The first time that Tarzan appears on screen in The Legend of Tarzan (a good eight minutes into the movie), it isn't as the character of legend. Instead of the film opening with the character's typical backstory and life in Africa, it chooses to present the audience with a tame version of the character who has long since traded his loincloth for London's finest clothes, and who initially refuses to return to Africa. The film attempts to provide Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan series with a veneer of respectability, whereby the fantasy of Tarzan's life in the jungle is fictionalized even further against a grimmer, more "historically accurate" setting.
This approach to the character is the first of many problems that The Legend of Tarzan has as a film. Immediately, positioning the "new and improved" Tarzan in his tightly buttoned-up suit against the images of the Africans that we've seen up until that point serves to hold him apart from the depictions of savagery and Otherness that the film has associated with Africans from the first scene. Tarzan—initially introduced as Lord Greystoke—is shown as at odds with the image of Africa that Londoners are fascinated by, while simultaneously being uninterested in anything that connects him to the legend or who he was before moving to England.
The problem here is that the start of the film takes Tarzan out of the jungle and, instead of keeping him in London and showing him as an acclimatising outsider, returns him to the jungle so that he can establish his own brand of ownership over the continent. Where the Tarzans of other film incarnations are explicitly part and parcel of the African experience, the opening of this film shows a Tarzan that has far more in common with the colonizers than the natives.
In so many ways, The Legend of Tarzan is the ultimate white savior movie.
Part of that dubious honor comes from how Tarzan has been a white savior from the moment that Edgar Rice Burroughs's published Tarzan of the Apes, the first Tarzan story, in 1912. From his inception, Tarzan has represented the very worst of colonialism, racism, and white entitlement to Africa (and Africans), while purporting to save the continent and its creatures from those that would disrupt some kind of natural order.
I think that what is the most mind-boggling about this film is that The Legend of Tarzan wasn't released during Edgar Rice Burroughs' lifetime—or even at a period of time when its content could be considered vaguely appropriate. This is a film that was released this year, and one that essentially gives Tarzan the majority of the credit for "saving" Africans living in the Congo underneath King Leopold II's control.
If you know nothing about the specific history, here's a quick lesson: King Leopold II was responsible for the deaths of millions of people living in what he deemed the Congo Free State, and allowed men working for him to mutilate and murder Africans as they pleased. Under his command, Leopold's men committed atrocities like mutilating Congolese people (living and dead) and forcing the wives of resistant Congolese men into service gathering rubber (or simply outright killing them). There's a reason why, despite the fact that I'm pretty sure he never set foot in the country, Leopold II was called "The Butcher of Congo."
This is the setting that we get for The Legend of Tarzan. The film took the very real atrocities that resulted in the deaths of millions of Africans and turned it into an action film that ended with a happily ever after—fictionalizing and trivializing the atrocities in the Congo in order to give Tarzan an extra-heroic role. Tarzan's heroics come at the cost of painting real-life hero George Washington Williams (played in the film by Samuel L. Jackson) as comedy relief, minimizing his own (historical) heroic role in removing the Congo from Leopold II's grasp.
Sadly, the setting isn't the only problem with this ridiculous white savior narrative.
First, one of the scenes from the film, and one included in the trailers, had Samuel L. Jackson's George Washington Williams call Tarzan "Africa's favorite son" in an attempt to sway him to take a tour of the Congo Free State. This moment, coming early on in the film, sets Tarzan up as a character who is favored and beloved by white people in Europe and Africans across the continent. It’s an approach that goes hand-in-hand with positioning Tarzan (and even Jane in some instances) as a better African than, you know . . . actual Africans.
The Legend of Tarzan keeps telling us that Tarzan is a legendary figure despite not actually showing any of his legendary deeds. White people in Europe write about him, mythologize him to the point where schoolchildren rush towards him; and Congolese people from across the country literally sing of the "legend of Tarzan" at the end of the film as if Tarzan was the only person responsible for getting Leopold II out of the country. In fact, the film claims that Tarzan receives this reputation due to the tribesmen in the area where he was raised believing him to be a spirit due to his penchant for pranks and his white skin.
I'm not buying it. Seriously, I can kind of understand why the British are fascinated by him, because white savior stories were such a thing during their late 1800s . . . but not why anyone else is.
There has to be something else that makes Tarzan so special, something that would explain the reverence with which the Kuba tribesmen treat him—something that doesn’t stem from a very tired and very racist trope that African people across the diaspora are so superstitious that any above-average white person can become revered as a spirit or royalty. (For more of this stuff, see "jungle girl" characters like Ayesha, Fantomah, and Sheena, who populated 1940s pulp fiction and early comics.)
There are only two types of Black people in this movie: helpful Black people (Africans from different villages/tribes and the aforementioned George Washington Williams) and antagonistic Black people, like Djimon Hounsou's Chief Mbonga and his leopard men of Opar, who agree to give diamonds to the antagonist, Christoph Waltz's Captain Léon Rom, in exchange for revenge against Tarzan.
I grew up with the 1999 Disney take on Tarzan that gave us an Africa without any Africans present in even the most minor of roles. So, erasure? Well, that was something that I was prepared to handle and then snark about on my blog. I wasn't at all prepared for the way that all of this present film's Black characters are portrayed to pander to white sensibilities.
Let's break this down because I'm still annoyed. Chief Mbonga and his men are among the first Black characters that we see in The Legend of Tarzan. With mostly bare, dark brown skin—dusted with white powder—and a leader dressed in a leopard skin (paws and all), the men of Opar are framed as feral savages opposite the crisp uniforms and unbroken whiteness of the Belgian soldiers who face them in this opening encounter. Despite the fact that Rom orders his soldiers to shoot first, aiming all over the place without a care for who they might hit, it is the men of Opar who are immediately associated with gratuitous and gory violence when they react, killing most (if not all) of Rom's men in a scene that links them indelibly with animalistic behavior. We don't get to see their response to being mowed down by Belgian soldiers with no provocation; only the chaos when they attack in turn with claws and spears.
In fact, after the fighting is done, the only thing that Chief Mbonga does when Rom addresses him is offer to give him diamonds in exchange for Tarzan. Talk about shortsighted. Instead of killing the man responsible for the deaths of several of his people, Mbonga makes a deal with him. Y’know. Because the narrative needed to set Mbonga up as a character who cares more about his beef with Tarzan than the well-being of his people. Unlike Christoph Waltz's smarmy performance, the real-life Léon Rom was the kind of person who was not only eagerly complicit in the enslavement of Congolese people, but kept the severed heads of twenty-one Congolese people as decorations in his garden. Clearly, this is not the kind of person anyone, much less a man tasked with the welfare of a people, should be making deals with.
Indeed, the only reason that Mbonga wants revenge is because Tarzan took out his own vengeance against Mbonga's young son, who had in turn killed the white man’s ape-mother. It's a reason that makes sense, that would be absolutely valid coming from a white villain, but it definitely isn’t given the same regard in Mbonga’s case: his partnership with Rom simply isn't framed as the act of a desperate father trying to get revenge for his son's senseless death. Instead, it frames the character as someone who cares more about personal honor than anything else.
Outside of the Opar people, the only other Black people to whom the film gives any focus are those who are there to help Tarzan on his path to cornering the market as "the only white guy that can save Africa
from white people." The Kuba people are the greatest example of this type, in that the narrative frequently places them in relation to Tarzan and Jane. Arguably, some of that is because Jane grew up with them. However, there's a reverence to their interactions with Tarzan and Jane that is super uncomfortable to watch. I'm not asking for Tarzan and Jane to feel like outsiders in their own home, but it's telling that "custom" and "culture" come into play in a way that presents the couple as royalty amongst the Kuba.
Additionally, The Legend of Tarzan is just one more film in a long line of recent movies that misuses Samuel L. Jackson as an actor. Instead of giving Jackson a meatier role, the people behind this film went with placing him as comedic relief with a decidedly Minstrel-y edge to his performance. There's nothing wrong with a Black character making quips, being snarky, or even being made the butt of a joke every once in a while. However, when the only Black character with significant screen time and dialogue spends the majority of that time chasing after Tarzan and making a fool out of himself, well . . .
There's a problem.
The issue with The Legend of Tarzan isn't the alternate history or the comedic elements of its historical fiction, but how it gives Tarzan all of this responsibility for organizing and saving the Congolese people while at the same time real-life historical figures are softened to a point that is actually obnoxious. The issue is that, instead of reinventing the character in order to subvert his white savior status, the film embraced it wholeheartedly.
It's 2016. There has to be a better way to tell a Tarzan that doesn’t include making Black people (in and out of the Congo) secondary in their own stories while a white guy hogs all of the airtime.
Back when she was a child, Zina Hutton jumped out of a window to escape dance class in the Virgin Islands. Now she's a writer who tends to leap headfirst into new stories and worlds the second inspiration strikes. You can find her at Stitch's Media Mix and on twitter as @stichomancery.