INTO THE NEXT STAGE: ‘The Descendants’: White-Washed On Purpose?

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By GUY AOKI
(First published in
The Rafu Shimpo on Dec. 15, 2011.)

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Lately, so much media attention has focused on George Clooney’s new film, “The Descendants,” and how it’s an Oscar contender for both co-writer/director Alexander Payne (“Sideways”), Clooney, and Shailene Woodley, who plays his 17-year-old daughter Alex. It’s based on a book written by a former resident of Hawaii (a white guy of course) who’s since returned to Hawaii.

Because the story takes place in the 50th state and none of the reviewers mentioned anything about the local people, I assumed this was another white-wash — a production taking place in Hawaii yet barely using any of its people in meaningful roles.

I guessed right. And once again, the white media really doesn’t care either.

Once again, the story is seen from the point of view of a white family even though they’re descendants of Hawaiian royalty and therefore have owned 25,000 acres on Kauai since the 1860s. Most of the relatives need the money and want to sell the property to a developer. Clooney plays Matt King, one of the great-great-grandsons, making him 1/16 Hawaiian (as sole trustee, he gets to make the final decision). So his cousins, played by Michael Ontkean (“The Rookies,” “Making Love”), Beau Bridges, etc., are also part-Hawaiian. Ohhhh kayyyy…

Everyone looks white. Even Alex’s boyfriend, a stoner-type dude, is white. Matt’s wife is white.  Consequently, so is her family. At social gatherings, most of their friends are the same.

“The Descendants” features George Clooney, Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller.

There’s window dressing: Hawaiian music between scenes (a lot of Gabby Pahinui), Alex’s sleepy roommate is Korean, the girl younger sister Scottie (Amara Miller) has to apologize to for sending rude texts to — and her mom — are clearly Asian. Scottie’s offbeat friend Rayna looks Hapa. The secretary for a real estate agent is named Bonnie Tanaka (but we don’t see her).

Payne said he spent two months in Hawaii to soak it up before writing his script. He’s not much of a sponge. He either didn’t get to know many locals or if he did, probably didn’t like them. Lately, I’ve come to realize that if scribes write about a place dominated by minorities but don’t come up with significant roles for those people, they simply don’t like that community. Maybe we should ask Sandra Oh. A few years ago, she divorced Payne…

In the Saturday, Dec. 3 edition of the Los Angeles Times, letter writer Michael Haas hit it on the head: “The Hawaii of Chinese, Filipinos, Japanese, Koreans, Native Hawaiians, Portuguese and mixed-race residents practicing the Aloha Spirit eludes director Alexander Payne and novelist Kaui Hart Hemmings, an adoptee of the famous surfer who in one recent interview admitted some ignorance of his own cultural background. The screenplay deals sensitively with a family tragedy that could have taken place in Nebraska, where Payne was born — in other words, giving a very false impression of the Islands… When will Hollywood and ‘Hawaii Five-0’ stop mistreating the Asians of Hawaii as little more than happily obedient props who know their dominated world?”

At one point in the movie, King makes a speech that got me excited because it pointed out how un-Hawaiian this family really is: “We’re haole as sh*t. We can barely speak pidgin.” They put their kids in private schools and have all this land and have done nothing to earn it.

But this makes it confusing: Should director Payne receive praise for telling us how out of step this family is from the rest of the state’s residents, or should he be held accountable for not giving any prominent roles to Asian Pacific Islanders? Did he purposely withhold those parts so the family would seem more white, or is that giving him too much “credit”?

Aside from the racial issues, yes, I do recommend the movie. It’s a thoughtful film about life, coming to terms with infidelity from a wife who can’t explain herself and may never regain consciousness to answer for it, and choices between revenge and forgiveness. Clooney gives a memorable performance, and Woodley does a pretty good job too (I wouldn’t say Oscar-caliber, though).

Job Well Done Department: Congratulations to KABC-TV anchor David Ono for “Witness American Heroes:  Nisei Soldiers,” his half-hour documentary on the 100th/442nd. It was scheduled to air at 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 19, but was pushed back half an hour because of a ball game. It re-aired at noon the following Sunday. What I loved about it is that Ono traveled to Germany and France, where the soldiers fought and died. It was chilling to see him standing where the Lost Battalion was saved in Germany and in Bruyeres, where the French were liberated. It cut through the usual black-and-white historic footage and made history truly live. It would’ve been nice to hear more from the soldiers and their children (there was a lot of narration), but overall, a fine job.

At his annual Christmas party, Ono told me it was scheduled to air in Hawaii in prime time this Wednesday (yesterday) and in San Francisco as well. Robert Horsting (“Citizen Tanouye”) told me he helped put David in touch with several of the interviewees.

I was happy to see Yanina Cywinksa still alive. Hard to believe, but it was 20 years ago this month that Kay Ochi and I led a press conference for National Coalition for Redress and Reparations (NCRR) reuniting members of the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion and Cywinska, who was blindfolded and waiting for the Nazis to execute her when the Japanese American soldiers charged into Dachau and rescued her and others from that death camp. It was our way of counter-programming the smothering 50th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor that’d been going on for six months by asserting our contributions to the war effort despite being put in concentration camps by our own country.

Yay! Department: Two months ago, Mike Chang (Harry Shum, Jr.) got to shine in an episode of “Glee” where he had to decide between obeying his father’s wish for him to become a doctor and his own dream to pursue a career in dance. A few weeks ago, after learning his son had won a part in the school musical “West Side Story,” Mr. Chang confronted him in school and said if he did the play, he’d have no son. Surprisingly, Mike retorted, “Well, then, I guess I don’t have a dad!” Oooh!

Last week, Mike was having second thoughts, telling his girlfriend Tina he applied for medical school because it wasn’t worth enduring the tension between him and his father, who stopped speaking to him. Tina goes to see Mr. Chang at work and offers him a DVD of Mike’s performance to show him how talented his son is. Dad’s not interested. He tells her he’s only trying to save his son from a lifetime of misery because it’s so hard to succeed in the arts.

Nevertheless, at a competition, Chang sits in the audience to see what his son’s got. Mike, shocked at his presence, stops singing “ABC” for a few seconds, but later resumes it. In the group’s third number, Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror,” Mike sings the final line as if looking at this father: “Make that change!”

Cast of “Allen Gregory”

Mr. Chang stands up, smiling, clapping, and joining the audience in a standing ovation. Backstage, Mike excitedly tells Tina how shocked he was that his dad showed up. Just then, Mr. Chang asks to speak to both of them. He gives his full support, wanting Mike to apply to the best dance schools, understanding that this is what he was meant to do.

Mike reveals that it’s too late — he missed the application deadline. Not to worry — Tina forged his name and sent in his applications just in case he changed his mind. Mike’s overwhelmed: “I love you so much!”

Awww! Really, when this show gets it right, it’s amazing. Terrific job by everyone.

What Were They Thinking? Department: For seven weeks, Joy Osmanski (who’s Korean and was hilarious on another Fox series, “The Loop”) did the voice for Julie, an adopted Cambodian child of two gay men in the animated series “Allen Gregory.” The title character, voiced by Jonah Hill, is supposedly 7 years old yet speaks like an adult and acts as if he’s seen it all — the typical Hollywood snob (“We’ll do lunch!”). It debuted to mediocre ratings and began losing its audience week by week until it bottomed out at 3.1 million in its last airing. Don’t expect it to be back.

I don’t know why anyone thought this unsympathetic character would interest anyone. In the first episode, after acting as if he owned the place, Allen went on a crying jag because the object of his desire — the pale, fat principal of the school (yuck!) — showed him up. It came totally out of the blue and was obviously an attempt by the producers to appease the network, which asked them to make him more relatable. Didn’t work. However, Osmanki played a deadpan character who tried to be nice to her brother despite his hatred for her, and I enjoyed her character.

Till next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

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Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. He can be reached at [email protected] Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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4 Comments

  1. Sadly, you seem to have missed the whole point of “The Descendants”… it isn’t trying to represent the entire population of the islands. Honestly, many people (including reviewers of the film) won’t understand the delicate dynamics between the various social and ethnic classes of Hawaii unless they’ve actually spent a good amount of time outside of Waikiki. It’s a beautiful familial story about a certain of group of people here in Hawaii who really do rule the upper echelons of our society. As someone who is familiar with these kinds of people, I can tell that the film doesn’t shy away from mocking and criticizing them as well. It is also very reflective of the local issues that have become commplace in our society today (the whole subplot of the entrusted land is definitely borrowed from real life events that have played out in recent years involving different missionary families). And lastly, come on…. the novel was written by a born and raised local female. Check your facts!

  2. Thanks to Lisa L for the intelligent comments regarding the Descendants. I’m from Kapahulu (sansei) and know first hand about the local hawaii born haole history. Kaui Hart Hemmings , hawaiian/haole, (hapa if you like), the author of the novel writes the truth of her heritage. The three screenwriters did their research well and with much compassion. I object to your comment about the “white guy” reference. Sounds bigoted and uninformed. Go live there and maybe you’ll understand what aloha really means.

  3. Have to say I not only enjoyed the movie but believe it’s one of the better films of the year — no robots, effects or explosions — all about people and actors acting out relationships and motivations. Rare thing today.

    And the good guy and his good view of Hawaii win over profit. Point should be made that Clooney’s character is motivated to deny the sale, deny the coming development of hotel and golf course, deny his family’s wishes. Really, he is quite the hero. Would any of us turn down a free 10 million or so?

    Re his character being hapa/mixed race, in his case 1/16 Hawaiian, that’s a very, very long way in the mix.

    I have a niece who is 1/4 Japanese and is blond, extremely Caucasian-looking and can not only pass but must tell unbelievers that yes, she is 1/4 Japanese all the time. You would never guess she’s a quarter. Weird clincher is she is fluent in the old language. When she lived a year in Japan she blew away several Nihonjin minds.

  4. Pingback: The Descendants Review: Justified Whitewashing? | Entertainment | 8Asians.com

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