The Descendants Review: Justified Whitewashing?

I first heard about The Descendants movie from Susan‘s post that asked if this movie was a “whitewashed” version of Hawaii. After garnering attention with a Golden Globe Award and Oscar nominations, the Wife and I were intrigued.  George Clooney as a Hawaiian? How could this possibly work?  Why all the buzz? The Wife and I went to go see it, and this is what I thought about the movie.

First, the biggest question you may be thinking – if this Hawaii and Clooney and his family are the descendants of Hawaiian Royalty who have a huge amount of land to decide how to dispose, why are they and the company they keep so white? The movie explains this as saying the Clooney’s character, Matt King,  is descended also from early white settlers. The movie purposely uses this overwhelming whiteness to symbolize how Clooney has drifted so far away from family and his roots.  In an insightful review of The Descendants, Guy Aoki points out this line from the movie:

““We’re haole as shit. We can barely speak pidgin.”

to support why director Alex Payne cast the family and their social circles as so white.  In one scene in a small restaurant in Kauai, Payne contrasts Clooney and his family with a family of local musicians who are playing there.  A separate question, though, is does this tactical whitewashing work?  I think that it works for the most part, but found it distracting.  The King family and their social circle doesn’t look like the people that I see when I have visited friends and family in Hawaii, and they definitely don’t sound like this.  Aoki’s review questions whether the casting was a deliberate tactic or just bias, but to me, it seemed well integrated into the story line.

Other than that, I did enjoy the movie and the performance by George Clooney.  His expression when dealing with the embarrassment, disgust, and helplessness caused by his teenage daughter’s behavior was priceless – I empathized with those scenes as I have been there too.  The Descendants is a thoughtful look at family and a look at what is importance in life.  For this aspect, I would definitely recommend the movie, although I as I mentioned, the whiteness of the cast was a distraction.

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About Jeff

Jeff lives in Silicon Valley, and attempts to juggle marriage, fatherhood, computer systems research, running, and writing.
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