restricted access Where Was He Born? Speak! Tell me!: Julie Taymor’s Tempest, Hawaiian Slavery, and the Birther Controversy
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Where Was He Born? Speak! Tell me!:
Julie Taymor’s Tempest, Hawaiian Slavery, and the Birther Controversy
Abstract

In The Tempest (2010), Julie Taymor evokes a Pacific, rather than an Atlantic, framework for the play's events by shooting all exteriors for the film in Hawaii. She also casts African actor Djimon Hounsou as the enslaved Caliban despite the fact that African slaves were never actually kept on the Hawaiian islands. By transplanting the story of African slavery on the American mainland to a Hawaiian setting, Taymor occludes a full history of slavery in Hawaii that could have served as the basis for the portrayal of Caliban's experience of servitude on Shakespeare' island. Another by-product of Taymor's decision to portray Caliban as an African slave born in Hawaii who ultimately achieves dominion over his homeland is that her film resonates in unexpected ways with events transpiring in the United States during and after the 2008 presidential campaign. At that time, Barack Obama's eligibility to serve in that office came into question as a result of suspicions about his status as a natural-born American citizen. Taymor's Tempest parallels this "birther controversy" through its portrayal of Caliban as a dark-skinned man with one African parent, who, like Obama, unexpectedly rises to political power even though the legitimacy of his Hawaiian birth has come into question. By raising the issue of Hawaii's status as a state in the union, Taymor's film provokes us to consider whether the history of slavery in Hawaii constitutes an authentic part of the history of slavery in America.

Keywords

Taymor, Tempest, Caliban, Hawaii, Pacific, Slavery, Birther, Hounsou, Shakespeare

In a special feature entitled “Raising the Tempest” included on the DVD release of her film The Tempest (2010), director Julie Taymor expresses a view of the play that aligns with the postcolonial perspective that has dominated scholarly treatments of the text since the mid-1980s: “Shakespeare is writing about the New World. And he is writing about colonialization.”1 Like many modern theatrical performances that have portrayed Caliban as an African slave exploited by a colonialist Prospero, Taymor’s film (based on her 1986 stage production at New York’s Theatre for a New Audience) transports Shakespeare’s enchanted island from the Mediterranean Sea to the Americas and features African actor Djimon Hounsou as the enslaved Caliban. As Taymor declares in the introduction to her screenplay, “In casting an African in this role, one automatically brings to the forefront the obvious themes of colonialization and usurpation that clearly were part of Shakespeare’s worldview, derived from stories culled from explorations to Africa and the New World” (17). However, Taymor distinguishes her setting from those of her contemporary predecessors by shooting all exteriors for the film in Hawaii, primarily on the volcanic island of Lanai. Whereas other “American” versions of the play (noting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s reference to the “still-vexed Bermoothes” [1.2.229]),2 tend to locate the action in an Atlantic framework, Taymor cuts Shakespeare’s allusion to the Bermudas and employs her setting and her characters’ costumes to evoke a Pacific context for the play’s events. Taymor’s film thereby ahistorically re-defines Hawaii as the site where Caliban is finally set free and slavery ends, despite the fact that African slaves were never actually kept on the Hawaiian islands. By transplanting the story of African slavery on the American mainland to [End Page 431] a Hawaiian setting, Taymor occludes a full history of slavery in Hawaii that could have served as the basis for the portrayal of Caliban’s experience of servitude on Shakespeare’s island.

For this erasure of the slavery culturally specific to Hawaii, Taymor’s film is open to the same type of critique that has been aimed at postcolonial theory in general.3 For example, Arif Dirlik writes that, “in spite of its insistence on historicity and difference, postcoloniality mimics in its deployment the ‘ahistorical and universalizing’ tendencies in colonialist thinking” (344).4 In other words, instead of paying attention to the specific nature of institutions like slavery in particular eras and locations, postcolonial studies tend to assume...


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