#69 Period Film Review Princess Kaʻiulani–Guest Blog by Evangeline Holland

Note: This is cross-posted with permission from Edwardian Promenade.

Princess Kaiulani Movie

Released in 2009 (though with a fair share of controversy over the admittedly tasteless title, “Barbarian Princess”), with limited run last year and a DVD release in September, Princess Kaiulani is a gorgeously-shot tale of an unjustly forgotten figure in American history. Though the writing isn’t as nuanced as it could be, and there are many holes in the tale which require further reading after viewing the tale, for a movie which sheds light on a dark, yet fascinating period not often told outside of Hawaiian history, Princess Kaiulani is an excellent addition to the library of any history buff and period film aficionado. The film follows Princess Victoria Kaʻiulani Kalaninuiahilapalapa Kawekiu i Lunalilo Cleghorn (to give her full name) from shortly before her mother’s death to her own premature death at the age of 23. In between that regrettably short time span, we are shown the tenuous state of Hawaii’s royal family and its inhabitants.

The first documented contact between Hawaiian inhabitants and European explorers was in the late eighteenth century, when an Englishman named James Cook came across the island and named it the “Sandwich Islands” in honor of his patron, the 4th Earl of Sandwich. The first half of the nineteenth century saw an influx of European visitors, whalers, explorers and so on, in particularly the British, but as with European contact with Native Americans, these new people brought diseases which, by the 1850s, decimated 1/5th of the Hawaiian population. By this time as well, the House of Kamehameha reached prominence, but the death of the childless King Kamehameha V in 1872 left the kingdom without an heir, and the subsequent power struggle between Kalākauaand Queen Emma, Kamehameha’s widow, opened the door for British and American intervention. The House of Kalākaua eventually gained preeminence, and it is from this dynasty that Princess Victoria Kaʻiulani descended.

The reign of her uncle, King Kalākaua, and then of her aunt Queen Liliʻuokalani, were tumultuous. Hawaii’s sovereignty was threatened both by the country’s prosperous white minority, but by the growing imperialist desires of America. The concept of “Manifest Destiny” reached its fruition by the 1880s and 1890s, and with European powers dominating Africa and Southwest Asia, the United States could look only West (or, rather East, to Asia) and South for their own “place in the sun.” The first major blow to Hawaii was the Bayonet Constitution of 1887, which stripped King Kalākaua of his personal authority and established a constitutional monarchy patterned after Great Britain. After his death in 1891, fears that Queen Liliʻuokalani planned to overturn the constitution and re-instate the previous absolute rule of her family dynasty prompted the overthrow of the Hawaiian king in 1893. As her aunt’s heir, Princess Kaʻiulani had been sent to be educated in England in 1889, but the events of 1893 prompted the now 18 year old to return to the land of her birth and people to fight for her country’s rights.

Though shy, upon reaching American shores, she made this forceful speech to a waiting public:

“Seventy years ago Christian America sent over Christian men and women to give religion and civilization to Hawaiʻi. Today, three of the sons of those missionaries are at your capitol asking you to undo their father’s work. Who sent them? Who gave them the authority to break the Constitution which they swore they would uphold? Today, I, a poor weak girl with not one of my people with me and all these ‘Hawaiian’ statesmen against me, have strength to stand up for the rights of my people. Even now I can hear their wail in my heart and it gives me strength and courage and I am strong – strong in the faith of God, strong in the knowledge that I am right, strong in the strength of seventy million people who in this free land will hear my cry and will refuse to let their flag cover dishonor to mine!”

Her poise, her modern dress, and her intelligence shocked everyone, for the media had been prepared to greet a “barbarian” and “heathen”, not a woman who could speak four languages and speak well in all of them. However, despite the growing press surrounding her, her meeting with President Cleveland, and attempts to force the government to leave Hawaii be, the Republic of Hawaiʻi was declared in 1894. A counter-revolution was attempted in 1895, but when a cadre of weapons was discovered on palace grounds, Queen Liliʻuokalani was placed under arrest, tried by a military tribunal of the Republic of Hawaiʻi, convicted of misprision of treason and imprisoned in her own home. Princess Kaʻiulani finally returned to Hawaii in 1897, now considered a private citizen of the republic. Her frail health turned for worse in 1898 when caught in a storm, and another illness dealt another blow, until she finally passed away March 6, 1899 from what many say was really of a broken heart.

Q’Orianka Kilcher portrays this forgotten princess with much sensitivity and skill, and though the script plays with historical license (particularly in beefing up a love interest), it stays true to the spirit of Princess Kaʻiulani and her family, and presents a fair view of the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom. Purchase the DVD or streaming at Amazon.

Evangeline Holland is a writer of edgy, innovative historical romance and contemporary romance and blogs at Edwardian Promenade.


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3 responses to “#69 Period Film Review Princess Kaʻiulani–Guest Blog by Evangeline Holland

  1. I actually just watched this movie a few months ago. For me it was a learning lesson because I had never heard of the princess. I knew the fact that it was movie meant that I had to look up real resources to find out the truth of her life. You are right when you say the movie did beef up certain things but I think that it is great because it forces Americans to think about the illegal annexation of Hawaii. This is a bit of history that is not really focused on and it is a lesson that we should not forget.

  2. Lina

    It’s true that Princess Ka’iulani will raise awareness about the overthrow of Hawaii’s government by the United States, but there was also some controversy about the film. Local Hawaiians were upset about the fact that the filmmakers were not locals, that local Hawaiian involvement in the film was pretty minimal, that Iolani Palace was featured in the film despite the fact that its use for such purposes is usually taboo, that the film had many historical inaccuracies, and that the original title for the film was “Barbarian Princess”. (Note: Local Hawaiians, as in Indigenous Hawaiians, generally prefer to be called “locals” or “local Hawaiians”. Don’t call them “native” as that is usually considered offensive.) Thankfully, the title was changed – local Hawaiians did not find it to be “ironic” as the filmmakers said it was. And it’s true that movies often change some historical facts around or push them together for dramatic effect, but that doesn’t change the fact that local Hawaiians weren’t allowed to determine how exactly their own history was going to be told.

    See these links for more:
    1. Movie Inspired By Princess Ka’ilani Sparks Controversy: http://www.khon2.com/mostpopular/story/Movie-Insp
    (see the video to the left side, too)
    2. Princess Kailani: Motion Picture Pretender to the Throne: http://www.laprogressive.com/progressive-culture/
    3. Hawaiian Kingdom Independence Blog – Princess Kailani: Motion Picture Pretender to the Throne: http://www.hawaiiankingdom.info/?p=310
    (This third link notes the second link’s article and shows support for that article by local Hawaiians.)

    Q’Orianka Kilcher, who plays Princess Ka’iulani and is half Quechua (her people are from Peru), is a wonderful activist for Indigenous rights. She’s done a lot to raise awareness of Peru’s corrupt government and its connections to American oil companies, both of which seek to deprive Indigenous Peruvians of their human rights by stripping them of their land and polluting the environment on which Indigenous people are dependent. As you can see in the first link, she never called “Princess Ka’iulani” by its original title of “Barbarian Princess” out of, as she said, “respect for Ka’ilani”, and she hoped that the film would raise awareness about Hawaii’s history and colonization. However, it’s still extremely important to listen first and foremost to the concerns and complaints that local Hawaiians have about the film.

    • I agree that often in media about marginalized peoples and their histories, a lot gets changed to appeal to the dominant culture. Thank you for offering this information about the movie and its reaction from local Hawaiians.