THE BLOG
11/25/2013 09:59 am ET | Updated Jan 25, 2014

Eddie Would Know? ESPN Documentary Whitewashes Racial and Economic Issues In Hawaii

In some respects, ESPN's documentary, Hawaiian: The Legend of Eddie Aikau, seems like a thoughtful account of Aikau's tragic story. But, upon closer examination, it is a lot less than meets the eye.

The film does have some strengths. Most importantly, it brings Eddie's story to a wider audience, and this tale of heroism and sacrifice is worth spreading. The film also draws from critical, informed sources such as Professors John Osorio and Isaiah Walker. Additionally, Eddie's siblings provide emotionally compelling and articulate perspectives throughout the documentary. Ultimately though, this film exemplifies how the mainstream media conceal and perpetuate racism and capitalist exploitation in Hawaii and the United States.

The biggest problem with the film is its treatment of racism in Hawaii. Though it clearly acknowledges colonial oppression, the film places oppression of Hawaiians firmly in the past. For example, early in the film, Eddie's brother, Clyde Aikau states that Hawaiians were pushed off their land for the development of Waikiki. But, at no point does the film mention the fact that today too, Native Hawaiians are not only pushed off their land, but also pushed out of their homes, sometimes into prisons. It is no coincidence that Waianae has high concentrations of Native Hawaiians and homeless. Nor is it due to genetic criminality that Native Hawaiians are greatly over-represented in Hawaii's jails and prisons.

In this film, even accounts of Hawaiian achievement serve to support the idea that racism in Hawaii is mere history. The account of Eddie winning the Duke Kahanamoku Invitational Surf Championship leaves one with the impression that this erased Eddie's angst over being excluded from previous contests. Moreover, ESPN's discussion of the Hokulea (the Polynesian Voyaging Society's traditional Hawaiian canoe which sailed from Hawaii to Tahiti) excludes its first voyage, which was plagued by racial tension, including Native Hawaiian resentment over whites' control of the project. Racism is an ongoing issue, but many viewers of this film will conclude that racism in Hawaii is either a thing of the past or, worse yet, that it persists only in the form of local resentment of whites.

This documentary is also full of insensitively racist comments by featured sources. For example, Matt Warshaw, surf historian and former editor of Surfer Magazine, states that white surfers 'pioneered' the North Shore in the 50s and 60s even though Native Hawaiians were surfing there before whites arrived. Similarly, former big wave surfer Greg Noll suggests that Hawaiians are 'genetically programmed' for the water. Though intended as a compliment, this assertion perpetuates the false and pernicious notion that certain races have genetic affinities for certain activities.

This film's cavalier treatment of racial issues is linked to its celebration of the capitalist exploitation of Hawaii by the corporate surf industry. Eddie symbolizes Hawaii and its people, and his relation to the surf industry represents Hawaii's relationship with it. The film discusses Eddie's initial exclusion from professional contests on the North Shore, but it implies that tensions between the surf industry establishment and Native Hawaiians have been resolved through the inclusion of Hawaiians in the industry. The film's accounts of Eddie winning the Duke contest and the establishment of the Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau big-wave competition at Waimea Bay evidence this. Viewers are lead to believe that Hawaii and the surf industry are in harmony today. The surf industry does honor Hawaiian heroes like Eddie, and many locals earn a living through the industry. However, at the same time, the surf industry is a part of a larger economic system that is developing Hawaii in environmentally reckless ways and ensuring the islands' dependence on tourism. Though they may be smaller in scale, surf companies such as Surfer Magazine and Vans are part of large corporate conglomerates. They share macroeconomic interests with mega-corporations, such as Monsanto, which many locals harshly criticize. All forms of corporate capitalism in Hawaii further marginalize local people, especially Hawaiians, by continuously raising the cost of living and subverting state democracy through the lobbying of corporate and mainland interests.

The surf industry sells Hawaii and the islands may well be its most lucrative marketing device. For example, the Triple Crown of Surfing draws thousands of tourists and traveling surfers to Oahu and millions of viewers to their webcasts. The company heading the Triple Crown, Vans, reported that the Triple Crown brought $21 million in revenue to Oahu in 2010. This is a large sum to most, and many local businesses depend on this revenue. However, considering that Vans is only one of several multi-billion dollar corporations sponsoring the Triple Crown, it seems unlikely that the Triple Crown and other industry ventures generate as much value for Hawaii as they extract.

As well as economically exploiting Hawaii, the surf industry perpetuates racial stereotypes of locals. One of Eddie's most heroic acts detailed in the film was interceding on behalf of boastful Australian professional surfers who had offended locals by disrespecting Hawaiians in the water and surf magazines. When some locals were prepared to kill the Australians, Eddie played peacemaker. But, this part of the film also serves surf industry interests. The story's juxtaposition of thuggish locals with reasonable, albeit ignorant, representatives of the surfing establishment ignores surf companies' complicity in surf violence. Surf companies often market the tough reputations of local surfers, reinforcing violent stereotypes about Hawaiian surfers. Though violence is present on the North Shore, the surf industry only condemns it when that violence obstructs their profiteering.

The surf industry's exploitation of Hawaii leaves aspiring local surfers to face a dilemma that Eddie may have contemplated himself. Through surfing they may gain prestige, affirm their culture and receive economic rewards. Yet to do so, they must be complicit with an industry that exploits Hawaii and further marginalizes its people. A thoughtful account of Eddie's life might have commented on this, but ESPN was satisfied to celebrate Hawaii's integration into surf marketing.

As a white academic and surfer, I am not trying to speak for Native Hawaiians or the Aikau family. Rather, I am trying to stimulate a much-needed conversation about a film that provides only the illusion of democratic discourse, manufacturing consent before dissent can even be considered. We might expect such superficial material from corporate media today. However, that does not mean we should not demand something better.