The Descendants Trailer: A Different Side of Hawaii

I have never been one to be able to turn down a George Clooney movie. The veritable “silver fox” simply has to give his small come-hither smile before I (and many other women) flock to shell out $10 for a short two hours with him. So when someone sent me the trailer for his new movie, The Descendants, I was intrigued.

The trailer features Clooney as a father of two daughters, living in Hawaii. He goes to pick up his trouble-making daughter from “Hawaii Pacific Institute” before going around the island of Oahu to tell family and friends that his wife has fallen into a vegetative state due to a boating accident. Then, about 30 seconds from the end, his older daughter reveals that his wife has been cheating on him. Apparently tired of giving away plot points, the trailer ends with clips of Clooney running through the streets and punching teenagers.

After I first watched the clip, I had no idea why it was set in Hawaii. All of the people featured in the trailer are Caucasian, apart from a few people who just stand around to form the crowds. The drama that is set up seems like it could be set anywhere: a father, a cheating wife, a good daughter, and a bad daughter. Without any further context, this movie could have been filmed in the suburbs of any metropolitan city. I didn’t want to call it white-washed…but is it?

The truth is more complicated than a simple yes. The novel which this movie was based on was written by a Hawaii resident, Kaui Hart Hemmings. And the most telling line from the Amazon synopsis is:

Hemmings’ bittersweet debut novel, an expansion of her first published short story (“The Minor Wars,” from House of Thieves and originally published in Story Quarterly), stars besieged and wryly introspective attorney Matt King, the land-rich descendant of Hawaiian royalty and American missionaries and entrepreneurs.

Well then, that explains it. Clooney’s character is akin to some of the people who still populate Hawaii today. The modern economy here is based off of plantations which were owned by Americans. Those “missionaries and entrepreneurs” settled here, intermarried with the pre-existing Hawaiian royalty, and created many organizations which still exist today. Punahou, the school that Barack Obama attended? It was founded for the children of those original missionaries. The buildings there still feature names like Dillingham, Castle, and Cooke–all missionary or plantation-owning family names.

I wish that the trailer had alluded to Clooney’s character’s family history, but his character brings up new questions. Since the movie isn’t technically white-washed (those families I mentioned? Despite Hawaiian blood, they are phenotypically Caucasian), is this history really the one Hawaii wants featured? Many families are tied to those plantations in some way–my own father grew up in one, and my great-grandparents were brought over from Japan to work on them too. These plantations caused strife, racial hierarchies, tension–far from the happy, peaceful atmosphere that Hawaii’s tourism features.

While Clooney’s character does draw attention to the fact that there were these American missionaries/entrepreneurs, it also sets the tone that people still stand to profit from it. Amazon’s synopsis suggests that the main character must ultimately make the choice between keeping his blood money estate and selling it, but I’ll have to wait for the movie to come out before making a final call on how complete a picture it gives.

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