The Curious Case of a Barbarian Princess


We Hawaiians are a funny bunch. We want the moon but we don’t want to lasso it and pull it down ourselves. We also can’t make decisions together (another post altogether–actually, another blog altogether). Here’s the setup: a movie or tv show is made about or depicts characters from Hawaii. Protests and objections ensue because the representations of locals, specifically Hawaiians and Hawaiian culture, are depicted inaccurately.

Case in Point: Barbarian Princess. It tells the story of one of the kingdom of Hawaii’s last royals, a young girl who at age 17 had to deal with the aftermath of her homeland being dissolved. As far as I know, this is the first legitimate movie to showcase Hawaiian history AND have a chance for some kind of release beyond the shores of Hawaii. At the heart of the “controversy” is that the lead actress is not of Hawaiian ancestry and that the title of the film is inaccurate and offensive (reports via Honolulu Advertiser and KHNL).

Ok, I get it. Ideally we’d like to have our own people (Hawaiians) play roles based on ourselves. I also can see how at first glance the title Barbarian Princess may seem offensive. But my feeling is that these are small gripes in the bigger scheme of things. Here we have a movie about our people that could potentially be released across the country–a movie that tells the story of Hawaii, its people, and our history. In essence, something to educate the world about Hawaii. Doesn’t this sound like a good thing?

An early poster for the movie which shows the film's previous title.

An early poster for the movie which shows the film's previous title.

I say, it is. As a movie person, when I put down the $10 that it costs for a movie ticket these days I want to be sure that I’m paying for something good. If the actor chosen for a role can act, portray their character well, and make the audience believe that they are that character then what does it matter what race, ethnicity or gender they are? Throughout the history of Hollywood there have been tons of cases where actors have been chosen for roles where they might not have originally fit. An African American actor in place of a Caucasian one, a male character rewritten as a female one, and all different other scenarios. The fact of the matter is, in movies actors take on the role of someone other than themself and so I have no problem with a non-Hawaiian playing a Hawaiian.

As for the title of the movie, Barbarian Princess, I actually like the title and applaud the producers for going back to it. Originally the title was given to Ka’iulani by the media during that time in anti-monarchy propaganda, when in actuality she was far from it. This is the message that the creators of the movie are trying to convey. By naming the movie Barbarian Princess, something clearly Ka’iulani was not, it sets up an allegory for the audience. For us here in Hawaii, before we see the movie we question title as we see it as something that’s not true. For those outside of Hawaii, or have little to no knowledge of Hawaiian history, they see the title and after watching the movie find out that she wasn’t actually a “barbarian princess” and then wonder why the movie was given that title. In both cases, the title Barbarian Princess gives people something to think about and chew on–which in the end is something that any good movie does . . . it challenges you and makes you think.

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