The state of Hawaii is a diverse place. In the 300+ miles that stretch between Kauai and the Big Island, you’ll find a rich mix of ethnicities—and cultural experiences. In fact, Wallet Hub ranked the state first in ethnic diversity,i and Hawaii is also home to the country’s largest share of multiracial Americans.ii
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the breadth of films that have been shot in, around and about Hawaii. In this article, we’ll give you a tour of twelve of our favorites, each of which offers a different lens with which to view the experiences of the people who call Hawaii their home.
#1: The Descendants (2011)
One of the more well-known movies about Hawaii made in the last 10 years, The Descendants is based on the 2007 novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, an American writer born in Hawaii. Set on Kauai, the movie follows attorney Matt King as he wrestles with the future of his family’s 25,000 acres on Kauai, which his relatives want to sell to developers for hundreds of millions of dollars. The movie was nominated for 5 Academy Awards, winning the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Interestingly enough, the descendants of George Galbraith, an Irish immigrant, faced a similar debate around a parcel of 2,100 acres in central Oahu that he passed down to his 48 descendants. The land was purchased by the Trust for Public Land in 2012 for $25 million.iii
#2: Kuleana (2017)
Often translated as “responsibility,” kuleana is a uniquely Hawaiian concept. The nuanced, layered meaning of kuleana goes much deeper than a simple translation. This film that bears its name explores this concept, as well as others surrounding family, allegiance and what it means to be Hawaiian. Kuleana follows the story of Vietnam veteran Nohea Kanekoa as he returns home from the war and comes to terms with his family legacy and the secrets surrounding it.
Kuleana, directed by Maui’s Brian Kohne, was shot entirely on the island, starring a Hawaiian cast. The movie and represents the director’s vision of “working in a genre that doesn’t exist yet, which is Hawaiian, and making a movie about a people for whom there are few.”iv Legendary Maui musician Willie K composed and performed the movie’s original score. Kuleana won Best Feature at the Guam International Film Festival. (Note: If you’re looking to rent the film, it was renamed “Maui” for its mainland release, so you may also find it under that name.)
#3: Jurassic Park (1993) & Jurassic World (2015)
Although the Jurassic Park films may not tell you much about the experience of living in Hawaii, they will give you some tantalizing glimpses of its landscape. In fact, one waterfall in Kauai—Manawaiopuna Falls—now bears the nickname “Jurassic Park Falls” after being prominently featured in the first movie.
Many of the movies’ scenes were filmed in Hawaii, several on Oahu’s Kualoa Ranch, also known as “Hawaii’s backlot.” In addition to Jurassic Park, Hawaii Five-0, LOST, Kong: Skull Island and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle have all been filmed on the property. If you’d like to get a photo of yourself at some of these iconic filming spots, hop on Kulaloa Ranch’s Hollywood Movie Sites Tour. In addition to spotting some familiar sights, you’ll also enjoy the natural beauty of this 4000-acre private nature reserve and working cattle ranch.
#4: Moananuiakea (2018)
The ancient Polynesian art of wayfinding—long-distance navigation using celestial bodies, ocean swells and other signs from nature, such as bird observation—is often credited for bringing the first humans to the Hawaiian islands. Native Hawaiian Navigator Nainoa Thompson, President of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, has been a vocal leader in reviving the tradition and teaching it to the next generation of navigators.
As part of that mission, the Hokulea, a double-hulled voyaging canoe, and its crew made an extraordinary six-year voyage that circumnavigated the globe, visiting more than 150 ports. This film tells the story of the Malama Honua Worldwide Voyage and sheds an important spotlight on the cultural leaders who are committed to bringing these ancient traditions into modern practice.
#5: North Shore (1987)
File this movie under the “so bad, it’s good” category. North Shore, which has become a cult classic amongst its devotees, follows the story of 18-year old Rick Kane, who comes to the north shore of Oahu from Arizona to try his luck on its iconic and unforgiving waves.
Part of the fun of this movie comes from glimpsing its real-life surf stars, like Gerry Lopez, Mark Occhilupo, Laird Hamilton, Mark Foo, Derek Ho and many more. Hamilton, who plays the vicious and unscrupulous Lance Burkhart, reports that he was approached by North Shore fans for years after the film’s release. Far from wanting an autograph, these fans usually wanted to berate him for portraying such a jerk. If anything, it’s probably a sign of how much North Shore can get under your skin.
#6: Lilo & Stitch (2002)
Sleepy Hanapepe on Kauai’s southwest coast was the inspiration for Lilo’s hometown in Disney’s Lilo & Stitch, a story about an outlaw alien who crash lands on Kauai and is accidentally adopted out as a puppy. Although the filmmakers moved Hanapepe to Kauai’s north shore, the town has claimed its rightful place in the movie with a mural on its movie theater. In addition to its charming plot, Lilo & Stitch is also notable for its use of Hawaiian-born and Hawaiian-raised voice actors, including Tia Carrere and Jason Scott Lee.
#7: Blue Hawaii (1961)
Between 1960 and 1970, tourism absolutely boomed in Hawaii, with arrivals rocketing from 296,000 per year to 1.7 million.v Elvis’s obsession with Hawaii—and the three films he made there, of which Blue Hawaii was the first—likely fueled American interest in Hawaii, and, perhaps more specifically, the exotic locale they imagined Hawaii to be. Hawaii Five-0 premiered in 1968, further fueling American interest in the state.
While the Hawaii that these movies and television shows portrayed wasn’t the authentic one its residents knew and loved, they do represent a snapshot in time. As a harbinger of the American obsession with all things Hawaiiana—and for those who can’t get enough Elvis—we have Blue Hawaii.
#8: Out of State (2017)
Out of State won the Best Made in Hawaii Feature award, as well as the Audience Choice Feature at the 2017 Hawaii International Film Festival. This documentary, directed by Native Hawaiian filmmaker Ciara Lacy, tells the story of two Native Hawaiians who find solace and hope in traditional Hawaiian cultural practices while they’re incarcerated in an Arizona prison. Their discovery of these traditions comes from an unexpected source—a fellow inmate.
The film follows its protagonists, David and Hale, as they connect with the culture of their homeland, serve their sentences and return to Hawaii. In doing so, Out of State offers an unflinching look at what it means to discover your own culture behind bars, as well as the challenges these men face in returning “home” once released.
#9, 10 and 11: Surfing Movies That Rise Above the Genre
Even their most ardent devotees will tell you that the quality of surf movies run the gamut. Many that are chock-full of high-quality, throat-catching shots of surfers getting barreled and wrecked by some of the most amazing waves in the world can run awfully short on great storytelling.
That being said, there are a number of surf movies that accomplish both outcomes: celebrate the athleticism and achievement of the sport, while wrapping it in a story that keeps you glued to the screen. Here are three of our favorite Hawaii-centric favorites:
Momentum Generation (2018) – This HBO documentary tells the story of a group of friends who cut their teeth on the North Shore’s waves and moved surfing to the top of the American consciousness. Surf enthusiasts will love the raw and unsparing interviews from its stars, including Kelly Slater, Rob Machado and Taylor Knox, while those who haven’t paddled a day in their lives will enjoy the deft way the story of this group of friends unfolds.
Nervous Laughter (2017) – The 2015-16 El Niño season produced an absolutely epic big wave season, notably at Maui’s famous big wave, Jaws, also known as Peahi. A good wave at Jaws can put a surfer on the map, and Nervous Laughter follows a group of hopefuls as they chase their one big wave, amidst injury, jealousy, friendship and ambition.
Andy Irons: Kissed by God (2018) – If there were ever a surfer who gave 11-time World Surf League Champion Kelly Slater a run for his money, it was Andy Irons. The Kauai native won three world titles of his own, while secretly struggling with bipolar disorder and, eventually, an opioid addiction. Kissed by God peels back the curtain on the highs and lows of Irons’s life, which tragically ended in 2010, revealing his human side as well as celebrating his superhuman ability in the water.
#12: The Haumana (2013)
When Jonny Kealoha’s master hula teacher passes away, leaving him with the task of training her class for their performance at the Royal Hula Festival, he finds himself at a cultural crossroads. Jonny has to take a hard look at the authentic Hawaiian traditions he left behind in favor of putting on a tiki show that he thinks the tourists of Waikiki will love. Haumana means “student,” and although he’s put in the position of teacher, Jonny discovers as much as his students along his journey to reconnect with his roots. If you’re interested in the cultural practices that underpin the powerful art of hula, The Haumana is a great place to start.
See Hawaii Through a New Lens
Whether you’re traveling to the state through the magic of motion pictures or simply exploring a different viewpoint on the history, culture and people of Hawaii, these 13 movies will offer you a new perspective on this diverse archipelago. They’ll also offer you an interesting look at how Hawaii is perceived by different groups of people, as well as the gaps between those perceptions.
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