In this racially fraught historical moment, the new $180 million Warner Brothers’ film The Legend of Tarzan that opened over the 4th of July weekend presents a curious choice of subject given the questionable semiotics of the white quasi-superhero lead character. While watching the film, I found myself thinking about US-Nigerian philosopher Teju Cole’s description of “The White-Savior Industrial Complex” that has turned “… the banality of evil into the banality of sentimentality.” With this latest Tarzan blockbuster, banal white savior sentimentality has been lavishly repackaged for a global audience to present the ape-man as a kind of nongovernment organization action figure.
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In the United States, unarmed Black men are being killed by police five times more often than whites, yet The Legend of Tarzan seems to be telling audiences that “Black Lives Matter” only as long as they are guided by (and in service to) the sentiments of noble white folks — in this case, Tarzan as a British Earl and his racially enlightened wife Lady Jane, who grew up among Black folks to missionary parents in Africa. The Legend of Tarzan generated nearly $65 million in worldwide box office sales during its holiday weekend launch, indicating a sizable audience for its fantasy version of race relations. And after 2.5 weeks, it had made $195 million. A closer look at the film’s provenance and symbolism yields a useful picture of the historical amnesia that too often informs discussions of race in 2016.
A Hip New Tarzan
The Legend of Tarzan is directed by three-time Harry Potter alumni David Yates, a veteran of the big budget Hollywood special effects genre. Alexander Skarsgård, whose bionic eight-pack abs fit perfectly with the dominant CGI production values, plays Tarzan, while the lovely and appropriately blonde Margot Robbie is Jane. Their incongruously modern marriage-of-equals is set in 1884 London and signals the hip new sensibility of a story that originated in the 1912 America of Plessy v. Ferguson’s separate but equal doctrine. But never mind all that. Per the title, Tarzan is a “legend” in 19th century Britain and a much sought after curiosity of both classroom and drawing room for his jungle upbringing in “savage” Africa, while Lady Jane gives a feisty update to the (soon-to-be) damsel in distress role.
The story of Tarzan’s fantastical childhood (orphaned infant raised by great apes in the Congolese jungle) is told through flashbacks, while the main plot line is packaged in the soothing ethics of white 21st century political correctness. Tarzan and Jane are called back to the Belgian Congo as royal goodwill ambassadors to witness the reputed good works done among the natives by the King of Belgium. It is a trap, and they end up instead in a life or death fight against racism, the Congolese slave trade, resource exploitation and white European colonialism — all of which Tarzan manages to vanquish as minor obstacles during his race to the penultimate rescue scene of the captured Lady Jane.
Trouble in Paradise
The odious racial symbolism of the film is set in an early scene in which Tarzan and Jane return to the peaceful village where Jane’s parents taught English during her childhood. They are greeted as beloved family members by the revered village chieftain and Jane’s many childhood Black friends. The chief warns that things have changed for the worse under the viciously exploitative Belgians, but merrymaking, singing, hugging, dancing and drinking of fermented beverages around campfires ensues nonetheless. Sadly, the chief and nearly every adult and child in the village are shot to death at point-blank range the next day by Belgian troops led by the country’s envoy to Congo Leon Rom, the clichéd villain played by Christoph Waltz. Rom captures Jane, setting up the ongoing rescue chase that occupies Tarzan for the remaining hour-plus of the movie.
This pivotal scene is meant to establish Rom’s bona fides as a villain so horrific that in their instinctive revulsion, audience members will simply overlook the racial symbolism of the village massacre, which goes almost completely unmourned by Tarzan or anyone else. Lady Jane has been captured by evildoers, damn it, and the world must be turned on its head to rescue her. From this point, Black Africans become mere extras in Tarzan’s personal quest to save Jane.
The Black Sidekick
To leaven the heavy-handed white savior recipe, Tarzan and Jane are accompanied by a Black US emissary, George Washington Williams, who is based on a real person of considerable significance in Black history. Williams was a writer, publisher, historian, senator from Ohio and reverend. He traveled to the Congo under the auspices of Belgian King Leopold in 1889, but was outraged by the violent and exploitative treatment of Black people there. He published an open letter of protest to the king and worked against the Belgian regime until his death in 1891.
Although Williams’ activism is referenced in passing at the end of the film, he is played by Samuel Jackson as a vehicle for comic relief from the underlying racism of The Legend of Tarzan. Williams is reduced to being Tarzan’s wise-cracking Black sidekick because the filmmakers must have thought his buddy banter with Tarzan would vaccinate them against charges of racial insensitivity. The reductive characterization only deepens the offense.
The extravagant production budget is designed to divert audience attention from any troubling racial undercurrents by overwhelming the senses. The entire Congo is filled with sweeping CGI landscapes and thundering action scenes that make theater seats tremble, with dozens of exotic or endangered species fighting, growling, stampeding, flying, leaping or slithering across the screen, often in support of Tarzan’s fight to free Jane and save the innocent natives of the Congo.
Tarzan Saves the Congo
At the obligatory happy ending, viewers are told via on-screen text that not only has Lady Jane been saved, but Tarzan’s actions have thwarted the Belgian slave trade, stopped the appropriation of Congolese diamonds and restored sovereignty to the Congolese people — all with the help of Tarzan’s new BFF Williams, who strains already frayed credulity as an obvious symbol of US racial enlightenment.
In real historical time, the Congo did not achieve political independence from Belgium as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DROC) until 1960. Western corporations have since swarmed across the DROC seeking valuable tungsten, tantalum, gold and tin that are crucial for the manufacture of modern cell phones, helping precipitate what the International Rescue Committee calls the deadliest conflict since WWII, with 5.4 million people killed in the last 18 years. Unlike genteel Lady Jane, Congolese women caught in the violence of an ongoing tribal resource war are disproportionately represented in the experience of real world violence. There are 1,152 women raped every day. 48 per hour. Four every five minutes.
The Legend of Tarzan is too focused on recouping its enormous production budget to be troubled by such historical minutiae. By packaging the CGI Tarzan of 2016 as an NGO-style superhero, the producers evidently hope to avoid any thorny issues of racial inequity. In a 2012 statement of eerie prescience, Teju Cole perfectly characterizes the underlying ethic of The Legend of Tarzan: “The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.”