Mālo lava le galue malosi Seiuli Dwayne Johnson: We see you. We see ourselves

We’ve become used to Samoan characters as peripheral bad guys. But from the tatau Sāmoa on his chest to his relationships with his aiga, Hobbs & Shaw showed us someone who is us. And he kicks arse.

When I was growing up, there were hardly any Sāmoan or Polynesian faces on our television or movie screens. The other night I was trying to think of whose face was the first I’d seen and it would probably be Al Harrington who was born Tausau Ta’a. You might not remember him, but in the original Hawaii Five-O he played detective Mamo Kahike. He was originally from Pago Pago, American Sāmoa, where my grandfather lived. As a kid I remember walking right up to the screen and staring at him whenever he came on and being ordered to alu ese! (Get out of the way!) Harrington didn’t have a leading role but whenever he came into view or had a line to say, someone nodded or murmured. We noticed him. Because he was us.

Fast forward more than 40 years and I’m at the movies in Upper Hutt with my aiga watching Hobbs & Shaw. And whenever Seiuli Dwayne Johnson is on screen (which is a lot), I felt like that seven-year-old kid again, staring at a black and white 14-inch television up close.

A Sāmoan actor in a lead role, playing a Sāmoan character, who was not a dummy sidekick or bad guy, but an elite international spy, one of the film’s heroes. From the tatau Sāmoa on his chest, to his fraught relationships with his aiga (of course he’s a real Sāmoan if he has those!), woven throughout the movie were moments of fa’asāmoa where we would murmur, giggle, nudge each other in the dark. We noticed him. Because he was us. And he had taken us into a mainstream Hollywood movie and we looked mighty fine. From his daughter to his mama, all of his aiga in the movie are played by Polynesian actors. Later on I’d seen Seiuli in an interview politely correcting the reporter shrieking about the HARKAR. He explained it was a siva tau and it was from Sāmoa.

So the other night after reading some quite nasty comments from fellow Sāmoans making fun of the movie and in particular Seiuli’s pronunciation (I doubt they’ve heard American Sāmoans or Sāmoan Americans speak before because there’s a twang Antipodeans find hard to get), I tweeted a message of support.

As they say. Nek minnit. A Sāmoan sitting at her desk in London tweeted back a thoughtful thread, a lot more insightful than my shout out.

I was nodding as I ate chocolate in my dressing gown on the couch. And then nearly fell off the couch.

Think about the number of screens our children have vying for their attention – what they see on those screens teaches them how the world works and what their place in that world looks like. If they and their culture is hidden away or presented in a humiliating way, they are dehumanised. Their identity and their reality is a secret only a few know about. They learn they are not valued as much as other children, whose culture and identity is celebrated and presented every day in a range of ways.

You may not like action movies, you may want to critique the anthropological accuracy of the narrative of Hobbs & Shaw. Regardless. Here is a story where Sāmoans are complex characters, with interesting back stories. They are funny, serious, emotional, angry, proud, intelligent, unsuccessful and successful. Their male characters hug and cry. Their mum is the anchor of the aiga. They are presented with mana. Notice them. Because they are us.

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