New film explores life of Duke Kahanamoku

He was known as the father of modern surfing. The Big Kahuna. A five-time Olympic medalist.

Duke Kahanamoku, the native Hawaiian legend who brought surfing to the world, is the subject of a new documentary airing Tuesday evening on PBS’ “American Masters” series. The feature-length episode, “Waterman – Duke: Ambassador of Aloha,” will explore his life, career and struggles to overcome racism.

“As a dark-skinned Pacific Islander, Kahanamoku broke through racial barriers with athletic accomplishments before Joe Louis, Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson; yet relatively few outside of Hawaii know the details of his inspiring story and considerable impact,” a press release for the film said.

A bronze statue of Duke Kahanamoku welcomes surfers and beachgoers in Waikiki. (Spectrum News/Ryan Cooper)

The program is narrated by Hawaii-born actor Jason Momoa. It compiles rare archival footage and new interviews, including big wave surfer, Laird Hamilton, 11-time world champion surfer, Kelly Slater, Olympic surfing gold medalist Carissa Moore and musician Jack Johnson.

Kahanamoku was born in 1890 in Honolulu, with the ocean as his backyard playground. At the age of 21, he won an Olympic gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle and a silver in the 200-meter relay in the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm. He went on to win medals in 1920 and 1924.

He was also remembered for using his surfboard in 1925 to save eight people from a shipwreck during a storm off the coast of Newport Beach, California.

“Neither me nor my pals were thinking about heroics, we were simply running — me with my board and the others to get their boards — hoping to save lives,” he later told biographer Malcolm Gault-Williams for his book “Legendary Surfers.” 

Duke also dabbled in Hollywood movies, and his celebrity earned him the moniker “Ambassador of Aloha” for helping support the growing tourist industry in the Hawaiian Islands.

“When the world saw Duke, they saw Hawaii,” an observer noted in the new documentary.

“American Masters: Waterman – Duke: Ambassador of Aloha” airs on PBS stations at 9 p.m. on Tuesday.