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Putting Eddie’s Life In Context

Eddie Aikau, March 1978. Honolulu Star-Advertiser photo

Documentaries are best when they go beyond linear storytelling and include related events that provide greater context and depth. ESPN’s 30 for 30, a series of sports documentaries celebrating the company’s 30th anniversary, has mostly gotten it right. Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?, Pony Express and The U were entertaining, but basic timeline storytelling. Straight Outta L.A. and The Two Escobars achieved a higher status, successfully merging athletic story lines with relevant cultural information to produce something truly special.

Hawaiian: The Legend of Eddie Aikau is among the latter. The impressive film combines the biography of a talented surfer with the burgeoning Hawaiian renaissance that spurred him on and who, in return, became emblematic of the movement.

Those old enough to remember Eddie Aikau as a talented surfer, lifeguard and spokesman for his sport and his people will look at the film with pride, nostalgia and, no doubt, pain. One just cannot watch it without being impacted. For those too young to know “Eddie” as anything more than a catch phrase, the film is a wonderful teaching tool that not only examines history, but helps provide context for the current state of Native Hawaiians.

Director Sam George called Aikau’s story a uniquely American story. He’s right. The 90-minute program explains America – imperialism, cultural destruction, hidden damages of war, prideful reclamation of culture and selfless heroism that identifies true greatness.

The film mentions a perfect 500-0 record in safe water rescues for Aikau, but the numbers are likely higher. Aikau was pulling people from the water before he was hired as the first lifeguard at Waimea Bay, and a natural aversion to paperwork meant that many of his rescues went unrecorded.

What makes this documentary especially appealing are those chosen to take part. These are not disconnected historians but cultural experts, as well as the friends and family of Eddie Aikau. Their emotional testimony makes it one of the most heartaching films in the series.

It’s unsettling to hear Jonathan Osorio, professor for Kamakakuokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies at University of Hawaii, speak of the marginalization of Native Hawaiians. Or Eddie’s brother Clyde Aikau, with a voice choked by tears, saying that as children they were unwanted on Waikiki property. As a people unwelcomed in their own land and with nearly every trace of their culture wiped out, explained Isaiah Walker, a professor at BYU-Hawaii, they turned toward the ocean as the one place where their critical place in society was still recognized.

The star of the show is Polynesian Voyaging Society executive director Nainoa Thompson.

Never comfortable talking about himself or in front of a camera, Thompson’s natural tendency to speak carefully and with pause added several dramatic moments to the film. This was especially true while recalling the night Hokule’a capsized and Aikau selflessly decided to seek help.

Seeming as if the weight of the topic was literally pushing upon his shoulders, Thompson spoke slowly of his last conversation with Aikau and whether his paddling out for help was a good idea.

“He was not listening to me because it wasn’t a relevant question. He was as focused as a human being can become. He seemed more powerful than ever. He just looked out to sea; he pulled his arm away,” Thompson pauses, his emotions getting the better of him. “He didn’t say goodbye. And he left.”

Pain, pride and optimism is found throughout the film. The recording and warning by Aikau over what he saw was the inevitable violence to come between Hawaiians and Western surfers was both angry and fearful. Countering this sense of foreboding was his beautifully written ode to the Hokule’a, a song that could that also spoke of Hawaiians themselves.

“What is pride, she’s sails with the wind

And proud we are to see her sail free

Feelings so deep and so strong

For Hoku, Hokule’a.”

It’s likely Hawaiian: The Legend of Eddie Aikau will fail to make it into heavy rotation on ESPN. The film is marvelous but centered around a fringe sport and involving a racial minority that is still largely identified, as Osorio points out, in roles they had not chosen for themselves. But for any TV viewer interested in the story of a humble man turned hero and how the abuse of power can marginalize a nation, it’s well worth the time.