Cultural Appropriation in Film

After learning about cultural appropriation, I went on a search for more examples, as I didn’t really understand how someone could be offended at borrowing parts of a culture. Well I now know more and I still don’t understand, as my girlfriend will tell you. She alerted me to the relevance of this term in relation to ‘black culture’, and how using traditional traits of such culture as a way to better yourself can be seen as offensive, in my understanding. Specifically, she showed me a video by Amandla Stenberg (2015), who uses black culture to explain cultural appropriation. She speak of the use of stereotypical elements of black culture by musicians in an offensive manner, such as Katy Perry’s cornrows in her music video for ‘This is how we do’.

But in relation to movies, film and cinema. I kind of disagree with the idea that it is cultural theft, but instead honouring a culture. I understand how wearing a traditional Native American war bonnet can be seen as offensive as there are ties and historical significance to a culture, but to me film is a way to broadcast ‘culture’ (in this context).

Since movies have been made, they have been a medium for expression and displays of culture all around the world, and through studying different film industries, the different traits which make each unique. Cultures are represented, and ideologies are presented, and are tailored to a specific audience.

But what happens when films use elements of foreign cultures in their works? More specifically, is the sharing of cultural elements just simply a cultural exchange, or an example of cultural appropriation? During my research about the topic, I stumbled across a point of view by Hawaiian, Janet Mock (2015). She states that to her, the term “Aloha” has more meaning than just “hello” and that the use of the phrase tied with the stereotypical depiction of Hawaii as a bright, sunny, holiday destination is a classic example of cultural appropriation. She’s referring to the 2015 film ‘Aloha’ directed by Cameron Crowe, which she states “(he) uses the language of a marginalized, indigenous people whose land, culture and sovereignty have been stripped from them, he contributes to a long tradition of reducing Native Hawaiians to his own limited imaginings”. This is dangerous to the traditions and culture of the Hawaiian people, she states.

But is this an example of cultural exchange instead? In my opinion I can understand both arguments in the case of Aloha. Not specifically the movie, but instead the use of Hawaiian stereotypes in general. To me, growing up watching Lilo and Stitch, for example, was never meant to offend, but broadcast and display a culture of a foreign group of people. Before learning of this term I had no idea that sharing elements of culture can offend, but with relevant examples I can see how offense can be taken, especially for cultures with deep histories involving war and oppression.


Hype Hair Magazine. (2015). Amandla Stenberg: Don’t Cash Crop On My Cornrows. [Online Video]. 15 April. Available from: [Accessed: 02 September 2015].

MSNBC. (2015). Hollywood’s appropriation of Hawaiian culture. [Online Video]. 08 May. Available from: [Accessed: 02 September 2015].

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