“Uso’s — it’s time”
By Le’ausālilō Sadat Muaiava
When Seiuli Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson talked in a TV interview about how proud his mother was to hear him speaking Samoan in his new movie Hobbs and Shaw, I was filled with a sense of happiness and pride. What could be better than having our gagana (Samoan language) and fa'asāmoa (Samoan culture) showcased on the big screen by one of the biggest box office stars of today? But, when I saw some of the comments on Facebook, the reactions took me by surprise. Though there were positive reactions, there were a lot of negative perceptions, also, particularly with how the Samoan language and culture were spoken and portrayed. At that stage, I hadn’t watched the movie, so I thought I’d better.
It’s a big-budget action movie, an offshoot of the long-running, wildly successful Fast and Furious franchise. And it boasts some big names. Apart from the Rock himself, there’s Idris Elba, Helen Mirren, and Jason Statham. There was plenty going on, but the only scenes that mattered to me were the ones with gagana and fa’asāmoa.
That came three-quarters of the way into the film. Hobbs/Dwayne, in his time of need, remembers his “home”, Sāmoa, that he hasn’t seen in 25 years, where his brother Jonah, a mechanic, lives with their mother and ‘āiga. Hobbs declares that Jonah is the only person in the world with the expertise to fix the machine that will save Shaw’s sister’s life. So they depart for Sāmoa.
In fact, Hobbs actually returns to Hawai’i, which stands in for Sāmoa in the film. The background music isn’t Samoan, and the fale Sāmoa, factory, and clothing selections reminded me of American Sāmoa, where I lived for two years. But it was the social and cultural inaccuracies that I found most disappointing.
The first inaccuracy was the alignment of Samoans, particularly men, to violence. As an example, Jonah's aggressive (king-hit) response upon seeing Hobbs (his brother) after many years apart validated a statement made by Shaw during his earlier forced reunion with Hobbs about how Hobbs' people "always" solve confrontations with aggression and violence. In many ways, the scene amplified the common over-generalisation of Samoan masculinity, which is usually associated with physicality, violence and aggression, particularly within the family environment.
The second inaccuracy was the lack of a father figure. Could Hobb's parent's separation have some influence to the absence of Hobb's father in the film? While this may, or may not, be the case, it does reawaken, and put unneccessary attention on the narrative about the unstable social relationships in Samoan families, particularly around the absence of father figures.
But the Samoan segment had some delightful moments also. I’m not gonna lie —I loved hearing gagana Sāmoa spoken on the big screen. When the words uso (brother), fa‘aaloalo (respect), ‘āiga (family), se sōia (stop it), ‘aua le popole (don’t you worry), sasa (smack), and silipa, a transliteration of slipper, were said it was music to my ears. In fact, and because I was not the only Samoan in the cinema during our viewing time, I noticed a collective gasp of pride felt by other Samoans, particularly an elderly couple who sat two rows behind us.
Though some words were mispronounced, I think there’s more merit in praising attempts to speak the gagana, rather than police it. There have been intriguing and contrasting conversations, particularly on social media, about how the gagana was pronounced in the film. The pronunciation of the word uso, for instance, has recieved much negative attention, particularly around Hobbs and the cast's incorrect intonation of the end vowel 'o', where it is pronounced like the final 'o' in the English word 'pronto'.
When we discussed language pronunciation in Hobbs and Shaw in our Samoan Studies classes at Victoria University there were contrasting views. While some of our students were displeased, others were sympathetic or unsure. To be quite honest, each have their own ariticulation of how the gagana and fa'asāmoa were exhibited. But as an educator of the gagana and fa'asāmoa, it is my responsibility to be attentive and respectful of their views. But at the same time, I also have an obligation to challenge them. As a result, I hope that my positionality in the discussion will both challenge and enhance their views about the gagana and fa'asāmoa.
For me personally, I was not at all offended by how the Samoan language was pronounced in the film, by either Hobbs, his family, or his brother Jonah, who in real life is Cliff Curtis, of Māori descent. To make language education successful, we must not discourage, but rather uplift and encourage the use of our gagana in all spaces. But these spaces, whether in a classroom setting or in our communities, must be safe environments where people from all ethnic backgrounds, whether fluent or non-fluent, whether born in Sāmoa or overseas, are offered opportunities to engage in, deepen their knowledge and improve their language practice without shame or fear of being incorrect that they stifle their tongues and their gagana.
This model of a safe language learning environment is something we foster in our Samoan Studies programme at Va’aomanū Pasifika. In our all our classes, we value the opportunity for and benefit of interactions between fluent and non-fluent speakers in various contexts, something that is core in our Introduction to Samoan Language and Conversational Samoan courses. We also value using and enhancing students’ language and cultural competencies in cultural events such as Māfutaga, Cultural Day (both an all-day cultural event in Trimesters 1 and 2 respectively), Samoan Language Week and Samoan Independence celebrations.
One of the key ingredients of a safe language learning space is a strong relationship with the Samoan community. By involving the community, we begin to create, develop and endorse the narrative of safe language and cultural learning environments for all.
To conclude, the film Hobbs and Shaw reminded us all of not only the linguistic, cultural, social, political and religious challenges we face today, but also the innate strength that we’ve always had in us. Uso's, it's time!