Recalling a time when Dwayne Johnson wasn’t a charismatic headliner is impossible. Even at the height of his professional wrestling career as The Rock (among other monikers), his infectious persona bolstered his popularity. He’s the People’s Champion for a reason.
That personable quality definitely carries over seamlessly into his movie career, which began back in 2001. Johnson’s first onscreen appearance as The Scorpion King in The Mummy Returns may have been a thankless, wordless cameo, but he ended up starring in his own spin-off the following year anyway. The rest, as they say, is history.
Johnson’s movies tend to be a rollicking good time, particularly when it comes to the flashiest of his topliners that have come out within the last decade. As a bona fide action and comedy star, Johnson has built a brand on frivolous films that stretch the limits of imagination. Whether he’s singlehandedly scaling a giant skyscraper or trailing the Fast and Furious family across a myriad of high-flying automobile-related shenanigans, we’re invited to gleefully and satisfyingly suspend belief whenever we watch a Johnson flick. They are generally harmless popcorn entertainment and can be absolutely interchangeable as an indistinct string of goofiness. Case in point:
However, Johnson has finally found the dramatic role of his dreams, and this could prove to be his most vital career choice yet. According to Deadline, Warner Bros. and New Line are going ahead with the war epic The King, and Johnson is slated to lead the charge. He will play the eponymous Hawaiian icon Kamehameha I in the picture directed by Back to the Future filmmaker Robert Zemeckis. The movie found a scribe in Braveheart‘s Randall Wallace as well. If this isn’t a team-up of gargantuan proportions, I don’t know what is.
The King joins Johnson’s perennially full slate, which includes (but is not limited to) Disney’s Jungle Cruise, a Big Trouble in Little China reboot, the sequels to Jumanji and San Andreas, and all his DCEU commitments culminating in a Black Adam solo film. In fact, Deadline already notes that shooting for The King is only due to start in 2020, so we are definitely not getting the film anytime soon.
However, it definitely comprises a story worth waiting a few extra years for, if only to ensure that it’s made properly. The King will tell the fable of Kamehameha. Prophesied at birth to be a formidable leader, the king is legendary — a ruler who united the Kingdom of Hawaii in the 1790s and ensured that unification remained even after his own death.
While this simple summary could allude to the basic tenets of any awe-inspiring Hollywood epic, a film like The King desperately needs to be tackled with nuance, authenticity, and respect. The internet has already been alight with mixed responses to the prospect of a film about Kamehameha in general. The many discussions surrounding inclusivity that have peppered across Hollywood discourse for months make this fact unsurprising. However, objections to a potentially diluted big screen version of Kamehameha have actually occurred in years gone by.
Johnson was once involved in a Kamehameha vehicle back in the early 2000s. The project was set up by Greg Poirier (Rosewood) at Columbia Pictures and eventually fell through. Nevertheless, news about it sparked notable criticism of Johnson’s casting due to his lack of Native Hawaiian heritage. There were even concerns that the film would ignore key elements of local culture such as language, and that the overall narrative would be altered with unnecessary western movie tropes.
Similar concerns have since surfaced in the wake of The King. Twitter threads have separately criticized the white authorship of the movie and called for extensive fact-checking of the story, noting that the film cannot simply portray a colonized and watered down version of Kamehameha’s layered backstory and legacy. Furthermore, as Lilikala Kameeleihiwa — author, historian, and senior professor at the University of Hawaii’s Kamakakuokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies — tells the Honolulu Star-Advertiser:
“Kamehameha is a grand chief of Hawaii and not some Hollywood Disney character. It is totally inappropriate to have a non-Hawaiian actor play him. There must be a hundred descendants of Kamehameha who could play the part. […] If ever a film should be made (about Kamehameha), it should be written, in Hawaiian, by one of Kamehameha’s descendants. It’s their kuleana.”
The hope is that Johnson’s passion for the story will be able to allay some worries about The King. As far as his Instagram post on the matter has revealed, he seems up to the task, stating, “From the day I began my Hollywood career (2001), my dream was to bring this legacy to life.”
The fact of the matter is that The King may not need to make Johnson a household name anymore, but it has a huge potential to change a worldwide perception of him as a leading man. In this case, his immense popularity could even act as the double-edged sword that keeps him in check. Johnson fans would understandably be curious about The King, and his reach would draw in far more audiences thanks to all that star power. Regardless, any perceived lack of respect for the cultural significance of Kamehameha’s lore would be absolutely unacceptable — and should be.
The role of Kamehameha requires the imposing strength and palpable presence that Johnson regularly brings to the big screen in many of his projects. Still, it requires more thoughtful consideration than the jokesters of his most famous characters. He is part of a collaborative team that easily delivers on big-ticket spectacle, but we continue to keep an eye out for more players that will bring the film’s heart to the forefront.