Princess Kaiulani Movie Review

Most Americans have no idea how Hawaii became part of the United States, and there may be a good reason. This government is not likely to publicize, let alone brag about the shameful history of its involvement with those Pacific islands, a centuries long occupation and colonization that continues to be resented by the native population to this day. And even as calls for nationhood, as opposed to statehood, still remain very much a part of the popular discourse.

And if the Americanization of Hawaii, considered to be the first US venture into global imperialism in the late 19th century, is relegated to buried history, even less is known about the young Hawaiian Princess Kaiulani. Barely out of her teens back then, Kaiulani with her rebel spirit defied foreign occupation, and served as a spiritual symbol of resistance, however futile, for her Indigenous people.

Much more than simply a period biopic or conventional costume drama, British writer/director Marc Forby’s Princess Kaiulani is a poetically crafted portrait of that rare woman in history who has emerged beyond the imposed limitations of gender and race, to assume leadership in championing her oppressed people. And very much despite the danger and the odds. The film also captures a lush and sweeping singular sense of place regarding Hawaii that has never been seen before on the big screen, in contrast to that exotic playground promoted by tourist enterprises.

Q’orianka Kilcher, who is herself an indigenous descendant of Peruvian heritage, stars as Princess Kaiulani. A neighbor of poet Robert Louis Stevenson and godchild of Queen Victoria (neither of which appears in the film), the princess comes of age just as American settlers in collusion with the US government have conspired to seize complete control of Hawaii. And while under the guise of abolishing the monarchy, brutalizing Kaiulani’s royal family into submission, and establishing a republic with basic rights primarily for themselves.

Fearing for her safety, Kaiulani’s Scottish father sends her off to England against her will, where she encounters racist ridicule and humiliation at a mean girls boarding school, and is subjected to having her name changed to Victoria. In addition to a dragon lady headmistress who could have walked right out of a Dickens novel, ordering the princess to make the beds and empty out the chamber pots. Though she’s soon on to an infatuated British suitor when it comes to a combination of macho posturing and British airs. And eventually trades in despair for pride, refusing to be a mere female ornament for any man.

Meanwhile, after the US military invades the country, massacring native rebels, Kaiulani assumes a sense of purpose as savior of the persecuted land, and visits then President Cleveland to implore his intervention. And at the same time she discovers within herself as her nation vanishes before her eyes, a political passion to persevere over the course of history, as that rare woman on screen not consigned to living merely through a man.

But the forces of global greed and lust for power prevail, especially with the perception of Hawaii as central to control over the entire Pacific region. And succumbing to pneumonia, but very likely to a broken heart, the princess passes away in 1899 at the age of twenty three. Though still very much alive in the historical memory of her people even today.

Unfolding somewhat like James Cameron’s Avatar relocated back in time to planet earth, the film ironically excavates a very different sort of homeland security in reverse, in resistance to US imperialism. Though the tendency of the story from a decidedly British point of view to single out the United States as sole historical villain and portray Hawaii as a serene mecca before then, is hardly accurate.

Countries like Russia and France provided their own share of meddling and plundering through missionaries and military might. While in 1843, Lord Paulet invaded with the Royal Navy warship HMS Carysfort, forcing then King Kamehameha III to relinquish the islands to the British Crown. And King Kamehameha conceded in protest, and at gunpoint.

Prairie Miller is a New York multimedia journalist online, in print and radio, who reviews movies and conducts in-depth interviews. She can also be heard on WBAI/Pacifica National Radio Network’s Arts Express.