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A Longtime Hawaiian Activist Defends "Aloha" Amid Race-Based Backlash

The film's director, Cameron Crowe, recently apologized for casting Emma Stone as a mixed-race Chinese-Hawaiian pilot, but a Hawaiian activist told BuzzFeed News the film is a boost to a decades-long cause for sovereignty.

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HONOLULU — Panned internally long before it even saw the light of day, Cameron Crowe's latest movie Aloha — a film set in Hawaii that cast a white actress to play a Chinese-Hawaiian pilot — ignited a fresh round of negative reaction after it debuted over the weekend.

Accusations of white-washing got so loud that Crowe on Tuesday issued what he called a “heart-felt apology,” but for the local Hawaiian activist and community leader who actually took part in the film, none was needed.

Wearing rubber slippers, a Quicksilver T-shirt, and a black fanny pack, Dennis "Bumpy" Kanahele looked out over the 45-acre sanctuary that was used as a location in the film as he recalled his community’s years-long struggle to reclaim their sovereignty.

All the criticism over the movie, he said, was frustrating, given the megaphone platform Crowe had afforded the Hawaiian rights movement — an inclusion that came with the director allowing the 60-year-old to appear in the film as himself.

“This big screen thing is really going to be helpful for us," Kanahele told BuzzFeed News, noting that Crowe’s history with the Village goes back 10 years. “That’s why I couldn’t understand why everyone is so upset, he has a relationship with us.”

Aloha follows military contractor Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper), who returns to the Hawaiian islands to fulfill a deal for his evil billionaire boss (Bill Murrary), and finds himself in a love triangle with his ex (Rachel McAdams) and the mixed-race fighter pilot Allison Ng, who was — controversially — played by Emma Stone.

But for Kanahele, that criticism overshadows a more important message in the film. He recalled introducing Crowe to Pu'uhonua O Waimānalo also called the Kingdom, but most often referred to simply as the Village — back in 2005.

“My family, we had a gathering, and they were playing music and having food, and I invited him to stay," Kanahele said of Crowe’s initial visit.

In an email to BuzzFeed News, Crowe said that, “not unlike the movie,” there was a band playing at the Village, and described it as “a magical night."

The film crew spent three weeks at the Village, where about 20 small homes have upside-down state flags hanging in their windows, just like in Aloha. The first week was dedicated to building the pavilion where the luau scene is set. The structure was left behind and now sits at the top of the Village.

Kanahele has a cameo in Aloha but he is not really acting he talks in Pidgin in real-life and said he was genuinely pissed off in the scene where he’s negotiating with Gilcrest. He wasn't initially set to play the role Crowe had written based on his experiences in the Village, but the director told BuzzFeed News that Stone and Cooper "fell in love with Bumpy" and so he decided to include him in the film.

Crowe gave Kanahele room within the script to mention the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893.

"My time with Bumpy made me want to reference his struggle," Crowe said in his email.

In Aloha, Kanahele wears his own shirt, which reads “Hawaiian by birth” on the front, and “American by force” on the back.

For Kanahele, the shirt means that to avoid violence, Hawaiians have to accept — to an extent — the past: “We are forced to do the things we don’t want to do for the sake of peace."

That said, he's proud of Aloha, "because we can say we are under military occupation — and that’s the truth.”

Kanahele's history in the Hawaiian rights movement goes back to the late 1980s, when he started occupying on Oahu and trying to help the homeless find places to live.

In 1993, on the 100-year anniversary of the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii, Kanahele returned to occupy Makapu'u, but this time, with 300 people who stayed for 15 months.

They built a tent city and used the same gate that now fronts the Village to claim the area. Kanahele was armed with the 1993 “Apology Resolution,” the first time the U.S. government acknowledged the illegal overthrow.

The protests in Makapu'u were part of a Hawaiian rights movement that had started in the 1970s. The first big milestone was the occupation of Kaho'olawe, which the military had used as a testing ground for bombs since the 1940s. The island was eventually transferred to the State of Hawaii in 1994, and is held in trust for a future Hawaiian sovereign entity.

The story of Kaho'olawe inspired many Hawaiians, and sovereignty movements, including the Nation of Hawaii and the Hawaiian Kingdom.

In 1994, John Waihe'e, the first governor in the state with Hawaiian ancestry, finally intervened in Makapu'u and asked the protesters to vacate in exchange for the 45-acre parcel in Waimānalo for what would eventually be known as the Village.

Kanahele's group signed a lease at a cost of $3,000 a year. Under the terms of the deal, the land would be transferable to a future sovereign Hawaiian nation, if and when it is established.

When the activists first arrived at the Nation of Hawaii, it was overgrown with invasive eucalyptus and albizia trees. They have since reworked the land and grow traditional Hawaiian crops, such as dry and wetland kalo, or taro, and have lined their terraces with ti leaves. They are also experimenting with aquaponics for cultivation that use tilapia and non-native plants, such as cacao.

The community, Kanahele said, has yet to reach its goal of becoming self-sufficient.

Still, the land is an important resource for helping Hawaiians connect with their history, supporters say.

Brandon Makaawaawa, a relative of Kanahele who also appears as an extra in Aloha, said the Nation of Hawaii has helped him and others learn about traditional practices.

“In Hawaii, we grow up in the Homestead," said Makaawaawa, who grew up in Waimānalo. “We’re not used to growing up in the mountains, and surviving like Hawaiians used to, so this is all new to us too. We’re learning how to plant, how to fish, how to hunt.”

Makaawaawa works regularly in the Village, and his cousins have been teaching him to hunt. He recently trapped and killed a wild boar.

“It was the first time I caught it," he said.

Rolf Nordahl, the press secretary for the Nation of Hawaii, said he hoped the Village would be used as a blueprint for other sovereignty movements around the world.

The group still has big plans for the Village, which hopes to build a second commercial kitchen to process the agriculture plants that are being grown.

Kanahele, meanwhile, said he has a reality show in the works that is being pitched to multiple networks. He’s excited about the prospect because he said he would mostly get to talk about sovereignty, and get paid to do it.

The 'aina — or land — the community lives on represents the injustices that have happened to the Hawaiian people, Kanahele said, which is why it’s so important for the community to protect it.

“We’re not just protecting this village,” he added. “We stand and protect all national sovereignty.”

Michelle Broder Van Dyke is a reporter and night editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in Hawaii.

Contact Michelle Broder Van Dyke at michelle@buzzfeed.com.

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