Perhaps it’s because I lived on Ka’iulani Avenue in Waikiki that the princess for whom the street is named captivates me. While studying Hawai’ian language at ‘Iolani Palace in Honolulu, I’d sit in the same gazebo where she once sat, on the palace’s expansive grounds, wondering how she felt experiencing the end of Hawai’ian sovereignty in 1898—110 years after the first Europeans arrived. Surely, the sorrow of losing her country contributed to Princess Ka’iulani’s death at age 23.
Unfortunately, filmmaker Marc Forby’s version of the princess’ life in “Princess Kaiulani” veers wildly. Not only is the retelling of crucial events rushed and unfocused, especially for those with no frame of reference for Hawai’ian history, but too much time is wasted on a fictional love affair. While Forby seems obsessed with showing the princess locking lips with a British commoner, the reality is she fought for her nation’s freedom in lieu of a personal life.
The movie also neglects her passion for pet peacocks (that ‘screamed’ at the moment she died) as well as her abiding friendship with Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson.
The real-life hapa princess (daughter of Scottish merchant Archie Cleghorn) is played by multiethnic actress Q’orianka Kilcher, of Peruvian and European descent. Although Kilcher lived in Hawai’i before her family moved to Los Angeles, her flat California accent often escapes between the layers of British and Native Hawai’ian intonations she attempts to emulate for her role. Further, one silly scene has Princess Ka’iulani and her aunt Queen Lili’uokalani in a private conversation speaking English to each other, not Hawai’ian.
In 1778, Captain James Cook sailed from England and landed in Kaui, one of Hawai’i’s eight main islands. Soon, both European and American businessmen clamored for her rich resources, cheap labor, and lush land.
While Hawai’ians revered and acted as stewards of their sacred lands, which they believed were their ancestors, Westerners wanted to own them. And, when Hawai’ians balked at selling, they were colonized.
In 1893, Queen Lili’uokalani was placed under house arrest at ‘Iolani Palace. Ruler of the kingdom following her brother’s death, she was forced into abdication by foreign imperialists.
At the time, the 18-year old princess, next in line for the throne, was attending a British boarding school. Her mother, Likelike, died when she was 12, issuing an eerily accurate prediction from her deathbed foretelling that her daughter would never marry, have children or become queen of Hawai’i.
During the Spanish American War of 1898, the U.S. wanted Hawai’i for military bases to fight for Spanish colonies like the Philippines. Consequently, President McKinley illegally annexed Hawai’i, and two years later made it a territory. Prior to those unjust acts, Princess Ka’iulani traveled to America and, demonstrating impeccable social graces and fashion savvy, impressed reporters with her speaking ability— proving that Hawai’ians weren’t the barbarians Americans believed they were. Despite her audience with then-President Cleveland, the princess was unsuccessful at preventing her government’s overthrow.
In 1959, the U.S. oversaw a critical vote, but unfairly allowed everyone — not just the 20 percent of indigenous survivors — to choose either integration as a territory or statehood, but not independence.
President Clinton signed The Apology Resolution in 1993 expressing regret for illegally depriving Hawai’ians of their right to self-determination, but ceded no lands to them.
Today, hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops crowd Hawai’i’s sunny beaches. But while tourism and the proliferation of U.S. military bases provides an economy for the state, they’re also a heartbreaking legacy for impoverished Native Hawai’ians who have the lowest mean income among all ethnic groups.
Since 1999, a statue of Princess Ka’iulani, whose name means Royal Sacred One, stands in Waikiki not far from the street named for her. Her frozen face appears serene, as if she’s patiently waiting for her homeland to be returned.
“Princess Kaiulani” will open at the Seven Gables/Landmark Theater in Seattle on Friday, May 14.