refreshingly wry debut novel.” With this, Hemmings is the first Hawaiian author to crossover into mainstream acclaim, and the applause is undeniably due.

The inescapable buzz of the book’s film adaptation by Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt) reached its crescendo with a yard-long list of illustrious noms, resulting in Golden Globe awards for Best Picture and Best Actor (George Clooney, as the fictional Kauai land baron Matt King), and an Oscar for Best Adapted Adapted Screenplay (Nat Faxon, Alexander Payne and Jim Rash), to name just a few.

All this, coupled with my abundant hometown pride, had me earnestly hoping that The Descendants would be some sort of bona fide Dec. 21, 2012 of Hollywoodized Hawaii. You know, some massive shift in perception (or whatever) that would render the wicked world as we know it anew. I hoped it would make evident the farce of flicks like Blue Crush (2002) and 50 First Dates (2004)–modern manifestations of the cellophane hula-skirted ideal that’s been promulgated ever since Elvis-ish days–movies that obscured our isles behind sex-soaked beaches backed by billion dollar resorts. Rob Schneider’s idiotic Pidgin does not speak for us any more than his brownface looks like us. Slit our wrists and we do not bleed Mai Tais.

So after finally swallowing the $18 expense to see the film in theaters (that’s 10 bucks for entry plus requisite concession, i.e. a cheap bottle-o-vino from Maui Mall’s Longs), I was disappointed to find that, like every failed Rapture prediction past and yet to come, The Descendants did not deliver. At least, not like it could or should have.

Sure, the opening montage attempted to establish the idea that Hawaii’s not the paradise it’s oft made out to be. Sure, expert cinematographer Phedon Papamichael captured texturally rich scenes yet unseen by most outside our isles. Sure, I was moved by Clooney’s skillful portrayal of his character’s pathos and sequences like when Julie Speer (Judy Greer) forgives the comatose Elizabeth King (Patricia Hastie) for adultery. Sure, I laughed. Hell, I even cried (but that ain’t hard, I’m a sobbing sucker). But nonetheless I left feeling the film was critically wanting.

Perhaps I should clarify exactly what I think is missing from The Descendants film: color. And yeah, I’m talking about race. King’s character got one thing right: his family’s “haole as fuck.” But for a few token locals barely in the background or with bit parts, everyone was white and rich–and so much so, it’s startling. Never mind that the very few speaking roles for locals were written in a way that makes us look like bloated idiots. (Case in point: Karen Kuioka Hironaga’s painful and poorly executed role as Barb Higgins, a mother who’s distraught by King’s daughter’s foul behavior toward her own.)

And I don’t buy the hypothetical argument that this was all somehow supposed to be commentary about Hawaii’s elite, because that would still require contrast. Neither Hawaii’s history in Hollywood nor The Descendants provides that in any true form. Further, such commentary isn’t accurate. Hawaii’s the melting pot of the Pacific; and ask any pale-ish skinned person on the street (myself included)–grown or flown, prosperous or otherwise–and they’ll tell you haoles are something of a minority.

Look, I recognize that but for our most visceral morality, there’s sparse sauce for the goose that’s sauce for the gander. My beef with The Decendants movie is my own, and judging by others’ reviews, one that’s not shared. I could acquiesce to the fact that the movie’s at least introduced the idea of land development in Hawaii to a larger audience. But for me, that’s not enough.

Because I’m not asking that filmmakers quintessentially capture Hawaii’s ethnic fugue. I’m not asking for an all-encompassing history lesson or preachiness about the 1893 overthrow of the sovereign monarchy, our century down that rabbit hole and so on. (Though, the cheap narrative voiceovers could’ve at least managed a tad more substance.)

But I am asking that the breadth of our diversity no longer be ignored or trivialized to an adumbration of the truth. The real descendants of Hawaii are a poi dog breed and our transplanted residents make that mix all the more colorful.

If Hollywood’s going to shoot us, would it kill them to do so in authentic technicolor?