The newest Tarzan movie has yet to reach cinemas but the official synopsis, as released by Warner Bros. Studios, suggests that a different approach to the traditional story is being taken. In the 2016 film, Tarzan, now known as Lord Greystoke, is found living a gentrified life alongside his beloved wife, Jane, having left the jungles of the Congo. Now, he has been invited back to the Congo to serve as a trade emissary of Parliament, where he eventually fights the greed and revenge masterminded by Belgian Captain Leon Rom.
Despite these changes to the plot, one problem that’s endemic to the story will clearly not be avoided: the fact that Tarzan is blatant propaganda for white supremacy. The author of the original books, Edgar Rice Burroughs, never stepped foot in Africa – but that didn’t prevent him from forming strong opinions on the African people. Proud of his pure Anglo-Saxon heritage, he firmly believed in the racial superiority of white people and routinely described black people in a derogatory manner throughout his books.
Beyond this, the entire premise of Tarzan is that he is a white man who, unlike the black tribespeople indigenous to the continent, is able to communicate with and subdue animals in order to become “Lord of the Apes, King of the Jungle”. In the Tarzan movies that aired between 1932 and 1948, which were very popular on British television up to the 1980s, black Africans were continued to be portrayed as stupid and superstitious, in stark contrast to the heroism of a white Tarzan.
The power of this racist propaganda is exhibited, in part, by the fact that, in order to quash political dissent to their occupation, British colonial authorities went to rural areas of Jamaica and showed Tarzan movies to the locals, hoping to convince them that colonialism occurred for the good of the African Diaspora. Back in England, Simi Bedford in her autobiographical novel “Yoruba Girl Dancing” describes how her young white peers and the adults around her took the representations of Africans in the Tarzan films to be accurate and used them to flesh out their prejudices towards black people.
So in light of this history of Tarzan, and keeping in mind that the newest instalment is meant to be an adaptation of a kind never seen before, there are a few things that we should hope to see (but most likely will not) come the summer of this year:
In an ideal world, this perception that the “civilised” (predominantly white) folk have that Tarzan is superior will be proved false. We will discover that in actual fact Tarzan was no more successful at living in the jungle than the black Africans he lived amongst and the failure to note this was down to the racist perceptions of the Congo’s colonisers. It will transpire that, although the plot will suggest that Tarzan will single-handedly save the jungle from its Belgian colonisers, he ultimately succeeds only with the help of the wit and intellect of the African people who have been fighting the colonisers all the while that Tarzan has been away playing house somewhere in the Occident.
The black people who form part of the colonising crew will not be tokens allowing Warner Bros. to evade responsibility for racist portrayals of black Africans as a backwards people, incapable of achieving in all their millennia living on their land what Tarzan allegedly achieves within the first few decades of his life.
This would be a more cowardly move than that taken by Disney when they attempted to avoid Burroughs’ racism in their 1999 adaptation of Tarzan (shown above) by excluding from the animation all black people. In a story set on the African continent.
There will be black women cast in the film. Not as background props but as actual characters. The trailer, however, suggests that this will not come to be. In any case, this leads to an interesting point regarding the role that Jane plays in this piece of propaganda. We might not encounter them in the film, but Tarzan will obviously have met black women before meeting Jane, although of course it must be the white woman for whom he falls.
Now you could, of course, argue that part of the reason he falls for Jane is because she’s the first woman he meets who is like him. But let’s not forget that Tarzan’s race (and the exceptionalism with which it is meant to endow him) is so important to the story that it’s a part of his name (Tarzan being “ape-speak” for white skin). So such a simple explanation does not really suffice. Jane represents a kind of civil femininity that will likely be withheld from any black women we see in the film. Tarzan is as much about the superiority of white women as it is the superiority of white men.
In spite of all of this I might still go watch the movie, as I’ve been a fan of Alexander Skarsgård since his first topless scene in True Blood. I expect to be as bored by the Africa as seen when distorted by the Western imagination as I have always been. Those of us who watch it should expect to be drawn into a propaganda campaign that spans over a century – one that likely is no longer being consciously produced, but that exists nevertheless. Remember that when you head to the cinema.