Tonight at the Hawaii Theater was the world premiere of the Barbarian Princess (recently changed to a more prudent Princess Kaiulani, perhaps because of the controversy surrounding the previous title which many have criticized since it’s theatrical release). I went expecting to be disappointed, but I often forget that I like most films, and hence, have no filter for quality since I weep at everything from Dirty Harry to Finding Nemo. There is however, a genre that I haven’t particularly liked since Room with a View, and those are those Merchant/Ivory period pieces– which typically is where British writer/director/producer Marc Forby seems to drive the Barbarian Princess.
The fact that Marc Forby is British is not lost on me, as this film, which he defended at the Q & A as an “art piece”when an audience member challenged his malaligned adherence for maintaining the controversial title. His defense of the title, as well as his vision, caricatured the 19th century British anthropologists who viewed their work as helping to make the unknown world knowable and safe for colonization.
In cultural terms Forby defends his use of “Barbarian” in the title because it is, in his words, used “ironically.” That the civilized world might look at Princess Kaiulani as a princess of some barbaric place and that he should reveal her as someone with virtue and grace is just not enough to justify this title. As was defended by one of the actors in the discussion after the film, the title is suggested to be used the same way as “The Ugly Duckling” is used to describe the beautiful swan.
However, this is not an ugly duckling story. Marc Forby wrote a story about barbarians who had their lands stolen, and used eloquence and beauty (with the help of a revised Sanford Dole, inaccurately portrayed as the guilt-ridden annexationist) to attain suffrage for all men who could read which, as Lorrin Thurston opposed, would invariably allow the largely literate and overwhelming majority of male Kanakas to vote. The obvious omissions of history is that you get little sense of what the Hawaiian Kingdom was like before the overthrow, and this film perpetuates a myth that the overthrow was nothing but the unfortunate stepping stone towards American democracy.
It would have been more historically accurate and dramatically engaging to tell the truth– that the overthrow and the results of occupation crippled a government and its people who had a constitution and a bill of rights that was arguably one of the most socially progressive in the world at that time. Just as the film referenced that ‘Iolani Palace had electricity before the White House, Forby could have just as easily referred to many examples, like the constitutional protections for immigrants, or policies outlawing slavery years before the Emancipation Proclamation, among others.
The problem with framing this story within a historical context is that what it omits and what it includes does not tell a story that reveals the brilliance of the kingdom. Unfortunately, this film is just another missed opportunity in that it perpetuates the myth of the civilized barbarian.
Critically, for example, John Davis, an Oxford affiliated anthropologist writes that systems of market exchange– hence, currency–is “dominated by rationality. And as a calculus of utility, anthropologists assert that economic activity is part of culture and a product of social organization. The consequences are far reaching, both in the developed world and particularly in countries where the market is a less important element among all forms of exchange.”
The historical villain of the film, Lorrin Thurston, describes Kalakaua as “bankrupting our economy.” Not only is Kalakaua seen as perpetuating the myth that he squandered the money of his people on building ‘Iolani Palace, but Princess Kaiulani, too, typical of tropes in classical anthropology, is seen as an innocent and native girl trading and collecting shells in a purse as if it were money.
The development of Princess Kaiulani’s character can be read as a vehicle for perpetuating models of a barbaric economy. We are introduced to her as a young girl on the beach collecting shells and trading them with her friend. The next scene is of her exchanging a trope-loaded whale-bone crucifix by one of the twin servant boys as a symbol for friendship or love. The following scene is of her giving the same boy a coin-like medallion for him to wear, so she can tell him apart from his brother, furthering the exchange as recognition of ownership.
As the story progresses, the shells the princess collects are cherished momentos and are often treated as currency, tokens for the recognition of duty and friendship, imbued with all the economic weight of exchange within the framework of the film. Throughout the film there is a constant giving and taking, a proverbial variable exchange rate that determines the relative cost of her conflict, whereby the normal dramatic structures of conflict and resolve are predictable and lack any real currency.
Even the exchange of a kiss exaggerates this commodity market reading of the story. The man she falls in love with when she is in Scotland inherits business holdings in Hawaii from his father, and when he arrives to tend this business after Hawaii’s annexation to the U.S., he reminds her that her worth as a Princess is no more. Since her title as Princess holds no currency and she is portrayed as bankrupt, he invites her to follow him back to Scotland where his business interests thrive and they can marry and live happily ever after. Instead she dies of a broken heart a year later– or so says the narrator at the end of the movie.
The truth of the matter is, Marc Forby is correct in his defense of the title, however it should not have been called the Barbarian Princess, rather the Barbarian Economy.
Hawaii was well on its way to developing a thriving economy when it was stunted by the annexationists who saw an opportunity to create an oligarchy around sugar. As Sidney Mintz writes in “Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History,” sugar was a precursor to oil. The sugar industry, in its role of production and consumption, helped to establish a form of capitalism that has influenced the way that the oil industry performs in today’s market. If you wanted to draw some loose contemporary parallels and apply the lessons of history to today, the overthrow and occupation of Hawaii by the Republic, is not too different from the occupation of Iraq. Sugar then was oil now.
The overthrow stunted Hawaii’s economic development. The Kingdom of Hawaii had its own currency with its own reserve and exchanged with both the dollar and the pound. It was a currency like every other sovereign nation, protected by its own resources and its own equity reserve (which was not shell based), strengthened or weakened by its demand in an international market. As the Kingdom’s currency was fluctuating, as was nearly all the other currencies in the world at that time, the annexationists and the chroniclers of Hawaii’s fin de siecle have consistently maintained that the monarchy was bankrupting the islands and that annexation would pave the way for Hawaii’s economic growth.
Queen Lili’uokalani in restoring her Constitution, saw other opportunities of trade that were not so heavily based on the American led sugar market, which included direct trade with Europe, China, Canada and Japan. Consistent with the history of the Hawaiian Kingdom, I believe if it had not been for occupation, Hawaii would have continued to evolve and further develop alongside the rest of the world, rather than being simply relegated as an outpost for the U.S.’s insatiable demand for sugar consumption.
Today as we look at what our options are for balancing economic sustainability with technology and U.S. legislation, opportunities for economic development remain stunted. Hawaii is still an economic barbarian– held in perpetuity with an imperialist economic policy that today, particularly in our current international economic crisis, is seen as dictatorial, unjust and outmoded.
If there was a moment in Hawaii’s history where we could have fulfilled our economic potential, it was plucked like a plum with occupation and if the Barbarian Princess has contributed anything to our understanding of our history, it is simply to remind us that we continue to remain economic barbarians.