In the hands of scriptwriter Randall Wallace, “Braveheart” reified a complex history and important personage into a pat symbol of rebellious upstart underdogs everywhere, a figure of myth greatly enamored and oft emulated in American national history. For it is in the rebellion of the British colonists seeking to break their bonds with their maternal imperial homeland, Britain, that America the nation locates its origins. This typology of the “hero underdog” winning against all the odds shapes many a familiar narrative arc admittedly sustaining block-buster film franchises from the Star Wars universe to “Avatar” and “Rocky.”

What kind of film treatment of Kamehameha will audiences get from Academy Award winning film director Robert Zemeckis, script writer Robert Wallace, and Dwayne Johnson, The Rock, a part-Samoan film star raised in Hawaiʻi, part of the time? More of the same, I imagine, which is to say that in asking questions about cultural appropriation, and the way “The King” will likely be produced for consumption we might ask about the sources that the team will draw upon for the basis of their film. It is highly unlikely that a Hollywood film about Kamehameha will be sourced properly without knowledgeable people helping to shape the project. Will they seek out experts from the Hawaiian community to discuss the project as it develops?

How will the team interpret or understand the story of Kamehameha? Without those knowledgeable in history, culture and language, the answer is pretty obvious: in terms familiar to Americans. Indeed since “Braveheart” has become something of a “by-word” for historical inaccuracy in Scotland, where the actual “Braveheart” William Wallace hailed from, and among Hollywood films more generally, we should not hold high expectations for an accurate account of Kamehamehaʻs life to emerge from the scriptwriter who penned that film, nor from the current team of developers without guidance from knowledgeable individuals.

As the movie is being produced primarily for a non-Hawaiian, non-Hawaiʻi audience, the narrative will bend to the tastes and expectations, the stereotypical narrative models that convey an American story of Kamehameha set in Hawaiʻi. The clearest indication that this is true came in the form of a tweet. According to the Rock, Kamehameha was “the first to unite the warring Hawaiian islands—fulfilling a prophecy that surrounded his fabled life since birth and creating the powerful and spiritual 50th state as we know it today.” For Johnson, the life of Kamehameha holds significance because it is Kamehameha who has supplied the condition, unification, for the eventual emergence of and therefore, legitimation of the state of Hawaiʻi. Kamehameha also happens to be the “legacy” role he has wanted to “bring to life” since the “first day of his Hollywood career.”

Photo: A watercolor portrait of King Kamehameha
A watercolor portrait of King Kamehameha I titled “Tammeamea.” 1816-1817. – Louis Choris,

Those of us who love to read, see movies, or play video games understand that there is a crisis not just of correct representation of Hawaiian people, history and culture in these various media, but also that Hawaiians, and native people in general, are under-represented in all these fields that make mass cultural production and consumption possible. The media that communicates who we were and are to each other require our input. Now more than ever it seems critical that we consider why our moʻolelo matters to us, what function or role does it play in making community and why we care so much if the Rock is Hawaiian or not. Who gets to tell moʻolelo and how do we know if the moʻolelo is accurate, are key questions that should get us thinking and engaging with one another again as a community.

Moʻolelo and Kamehameha

Kamehamehaʻs life spanned a dizzying time of transformation, the young chief sailed on one of Captain James Cook’s ships, disappearing for an evening over the horizon he was mourned by his people. He did not die then, but in 1819 just before the first group of American settlers arrived, missionaries from the ABCFM. The wars he fought benefitted greatly from the expertise of foreign and Hawaiian war counselors, from weapons, munitions and ships that aided multiple sides in conflict, it was the first “modern” war fought on Hawaiian soil. And yet it was still deeply a conflict between Hawaiian people, the first fallen in battle offered to akua in heiau, between battles aliʻiwahine were sought out for their kapu to increase the mana of the lineages issuing from Kamehameha – for war was only one kind of way to acquire and secure the right to rule.

It still seems astonishing today that the life of Kamehameha was so well documented in Hawaiian language sources. Samuel Manaiakalani Kamakau, the Hawaiian historian who enjoyed notoriety, and at times fierce criticism of his writings by contemporaries, wrote a lengthy serialized nūpepa series on Kamehamehaʻs life between 1865 and 1871, the battles he fought and his just rule.

In the twentieth century, Joseph M. Poepoe wrote again of the life of Kamehameha in articles appearing in 1905-1906. Stephen Desha, drawing upon some of Poepoeʻs writing, produced yet another lengthy account of Kekūhaupiʻo and Kamehameha between 1920 and 1924. Appearing between these lengthy histories and among them were many more stories composed by Hawaiian writers and those trained to recount the stories and chants of the aliʻi. Stories and songs of Kamehameha, and of the men and women supported his rise, include their genealogies and chants as well.

In Hollywoodʻs “The King,” will the aliʻiwahine and kaula who were key to the political, diplomatic and spiritual unfolding of his campaign be depicted, or will the entwined families of aliʻi who made possible his rise play supporting roles, foils to the “great-man,” the “one who walks alone” a caricature romantically etched upon the Rockʻs chiseled visage? Will we get to see Haʻaloʻu the aliʻiwahine, a kaula dispatched by Kamehameha to obtain key information about what to do to secure his rule? Will we see her chant her genealogy to Kapoukahi in Waikīkī, will he tell her about Puʻukoholā? Or will the heiau be reduced to the site of Keouakūʻahuʻulaʻs botched sacrifice? Will we hear the chants mourning his demise? Will we learn that the main threat to Kamehamehaʻs rule was Kaʻahumanu? The reason of course for the kapu he placed on her body that no other chief could sleep with her? The cause was not jealousy but political necessity. Will the Rockʻs King have ʻaikāne? Alas, for the intricacies of these intimacies one would need to seek out moʻolelo.

My point is that we tell these stories to savor them and each other, to teach and learn from them, to glean inspiration and ways of relating, loving and living together. Through moʻolelo we find examples of how we build and maintain the bonds of community, how they might easily be destroyed when left unattended.

In the nineteenth century the published moʻolelo of aliʻi, akua, ʻaumakua and kupua, served to knit together a nascent Hawaiian national history, they gave common bond to people living on different islands in a modern nation state. Hawaiians published fervently, eager to engage in the new media of writing and print.

But before that still, during the life of Kamehameha and long before, those who were trained aurally and orally to recite the words of the aliʻi, their genealogies, the chants and songs associated with their sacred persons, were also approached with deference. Genealogists and reciters of history carried the cultural material of past precedent, of Hawaiian rule and law. Some texts like moʻokūʻauhau were sacred and were treated as iwi (bones) that should not be shared with just anyone. Moʻolelo was not dismissed by our kūpuna as simply “fabled tales” from an irretrievable past – but as nodes of ancestral knowledge that when engaged, allowed Hawaiians to connect and consult with the past in ways that propelled us to move positively into the future.

And as we make our movement now from writing and print into creating material in all manner of mediums – film, documentaries, poetry, theater, new genres of music, books, interactive art, mobile applications, virtual-reality, augmented reality, AI, video games – the creativity is in us to fashion stories that keep us in sync with our kūpuna. How do we develop our naʻau (k)nowledge, so that as we move, our histories, genealogies, songs, chants and prayers shape the way for us, move with us. The strongest way to resist cultural appropriation is to take up our moʻolelo again and share them in whatever medium suits us so the stories continue to move through generations providing us a strong backbone (iwikuamoʻo), sacred connectivity between those who have passed and those yet to be born.

It is clear then that the film version of Kamehameha’s life may not participate in supplying community cohesion in this sense, certainly not in the multi-generational way I just described. How could the people currently working on such a film conjure such words out of the story, so many stories that were meant to keep us together in the retelling?

How will the words of Kamehameha, “E ʻoni wale nō ʻoukou i kuʻu pono, ʻaʻole i pau” resonate through the voice of Dwayne Johnson? Will they touch our nāʻau now?

If you have thoughts on the movie about Kamehameha you can email me at

ʻaʻole nō hoʻi i aʻo ʻia ka ʻike i mea e hoʻoheleleʻi wale aku ai me ka uku ʻole ia.
ʻo ka mea hana ʻia, e loaʻa no iā ia ka uku.
Samuel Manaiakalani Kamakau
Ka Nupepa Kuokoa
13 April 1867