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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, June 13, 2007

A major minority

Video: Local documentary chronicles Hawai'i's black community

By Loren Moreno
Advertiser Staff Writer

Local filmmaker Steve Okino, center, and University of Hawai'i professor emeritus Miles Jackson, right, talk with The Rev. Dwight Cook of Trinity Missionary Baptist Church, whom they’ve included in an upcoming documentary of African-American history in Hawai'i.

RICHARD AMBO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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The following people are expected to be included as subjects of the documentary "We've Come This Far By Faith":

  • Ernest Golden, who moved to Hawai'i from Georgia in 1942, will talk about WWII Honolulu and his experiences with discrimination.

  • Alphonso Braggs, current president of the Hawai'i chapter of the NAACP, a national civil rights organization. He will discuss why there is a need today for an active civil rights organization in Hawai'i and its cooperation with other civil rights groups in Hawai'i such as the Japanese American Civil Liberties Union.

  • Marie Smith, past president of the National AARP, who lived on Maui for 30 years, will discuss her experiences.

  • Wally "Famous" Amos, successful cookie entrepreneur, will talk about his experiences in Hawai'i over the past 30 years. He'll also discuss how Hawai'i has shaped his work with literacy programs.


    A panel of scholars is acting as advisers for the film. They include:

  • Kathryn W. Takara, associate professor of interdisciplinary studies at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa.

  • Elisa Joy White, assistant professor of ethnic studies at UH-Manoa.

  • Quintard Taylor, professor of American history at the University of Washington.

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    While the history of blacks in Hawai'i spans nearly 200 years, it's a story that's been largely untold — until now.

    Local filmmaker Steve Okino and University of Hawai'i professor emeritus Miles M. Jackson have teamed up to make the first-ever visual presentation of the achievements and struggles of the black community in Hawai'i, a documentary tentatively titled "We've Come This Far By Faith."

    Covering topics such as the discovery of the first effective treatment of Hansen's disease in the early 1900s to housing discrimination in the 1940s, Okino and Jackson intend to tell the shared story of blacks in the Islands.

    Along with history, the scholar and the filmmaker say they will offer audiences a then-and-now perspective of one of the smallest minority groups in Hawai'i.

    "We hope this film will answer a lot of the questions people have about the African-American presence in Hawai'i — how long they've been here, what have they been doing," said Jackson, author of "And They Came: A Brief History of Blacks in Hawaii," published by Four G Press in 2001.

    "It's really a community that very few people know about, except for negative things that appear in the press," Franklin said. "This is going to be a positive documentary that we hope schoolchildren will benefit from, as well as their parents."

    A small production team of four people, including Okino, has already started work on the film with a $25,000 grant from the Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation.

    Production is expected to last through the summer with a planned budget of $147,000, Okino said.

    "This is a fascinating story — and sad at the same time — since it has never been told before," said Okino, a former producer and bureau manager for CBS News.

    Okino's latest film, "Ma Ka Malu Ali'i," is a one-hour look at the trusts and institutions established by Hawai'i's monarchs. His "A Most Unlikely Hero," a profile of Capt. Bruce Yamashita and racial discrimination in the military, was distributed nationwide by American Public Television.

    "There's always an issue-oriented focus that I take (to filmmaking). It's really trying to give a voice to those people or communities who have lacked that voice in the past, and this film fits perfectly into that mission of mine," he said.

    Local activist and longtime Hawai'i resident Faye Kennedy, who was instrumental in the establishment of Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Hawai'i, said the film will likely build pride in Hawai'i's African-American community and help to promote acceptance.

    "Whatever your background is, the more you know about the history of a people, the more respect you will have for those people," said Kennedy, who co-chairs the Hawaii Friends of Civil Rights. "Within the black community, most of us have some idea about the history. But most of us, including me, don't know the whole story," she said.


    The documentary will likely start with the story of the first recorded black in Hawai'i, Anthony D. Allen, a former slave who settled on O'ahu in 1811 after being released by his New York master, Jackson said.

    Allen's rise to prominence — he's credited with building one of the Islands' first schools — is likely one of the most well-known stories in Hawai'i's African-American history, but Jackson says he hopes to tell the story of others who came to Hawai'i and achieved success.

    "In the early 1900s, that's when we had professional blacks come to Hawai'i — several lawyers, a doctor to come and work on the sugar plantation on Maui," Jackson said.

    The story of UH chemist Alice Ball, whose research in the early 1900s led to the discovery of the first effective treatments of Hansen's disease, will also be told, he said.

    While the theme of achievement will run through the film, another theme — struggle — will be illustrated through voices of long-time black residents.

    One of those people is Ernest Golden, a former Georgia man who moved to Hawai'i in 1942 shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

    Golden, who married a local Portuguese woman, will talk about housing discrimination he and his wife experienced as an interracial couple, Jackson said.

    "It seems that there was a lot of discrimination primarily after World War II. There doesn't seem to be any real documented discrimination before that period," he said.

    Okino said he will draw extensively on the work of Jackson, including the recent book "They Followed the Trade Winds," to which he contributed and edited.


    Hawai'i's black community is small — comprising about 33,000 people according to the 2000 U.S. Census. It can be called tiny if you take into account that the majority of Hawai'i's black community are military personnel and their families, said Jackson.

    "Not to overlook them, not to ignore them, because they are here but they're not a part of what we consider the permanent community. If you take them out, the (black) community is actually much smaller," Jackson said.

    The community is also dispersed. The two factors pose a significant challenge in terms of visuals for the film, Okino said.

    "Hawai'i has not had an inner city or other geographic area where the African-American community gravitates to," unlike other places like Chicago or Seattle, said Okino.

    Instead, most of the black community in Hawai'i seems to be centered around social groups, churches and other networks.

    Without a specific neighborhood or region to focus on, Okino intends to use a variety of techniques to tell the story, including day-in-a-life scenarios of prominent blacks, creative ways to convey historical information and the use of interviews with scholars and black residents.

    "There's also a rich African-American arts community, so we hope to involve some creative people as well," Okino said.

    Hawaii Public Television has expressed interest in airing the film, which is set for completion by January 2008, said Okino. He's also thinking of possible ways to expand the reach of the film to Mainland audiences.

    "The point is to bring awareness to what African-Americans have contributed to Hawai'i, but the subtext and overarching issue is community and building a shared story," he said.

    Reach Loren Moreno at lmoreno@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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