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by Ben Pleasants, guest contributor. [July 15, 2010]




[]  The new film, Princess Kaiulani, from Island Films and Matador Productions, is a major move in the Hawaiian Renaissance as it begins to reexamine the loss of the Hawaiian Monarchy and the subsequent legal reevaluation of who owns Hawaii: the US or the indigenous Hawaiian people.

The life of Princess Kaiulani, daughter of Princess Likelike, who was sister of the last king of Hawaii, David Kalakaua, spans the most turbulent times in the history of the monarchy.

She was born on October 16, 1875 to a Scottish father, Archibald Cleghorn, and to the highest level of Hawaiian royalty. Intelligent, beautiful, witty, and accomplished in the arts, Kauilani was second in line to the throne, behind Likelike’s sister, the future Queen Liliuokalani.

In her short life (she died at the age of twenty-four in 1899), Kaiulani witnessed and played a significant part in the tragic events that led to the loss of the Hawaiian Islands, first to a rag tag bunch of bandits and sugar planters, and then to the U.S. government.

Under the able direction of Marc Forby, the film shows it all, with the beauty of a Merchant Ivory Production.




Stripped of didacticism, which would have ruined the film, we see what happened to the Hawaiian people when great wealth came to Hawaii with ships laden with passengers coming in; sugar going out. We watch the young princess in the hands of her delightful uncle, King David Kalakaua, The Merry Monarch, as he brings back Hawaiian music and dance to the islands, encouraging the Hawaiian people to relearn their language and customs.

Symbolically, it is the young princess who lights the city of Honolulu with electricity on March 23, 1888, under the watchful eye of the king. Seeing these figures as they looked in their days of glory is truly moving to all who love what Hawaii once was, before developers came plundering.

The king in his glorious finery is played by Ocean Kaowili. Queen Liliuokalani is Lea Anderson Okana. Their full stories on film, complete with the magnificent songs they both wrote in their beloved Hawaiian language, await the full telling, but it is chilling to see them again in the Iolani Palace as they were when they ruled their nation.

Q’orianka Kilcher, as Kaiulani (she was Pocahontas in The New World), dominates the film with a performance that is subtle and ravishing, and moving and true. Her scene with President Cleveland’s wife, herself only twenty-three, is a delight.

With President Cleveland between the two young women, we are given something moving and sad. Cleveland opposed the takeover of Hawaii by the Republicans, and refused to accept Annexation by the U.S. congress. In the last month of his administration, he drops in to see this Hawaiian Princess the American press has been praising from New York to San Francisco. The resulting conversation, on the surface about food, but really about politics and cultures, captures the struggle between a race of people at one with nature, and another who desired to obliterate it.

The most powerful scenes in the film are between Princess Kaiulani and Queen Liliuokalan, as the last Hawaiian monarch loses her throne and is imprisoned in her own palace.

There is also a love story between the princess and a British citizen, played by Shaun Evans, who falls deeply in love with this mixed raced woman. In the end, even though she loves him, Kaiulani chooses her own people and dies in 1899, just as the Hawaiian people are suffering their greatest losses.



It strikes me that the timing of this film could not be better. We now have a mixed race president, Barack Obama, who grew up in Hawaii and attended Punahau School, once the college for Hawaiian students. In the courts on the Big Island of Hawaii today, and in other locations throughout the Hawaiian Islands, cases are now being heard that question the title of lands once held by sugar barons who have abandoned their refineries, leaving environmental disasters behind.

By placing all theses major players on the screen: Grover Cleveland, King Kalakaua, Queen Liliuokalani, Princess Likelike, Queen Emma, Stanford Dole, Claus Spreckles, Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, and the lovely and charming and forever young (she died at 24) Princess Kaiulani, we are putting in motion what Jon M. Van Dyke has described in his book Who Owns the Crown Lands of Hawai’i?: “the native Hawaiians’ need and right to a land base.”

This is the time for an American president who understands Hawaii better than any US president before him, to step in and help the Native Hawaiian people, many of whom have served in the U.S. Armed Forces. Most show the same generosity they displayed when the first European ships appeared in Hawaiian waters in the eighteenth century.

Forby’s film begs the question: Should the Hawaiian people beg for what is legally theirs? Where is their justice? The Hawaiian race is a noble race, a people of great wisdom and courage. The bones and petroglyphs of their ancestors have too frequently been covered over by greedy builders of resorts and developments.

If you watch this film twice, you will begin to see the damage done to a people who were kind to all who called at their ports. Film can lead to changes. And more films. You will not find that spirit in Forgetting Sarah Marshall or in Lost, both of which were shot mostly in Hawaii, but Marc Forby’s beautiful film on this great nation of Hawaii, gives honor to the words of Hawai’is last queen when she wrote


I live in sorrow imprisoned

You are my light

Your glory my support.

Behold not with malevolence

the sins of man.

but forgive and cleanse.


Yes, Mr. President, you know the Hawaiian People well. They have given you a home, an education beyond North America, and a friendship broader than the USA.

As the film Princess Kaiulani says: It’s time to step up and right this wrong.

The Crown Lands of Hawaii should be returned to the native Hawaiians. Then there will be many more films about the greatness of the Hawaii’s past. It still lives on film.



Ben Pleasants is a playwright and author of Visceral Bukowski: Inside the Sniper Landscape of L.A. Writers.

His novels include Spearmint Leaves and The Victory of Defeat.

He can be contacted at:


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