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Pacific Islanders Deserve To Be Represented On Screen, But Here’s What Needs To Happen Now


Sometimes the phrase “representation matters” comes across as a basic, outdated slogan. For Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, it is important to reflect on the different ways the Pasifika are portrayed in the media and how these communities need more accurate and nuanced representation. on television and in the cinema.

The Pacific Islands consist of three regions: Micronesia (“small islands”), Melanesia (“Black Islands”) and Polynesia (“many islands”). You are a Pacific Islander if you are native to or descended from a person from these regions. Our islands are rich and vast, with our diversity spanning 20 nations with over 1,000 languages ​​- and we are no monolith.

So what constitutes Pacific content? It should be about more than just presenting these islands as a backdrop with their inhabitants used as props. Hollywood has a long history of relegating us to the background. Just think of 1953’s “Return To Paradise” set in Samoa or 1961’s “Blue Hawai’i” and 1966’s “Hawai’i”. Each of these stories brought white characters to the fore, with the islanders serving as simple plot devices.

A scene from ‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall’, a 2008 film. “Dozens of Pacific Islanders are so thrilled and grateful to see us on screen that we will welcome and even feel validated by any wink to our existence, regardless of its accuracy,” writes the author.

Decades later, that approach hasn’t changed much. Watch the 2008 romantic comedy “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” the 2015 movie “Aloha,” and a slew of recent TV series. Amazon Prime’s “I Know What You Did Last Summer” is a remake of the 1997 film and is set in Hawai’i – but does not feature any Native Hawaiians. Disney’s “Doogie Kamealoha, MD” gives its titular character a Hawaiian surname, but the actor does not have Hawaiian ancestry. And HBO”The White Lotusis another mindless series set in Maui that received critical acclaim despite having no kānaka Maoli leads. Netflix’s epic Hawaiian adventure “Finding Ohana” was not well received and failed to employ a Hawaiian writer or director.

When one thinks of the occupation of Hawai’i, it looks like an intentional attack aimed at undermining the connection between the kānaka and the land.

Pasifika film and television is not limited to having a Pacific Islander as the main character. It is for us to have a real contribution to the final editing, whether as a manager or consultant. Our stories don’t all have to revolve around our cultural identities and practices, but the storylines should feel authentic to our realities, even in predominantly white spaces. One only has to look at the brilliance and scope of black cinema in the United States to see that the possibilities are endless.

It is also important to distinguish the broad experiences within the Pasifika communities. There are distinct differences between our cultures. Disney’s “Moana” has created opportunities for our artists and introduced our children to loving characters who represent their own families. However, it has perpetuated the idea that we all belong to one large interchangeable culture.

Moreover, it speaks to a familiar disconnect for so many Pacific Islanders who grew up outside of our homelands. Dwayne Johnson, who is Samoan, and Jason Momoa, who is a native of Hawaii, have both performed haka in movies and on red carpets despite neither being Maori, the people who traditionally perform the haka. ceremonial dance.

Pacific Islanders Deserve To Be Represented On Screen, But Here’s What Needs To Happen Now
Moana (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) and Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson) in Disney’s “Moana.”

Dozens of Pacific Islanders are so thrilled and grateful to see us on screen that we will welcome and even feel validated by any nod to our existence, no matter how accurate. Tropes like the noble savage and the dark maiden are widely accepted and praised even though they often dehumanize us.

Too often, Pasifika men are positioned as warriors – whether as a bloodthirsty beast in battle, a brutal wrestler in the ring, or a ferocious linebacker on the football field. There is a distinctive element of savagery that white people adore, and unfortunately some Pacific island communities have embraced it as well. This actually fuels an insidious old myth that our men are more wild and aggressive, and therefore dangerous and in need of watching.

It is time to collectively denounce stereotypes and misrepresentations. We must make noise and not be afraid to demand more. Our communities can help shape and create our own stories and support those who are successful.

Here are a few examples: Filmmaker Christopher Kahunahana’s “Waikiki” strips away the routine glamor and tourist-trap illusions often associated with Hawai’i to tell a raw story of survival for Kanakā Maoli.

“Kumu Hina,” by activist and filmmaker Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, follows a Native Hawaiian māhū (a third-gender person in Hawaiian culture with spiritual and cultural powers) who fights for her people while remaining loyal to whoever she is in a world that has demonized her.

“Vai,” produced by Kerry Warkia and Kiel McNaughton, showcases the incredible work of nine Pasifika female directors and the power, beauty and resilience of Pasifika women, uplifting every complexion and hair texture. The collection of shorts is a rarity due to anti-Blackness erasing darker-skinned islanders from the Pasifika discourse.

Pacific Islanders Deserve To Be Represented On Screen, But Here’s What Needs To Happen Now
Producers Kerry Warkia and Kiel McNaughton at the Power Of Inclusion Summit 2019 at the Aotea Center in 2019 in Auckland, New Zealand.

Fiona Goodall via Getty Images

Independent and international films do the best job of showing Pasifika storytelling at its richest. We’re starting to see a new wave of filmmakers from Hawai’i and Aotearoa who want to show us in our fullness. These trailblazers set the example and raise expectations of who we are and what we deserve.

That’s what I envision when I think of the Pasifika performance. It’s exciting to watch this all unfold. Unfortunately, Pasifika titles are often inaccessible due to a lack of support from distributors and studios. At the very least, streaming services could prioritize our stories so that their annual AAPI celebratory collections really shine a spotlight on us for a change. (“Patu”, “For My Father’s Kingdom”, “Out of State”, “Island Soldier”, “Waikiki”,
‘Everyday In Kaimuki’, ‘The Land Has Eyes’ and ‘Naming Number 2’, ‘Merata: How Mum Decolonised The Screen’ are all great movies that should be available online.)

So does representation matter? Yes – when these performances uplift us and push us all forward. It’s important when it gives nuance, depth and strength to our visibility and our voices. It matters when it helps us, as a people, to see ourselves as more complex, more expansive, more colorful, and far greater than the limiting little ideas of outsiders.

I look forward to what’s to come as the filmmakers and audiences of Pasifika continue to honor the complexity of our identities and find representation that truly reflects who we are.



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