Is it possible that we should let the people of the culture in question decide whether it is appropriation or not?
Seems fair. In regards to Maui, I've seen some positive reception from Polynesian communities. And like I mentioned earlier, having Maui could raise awareness towards his actual myths and legends.
Members of the communities (or I should say the communities themselves) in question should always have the largest voice in setting the terms for exchange of their cultures, but the problem with both of your angles is that you're obviously using them to deter objections from PoC (like myself) who have similar, if not exact, backgrounds and experiences as those communities and lean into your own confirmation bias insofar as you want
to see the movie in a certain light, and that means ignoring the actual dynamics at play here. Intercultural/demographic alliance is a really important element in minority-led movements towards liberation: while I can obviously only speak categorically for my own cultural knowledge base, I can draw on the shared experiences I have with others who live under similar circumstances and power dynamics, and I feel it's equally important to speak to that insight in order to draw attention to the common struggles we encounter. Which is exactly why I neither consider nor call out Moana
as some kind of abject exercise in colonization art: I've read a spectrum of reviews of the film from Polynesian and Pacific Islander people ranging from positive to less enthused, and I give weight to all of them. But the depiction of and, more pointedly, the creative licensing of Maui is a common point of critique and concern in nearly all of them: not just how he is portrayed in the film (which has its supporters and detractors), but the potential issues that arise from outsourcing him to other projects and making him some kind of decorative statement (which already has basis in fact given that fiasco with the Maui skin costumes). Disney has an objectively bad track record and should have to work a lot harder to earn the trust of people who claim to care about issues of cultural sensitivity than making one movie which meets the exceedingly low bar of not being totally and obviously racist.
It's also important to keep in mind that no cultural community is totally homogeneous, and if you're only looking for people who readily agree with the colonial narrative, you will always find them. It was always possible during slavery and Jim Crow to find black folks who propped up those systems and held them to be the proper order of things, and it has always been possible in Indigenous communities to find collaborators who work in tandem with the colonial agenda for any number of reasons (historically, some Native Nations or even people within a Nation would ally with one colonial European power or another in order to target rival Nations/families, and the consequences of that still echo today in the relationships between certain tribes and bands), and those same collaborators who are often held as heroes in the American narrative are frequently viewed as traitors or cowardly opportunists within their own Nation. These kinds of conversations aren't neat or tidy, they're frequently messy and different people within a community will have different thresholds for what they consider to be tolerable, sometimes indicative of a generational difference where, as these issues are advanced and taken more seriously over time, it becomes increasingly important to seek some kind of consensus and draw some lines in the sand: like I mentioned above, I try to find the points of common concern where issues of representation are at hand and work from there to understand the root issue and how it tracks with the historical record.
How is Maui Cultural Appropriation when Ron Clements and John Musker went to the Pacific Islands and asked the people what was and not okay and was based on real-life Pacific Island and Maori people?
His depiction in the film may or may not rise to that level depending on who you hear it from, but the idea that Disney should unilaterally wield his image wherever and however they want should be a valid point of concern to anyone who's serious about the accountability that comes with drawing your narrative elements from a culture to which you don't belong. The fact that Clements and Musker had to go to people of that culture to get a grasp on what they were doing is evidence enough of their need to have guide rails for their storytelling and usage of those cultural elements: for me, that inspires some appreciation, but also a healthy dose of skepticism. It's certainly better than running off on their own and just plucking the stories of Maui out of a void and ignoring the voice of Pasifika communities altogether, but what happens when those guide rails are no longer in place? Does Disney have a greater stake in depicting Maui, or do the people of the Pacific Islands? I'm of the opinion that it's the latter and I'm weary of any depiction that isn't signed off on, so to speak.
I also can't find the documentary, but there's a girl who was part of the Moana Crew and the reason why Moana and Maui have the thick black curly hair is because of her. She's basically Moana and Maui in design. There's also a deleted scene where Moana hits coconuts in a rage- and after asking Pacific Island people, they removed that scene, due to it being offensive.
I mean, again, if this is the low standard Disney has to clear to wash their record of and continued exercises in cultural appropriation, then the conversation is meaningless to begin with. This is like the least
of what they should be doing so it's not exciting or impressive to me at all.
I think saying that Maui is Cultural Appropriation is a bit rude and insulting to all the Pacific Islanders and Maori people who worked on this movie and helped with the movie, helped lead the movie and Taika Waititi whom basically wrote the movie.
I don't think anybody who's serious about cultural empowerment would view questioning the intentions and accountability of a studio like Disney as "rude and insulting"; I've never said or been of the opinion that the Polynesian peoples involved in crafting this film were ill intended, myself and others are concerned about leaving it in the hands of a giant corporate enterprise that has routinely steamrolled Indigenous communities in their mad dash to market culture to a white audience who is largely meant to view it as novel and exotic rather than relevant and lived. If that space can be reclaimed to raise Indigenous voices, I'm all for it. I remain unconvinced by what amount to token gestures, however.
I've grown up with the story of Maui since early childhood and while he isn't a Disney character, his stories are something that's loved to be shared across all cultures and people. YMMV but I'm glad that Disney is bringing Maui to people all across the world with the movie Moana.
I have no doubt that there's a love of cultural and story sharing within Polynesian communities, I love to share my culture and perspective as an Indigenous person when appropriate, but there are also parts of my heritage which are off limits to outsiders and which I only feel safe engaging within the context of my own community. And even those things which I choose to share, I wouldn't want to see abused cheaply or thoughtlessly by someone who doesn't know what they're doing. That's more or less where I'm coming from.
If it was this bad, Waititi would have told Disney to Fu/k Off.
That can be difficult to do when you're a creative person with limited access to resources and you have to pick and choose your battles. Irene Bedard chose to voice Pocahontas and while I 1000% disagree with her decision and consider her a bit of a tool, I can at least understand her thought process at the time: an opportunity was presented to her and she could either take it, or turn it down and watch them maybe cast a white woman in the role or pull some other bullshit. Waititi probably had a similar decision to make, but you have to understand these people are not on a level playing field in these negotiations: Disney is a monolith in the entertainment industry, and it's hard to avoid getting involved with them somewhere along the line. Waititi might have thought he could do more good working within the circle than sitting on the sidelines, but that doesn't change the fundamental dynamics of the situation. There isn't a lot of good faith to be had with these things: I expect Disney would have gone forward with this film even if it failed to get any Polynesian talent on-board and then hid behind all the usual excuses it advances when people call out its (and Hollywood in general's) racist nonsense. So what do you do when your culture is essentially being held hostage? Watch it get shot in front of you or try to intervene and make a difference for the better?
That's why I'm always skeptical of these stories, and personally I won't be satisfied until I see Indigenous creators as the ultimate power in directing these kinds of projects: not as advisors, or points of reference who are maybe kind of influential in the process, or who get to write a script which is then maybe going to be followed or maybe not. I don't trust that guarantee in the corporate context.