Surfing legend. Olympic superstar. Hawai‘ian Icon. American hero.
Five-time Olympic medalist and Native Hawai‘ian Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku shattered records and brought surfing to the world while overcoming a lifetime of personal challenges. WATERMAN explores his journey and legacy as a legendary swimmer, trailblazer, and the undisputed father of modern-day surfing, following the sport’s first-time inclusion in this year’s Summer Olympics – a fitting tribute to his work promoting the sport around the globe.
Director Isaac Halisima expertly uses a 1957 episode of “This Is Your Life” as the documentary’s through line. In the episode, Duke is reunited with surprise guests who then reflect on major milestones in his storied life. These segments are then crystallized with a plethora of archive footage from newsreels, radio interviews, and photos from the turn of the century, coupled with interviews from Duke’s descendants, cultural experts, the surf world’s biggest stars. Capped with voice narration by Jason Momoa that delivers the gravitas, WATERMAN is just as thrilling as any hero’s journey story that Hollywood has unspooled.
What is also refreshing is historical context. As Duke’s many historic feats are chronicled in the film, it is couched with the very real barriers and prejudices he faced as a non-white sports icon who was held back by the same colonial and capitalist power-brokers who changed the course of Hawai’i’s history. Duke could have been a Hawai‘ian Jim Thorpe and entered professional sports, but was forced to retain his amateur status to compete in five Olympics, which were spread out even more because of the First World War.
For all the highs and lows of Duke’s life, it is his innate altruism and the embodiment of the Aloha spirit as a waterman that influenced future generations, from turning surfing into a major sports industry to the standardization of lifeguard safety and rescue practices, his contribution to the world is incomparable. WATERMAN celebrates his triumphs and philosophy of inclusion, challenging us all to embrace diversity and incorporate Aloha into our own lives.