ESPN 30 for 30: Hawaiian: The Legend of Eddie Aikau (2013)

Directed by Sam George

As Americans, we often have a unique sense of cultural identity. Heralded often as the melting pot, or the salad bowl in some cases, America is famous for welcoming its many world cultures and celebrating them. That’s not to say there hasn’t also been some discrimination of culture in our nation’s history, there certainly has. Hawaii, the 50th state of the union is one such instance. When Hawaii was added as an American territory, it took a coup to overthrow the leadership of the small Pacific island chain to bring it into the fold. It was not a willing annexation. And when the islands became a part of the States, the native peoples were delegated to tourist entertainers. But Hawaiians have a proud history, and a proud culture. One that is celebrated, and seen in the legend of Eddie Aikau.

Eddie Aikau was one of several children in a poor Hawaiian family on Maui. In a perfect example of the type of discrimination of Hawaiian’s, it was a Chinese family that gave the Aikau’s their home on the site of a Chinese cemetery, so long as they maintained the grounds. While Eddie was a boy, he decided to drop out of school, and started working the night shift at the Dole cannery, spending the daylight hours on the surf, being one with the ocean and honing his craft. He soon became a legend on the big waves, but as a Hawaiian, was less heralded than the Californians who came in to compete in the world famous surfing competitions. It was his talent that made him famous. But it was his passion and his sense of being a true Hawaiian, his ambition that made him a legend.

What allows this film to exceed as much as it does is the authenticity of Aikau’s being. Director Sam George, a surf filmographer, certainly composes it as the ballad of Eddie Aikau, presenting testimonies from Eddie’s closest friends, his family, those who gush over his character and what he meant to them. It is nearly devoid of anything negative to say about the man that it may seem too good to be true. But while George never directly addresses Eddie’s imperfections, he hints at them, which is enough in my eyes to play it fair and balanced while at the same time allowing himself to present to the viewer the brighter side of things, the spark and light of Eddie Aikau’s spirit for sport and for humanity.

The title proclaims Aikau as a legend, so let’s run down his list of accolades. Perhaps the most impressive in my mind was his time as lifeguard of Waimea Bay, perhaps the most dangerous surf on the planet. With waves that reach upwards of 40ft on Oahu’s north shore, Aikau manned his position and made hundreds of rescues, without ever losing a single person. His dedication to the position, to his Bay, his part of Hawaii is both admirable and an incredible feat of courage and strength. But what ultimately led to his untimely death was his daring efforts to save the voyage of the Hokule’a, a canoe that set sail from Hawaii in hopes of reaching the Polynesian islands as Aikau’s ancestors had done many years before.

It was his selflessness and his dedication to a culture that made him so beloved. He had a failed marriage, a brother who died much too young, but he never lost sight of what it meant to be a Hawaiian. Sam George does a wonderful job of capturing not just the spirit of the Hawaiian culture, but how Eddie Aikau perfectly embodied it. I have had the wonderful opportunity of visiting Hawaii. I very much wish I had seen this film before I had that opportunity, for it would have given me a completely different perspective on that paradise, those islands in the sea that sprung up from the fire of volcanoes to bring about a unique culture of people who are not fearful of the power of the sea, but who are one with it. George does Aikau a service by dedicating this film to Eddie, and by making the experience a spiritual journey.

***1/2 – Great


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