This blog is about Hawaii's status as an independent country under prolonged illegal occupation by the United States, and the history, culture, law & politics of the islands.

By Scott Crawford, Hana, Maui


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Princess Kaiulani: A Motion Picture Pretender to the Throne

Ed Rampell, L.A. film critic and long-time supporter of Hawaiian sovereignty, has a review of the movie Princess Ka’iulani in the LA Progressive.

British writer/director Marc Forby’s movie Princess Kaiulani, about the last heiress apparent of the Hawaiian kingdom, has generated controversy in Hawaii and raises a number of complex issues. What are filmmakers’ responsibilities to historical accuracy, especially when portraying actual historical personages? How obligated are non-indigenous artists to the people they are depicting? What say does an ethnic group have in how it’s portrayed – especially by others from the dominant majority culture?


This biopic purports to tell the tale of a fabled beauty who became embroiled in political turmoil, and of her romance with an Englishman. The movie’s press notes assert that, “Princess Kaiulani is the inspiring true story of the Hawaiian princess.” The problem is that this is a dubious claim. The simple fact of the matter is that Kaiulani opens with a historically inaccurate scene that never happened, and much of the movie is likewise historically suspect.


The film is at its best when it succeeds in raising awareness about the plight of Hawaii, which suffered an American-backed overthrow and invasion in 1893, leading to U.S. annexation in 1898. Kaiulani, a young brown woman, throws herself into the fray as a champion for Native rights, and she meets with Pres. Grover Cleveland in Washington before returning home to support the Hawaiians. There are great, rare interior shots of Iolani Palace, where cinematography is generally tabu (although I imagine some Polynesian purists also resented this as a cultural intrusion). But the movie repeatedly undermines itself by straying from the truth.

Here’s a video of Palani Vaughn, who turned down the role of Kalakaua due in part to the historical inaccuracies of the script, giving some backstory on the Ka’iulani movie.

4 comments to Princess Kaiulani: A Motion Picture Pretender to the Throne

  • Palani Vaughan

    Mahalo nui loa Mr. Rampell:

    On behalf of those who joined me on he ‘Iolani Palace grounds [Kolina Aiu, Pelikikena of ‘Ahahui ‘O Ka’iulani & Kumuhula of Halau Hula ‘O Maiki; Henry Noa, Prime Minister of Re-Instated Kingdom of Hawai’i; EiRayna Adams, past Kuhina Nui of Daughters & Sons of Hawaiian Warriors; and Ka’ilihiwa Vaughan, Kumuhula of Halau Hula Kalehua Tuahine] to protest the making of Marc Forby’s historically inaccurate film, and to oppose, as well, Forby’s film company’s access and use of not only ‘Iolani Palace grounds but our precious ‘Iolani Palace, I wish to thank you for the critical review you’ve written.

    We, at least, can claim a meaningful victory over our Hollywood adversary, in the fact that the original outrageously insulting title, “Barbarian Princess” was changed to “Princess Ka’iulani”, although our local Honolulu Advertiser’s article of last Sunday, credited the film company’s distributor with having made that decision for the title change for some other reason.

    We, however, claim the victory, along with three young Hawaiian women [wahine] who, in the middle of the film, stormed out of the Hawai’i Theater last October during the film’s Hawai’i premier showing, and who identified themselves to the Honolulu Advertiser as the “Barbarian Titas” [‘Tita’, pronounced, ‘Tee-taah’, and means, ‘Sister’, which is a term of endearment used by Hawaiian women in reference to themselves].

    Please also know that New Zealand [authoress of published biographies on the lives of King Kalakaua and his niece Princess Ka’iulani] also has joined us in condemning this film.

    Mahalo nui loa again, Palani Vaughan

  • Dear Palani & Sovereignty Supporters,

    Mahalo nui loa for publishing part of my review of “Princess Kaiulani” and thanks for your kind words, Palani.

    When I wrote the review I forgot the change in title. Mahalo for reminding me.

    I had a piece of political humor and satire re: Arizona published today. I thought it would interest and amuse Sovereignty supporters and can be read at:

    Also my interview w/Ed Asner is in the current issue of The Progressive Magazine.


    Ed Rampell

  • Mahalo Palani and Ed for sharing your comments here.

    I haven’t seen the movie yet so I can’t really comment on it with any specific insight. Kekula wants to see it, but just from watching the trailer she is already preparing herself to be disappointed/offended. She says she already sees Ka’iulani’s character speaking in ways that the Princess never would have.

    But in general, I have to say I think that some of the historical inaccuracy is just inherent in this type of movie. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an historical/bio pic that was completely true to history. Some are closer than others, and critiquing the areas where a movie strays from history is totally valid and important. Yet a movie like this always has to find a balance between being true to history, serving the dramatic necessities of the medium, and appealing to a large enough audience to make it worthwhile/profitable (and yes money will always be a part of it, at least enough to pay for itself, or no one would make the movie in the first place). For example, the idea of conflating or condensing actual events to fit into a sub-two-hour movie plot is common in these types of pics, and that in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The bigger question is whether the movie captures the basic elements of truth underlying the history and the characters, even if it isn’t true to every exact detail.

    There are a thousand examples, but I think about a movie like Braveheart. It was wildly inaccurate historically in many respects, and shared some of the same flaws like playing up the romantic part that was pure Hollywood creation. The movie was rightly criticized for being so historically inaccurate. At the same time, the movie created awareness of the character of William Wallace, and for me personally (especially since this is part of my heritage) created an interest that led me to research and learn about the true history on my own. Does the movie do a disservice to the character by creating an image of him in the public mind that actually rewrites history, or does it serve history by bringing the character and story to life for people who may not even have known of him at all otherwise?

    In the end there’s probably some of both in this movie, some benefit to people being exposed to Hawaii’s history who wouldn’t know anything about it otherwise, and some detriment in distorting that history to serve the medium. Hopefully in this case it’s enough of the former to justify the latter. But I’m very interested in other’s reactions to it in this regard, and hopefully we’ll have a chance to see it next week, and I’ll be able to comment more specifically, and will share Kekula’s reaction as well, since this is a deeply personal piece of history for her.

  • I have not seen the movie myself, although I just ordered it online, but my initial impression is that the Princess is probably as elusive a character for filmmakers as she is for historians, but the former will also bear the burdensome and distorting demands of Hollywood’s commercial considerations. But as elusive as she remains, she is all the more compelling as a historical character—uncommonly beautiful, intelligent and learned, and evidently conflicted between loyalty and ambition. Even though her importance to Hawaiian history comes after the revolution of 1893, I included her as a character in my own novel on the event simply because she was too compelling a figure to ignore.

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