Political Film Review #655

WATERMAN CELEBRATES THE LIFE OF DUKE KAHANAMOKU

The only American with statues erected in his honor in several countries of the world is Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku. But he was not born in the United States. He was born in 1890 in the Kingdom of Hawaiʽi and began living from the age of 3 in Waikīkī. Based on the biography Water: The Life and Times of Duke Kahanamoku,” by David Davis, the documentary Waterman (with Davis as the executive producer) is about the life of the most famous Native Hawaiian of the 20th century. His fame came because of many accomplishments:

  • Desegregation of sports, including rowing and swimming.
  • Winner of three gold and two silver medals in the Olympic Games
  • Elected to the International Swimming Hall of Fame & Museum in 1965.
  • Inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1984
  • Inducted into the New Jersey Surfing Hall of Fame in its first year (2015)
  • Introduced surfing to Australia, California, and the world—and eventually the Olympic Games
  • Introduced the Hawaiian surfboard to the world
  • Demonstrated the concept of Aloha to the world
  • As ambassador of the Hawaiian Islands, he attracted tourism to the Islands
  • A magnet for celebrities, including Queen Elizabeth
  • Introduced beach surfboard lifeguarding
  • Saved 8 lives of persons from a capsized vessel
  • Acted in 14 Hollywood films from 1925 to 1955
  • Appeared as himself in 6 documentaries, including the short documentary Walls of Water
  • Pictured on a 37-cent postage stamp, issued on his birthdate in 2002
  • Elected as Sheriff of Honolulu from 1932 to 1961, completing 13 consecutive terms.

Much of the film, directed by Isaac Halasima, consists of excerpts from the 1957 program “This Is Your Life,” including several admirers, including the eight persons whose lives he saved in 1925. Many contemporary commentators are featured as well. His role outside of film clips is re-enacted by Duane DeSoto. The narrator is Jason Momoa. Just over 6 feet tall, his smiling muscular body often dominates the script.

Duke Kahanamoku’s encounters with racism are also featured in the film. He is denied entry to the Outrigger Club in Honolulu, though he organized a competing rowing club that beat the Outriggers. When he surpassed a previous record in swimming during a race in Honolulu, record keepers in the continental United States at first refused to believe that a non-White could swim better than a White. In Hollywood films, he never had a starring role; even the role of Tarzan went to someone White. In four films he appeared but was not credited in the list of actors. According to the film narrative, he bottled up frustration from racism so much that he died of a heart attack at age 77 during January 1968. Nevertheless, he embodied and personified the concept of Aloha as an antidote to racism.

 However, some elements of the film are racially insensitive. In the animated history of the Islands, one line claims that Native Hawaiians had no religion of their own and thus were easily converted into Christianity by missionaries who arrived during the 1820s. The coup of 1893 and annexation of 1898 are skipped over too quickly. Although depicted while performing the hula, the version he portrayed was the feminized version that was used to attract tourism in the early twentieth century. (The masculine version did not reappear until 1964.) Repeated references are made to “the Mainland,” referring to the continental United States, whereas the Hawaiian Islands were the mainland for Duke Kahanamoku. Most of the commentators are either Native Hawaiian or White, leaving out about half the people of the Islands, whose ancestries are Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Puerto Rican, Vietnamese, and from elsewhere in the Pacific Islands.  MH

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