Television

Television
Pleased to meet you, too, Lili’uokalani.

Sovereignty Moment

A new PBS mini-series collides with Hawai‘i’s sovereignty movement.

Television / Perhaps it truly was an accident. But something real intruded on the third season premiere of the PBS hit mini-series Downton Abbey two weeks ago. Hours before the screening at ‘Iolani Palace, to which a select guest list had been summoned by faux formal invitation, the event moved to the PBS Hawaii offices. Some didn’t get the word in time, and had to be re-routed from the Palace, but not before seeing the reason why: a solid line of protestors, said to be from Kauai, chanting and holding signs in support of Hawaiian sovereignty. And, it must be said, pakalolo.

It was explained before the screening that the protestors were actually scheduled (that’s our Hawaii!) for that night. But something about the mood of this group–“the same monarchists who blocked the Superferry,” one PBS official said–led the station to hastily reconvene.

Although we do love our royals (Lady Di, Kate and William, Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier), America, in its provenance and rhetoric, is an anti-aristocratic country. Especially in Hawaii, the one state with a monarchist movement and several contenders for a royal throne and court (some of whom have actually occupied said throne, if only for a stolen moment or two). These royals we fear. We reschedule royal palace screenings to avoid them.

So inconveniently inconsistent, humanity.

If you haven’t seen it, Downton Abbey is heir to Masterpiece Theatre’s crown jewel, Upstairs Downstairs. Both shows portray the masters and the servants of a grand house during 30 years of war, class war, suffrage, stock market crashes and social change. The show’s allure comes from watching characters grow from callow to sophisticated (or crushed) in an arena of sniping, snobbery and entitlement–a great manor house as high school. We love these stories. My grandmother wept over Scarlett O’Hara and Tara, her antebellum mansion, in Gone With the Wind. (So did Chinese audiences in Shanghai, where the movie ran for an entire year in 1947 as the Communist 8th Army closed in.)

When we enjoy these shows, we don’t think about the labor that supported the aristocratic system: the Caribbean slave plantations behind the fortunes Jane Austen wrote about, the factory labor and colonial conquests that propped up Great Britain. Here, a Victorian-American-Hawaiian aristocracy ran up huge deficits, which necessitated an economic transfusion from contract labor for plantations, i.e., human beings sequestered in barracks by race and ruled by whip-wielding lunas.

Which brings us back to the protest at the Palace. Were they there to decry the well-dressed (some in vaguely Edwardian style) guests occupying the symbol of the stolen Kingdom of Hawaii? But since the alii and royals of Hawaii patterned their government, clothes and diction after the British model and not the American, shouldn’t the protestors have been happy to see a finely drawn portrait defending (so it is said by critics) a class-and-birth stratified way of life?

Perhaps it was all a misunderstanding.

Or, perhaps they were, consciously or not, asking for a Downton Abbey of their own, created in the crises and contradictions swirling around ‘Iolani Palace, telling their story in such a way as to gain the sympathy and admiration of the world.

So admirably inconsistent, humanity.