Tarzan 2016 Return of Euro-envy or further example of intellectual genocide?
Written by Mikey Massive
A Leicester Square premiere gala event on a balmy London evening. The throng which had gathered outside the enclosure allowing feted and celebrated stars, such as Margot Robbie and Alexander Skarsgard, and producers and distribution executives responsible for the $180m epic Legend of Tarzan to sashay across the red carpet in their glittering finery for the European Gala Premiere may not have noticed the tiny ripples of animated debate which often stole attention from the less recognisable suits who followed the stars into the theatre.
A petition was being handed around to anyone who cared to read and sign: “Does another Tarzan movie suggest the culmination of imaginative and creative congress in 2016?” Tick Yes or No
Sister Sipho upsets a promotional prop (left) Legend of Tarzan stars Samuel L Jackson & Alexander Skargard in action
“People began finding paper to put a singular No next to their name and contact details,” states Sister Sipho, an artist and writer, who conducted her one woman agit-prop protest, with a selection of placards with delightfully pithy slogans, on the outskirts of the gathering. “The Tarzan topic seems to have come up a few weeks ago, following the death of Muhammad Ali; everyone seemed to have caught the clip with Ali reminding Michael Parkinson that Tarzan represented the outpourings of a man (Edgar Rice Burroughs) who admitted he hated himself and hoped to be more masculine and took his story from an incorrigible liar named Lord Greystoke who had travelled to Africa and failed a traditional masculine initiation ceremony but whose envy led him to invent tales of being raised by apes and developing dialogue with animals based on observances of definite communication taking place between certain Africans and their familiars,” she stated.
The concept of familiars, being avowedly untamed animals who develop extra sensory communication with one or several human beings, is a trope repeated in hosts of variant traditional African cultures. The fact that the fictitious Greystoke and Burroughs are both labelled as men who were not above making derogatory remarks in reference to Africans but yet find themselves leaning on African activities to lubricate their creative vehicles has led to Ms Sipho coining the term Euro-envy in reference to what she believes is a perpetual instant of cultural and intellectual misappropriation.
Critics have cited Legend of Tarzan’s screenplay as a prime example of historical misappropriation. The action takes place in Congo Free State in 1889 after King Leopold of Belgium had persuaded the 1884 Berlin Conference that he should be allowed to participate in European states’ avowed claim to “civilise” Africa. As voracious, rapacious and ruthless as the likes of France, Britain and Germany had proven to be in their efforts to extract wealth from Africa, even they could not stomach Leopold’s excesses. The brutality which was inflicted on Congolese women, children and men led to an estimated 10 million deaths in only 20 years, making Leopold, perhaps, human history’s most barbaric genocidist. In the real world tableau which unfolded in response to these outrages steps George Washington Williams, a bona fide all-American hero (Civil War veteran who furthered his renown as a gunfighter through extended stints as a mercenary before qualifying as a lawyer and working as a journalist and groundbreaking author) does actually travel to The Congo to meet with Leopold’s representatives between 1889 and 1890. Travelling as an envoy for the US, Williams is appalled by the levels of desperation and extremities of brutality he witnesses. His task as an envoy was a tentative foray into colonial waters for the US government. Leopold had run into debt in his venture to capitalise on The Congo’s exceptionally qualitative rubber crop.
In the late 19th Century it was easy to predict that automobile ownership was set to become universal within a very short space of time, the USA didn’t want to be beholden to a foreign government as the major supplier of such a valuable resource (rubber makes tyres etc.) and may have sent Williams to assess whether Leopold was ready to throw in the towel, as Williams biographer John Hope Franklin suggests that Henry Ford sponsored Williams’ African odyssey. Although information is sketchy, there is more than enough evidence to suggest that Williams linked forces with Congolese liberationists resisting the sadistic Belgian army by way of raids which released captured people. The detailed letter which Williams addressed to the US Secretary of State posthumously (he died in transit in Blackpool during 1891) represented the first evidence of Leopold’s barbarism.
A real life American hero? Stylish and efficient with firearms and using his talent for mass homicide to liberate benighted Africans captured and brutalised by non-English speaking Europeans? Sounds like a shoo-in for Warner Bros to bankroll. Spoiler alert – Williams is portrayed, with a nod to historical accuracy, by Hollywood heavyweight Samuel L Jackson. That’s right, the all-American hero I’ve been referring to has a close resemblance to Samuel L Jackson. Shouldn’t be a problem in 2016. After all, Jackson, as well as the likes of Denzel Washington, Will Smith, Morgan Freeman, Jamie Foxx, Eddie Murphy, Laurence Fishburne, Chadwick Boseman and others have all headed mega budget marquee films over the past couple decades.
Therefore, it becomes bewildering that in the midst of this essentially feelgood fest someone thought it would be a good idea to shoehorn Tarzan and Jane into the mix. Publicity blurb claims the producers seek to “rehabilitate Tarzan for the modern era”, Tony Warner, proprietor of the Black History Studies venture which hosts tutorial sightseeing tours of London, wonders why there should be need to “rehabilitate” Tarzan. “David Yates is the director of at least three or four Harry Potter films, I believe, so with the reputation he has gained for creativity and imagination we can only guess at why he would wish to attach himself to this antiquated relic of a bygone consciousness,” says Warner. “Burroughs quoted Tarzan referring to himself as ‘killer of Africans’ and reports concerning Greystoke suggests he was a slaveowner. What is there to rehabilitate? They were of that time, people claim they’ve evolved from the attitudes people held in the 19th and early 20th Century, why do they still need to watch Tarzan?,” he continued. “Tarzan ran on British TV from the 1960s through to the 1990s. We had the Johnny Weismuller films in black & white and the TV series starring Ron Ely. Everybody hated them. ‘Rehabilitating’ Tarzan is tantamount to laundering the reputation of Leopold.”
For myself, as one of only 12 non-white boys in a school of 500 pupils, the social malapropisms which contextualised Tarzan provided fuel for racial goading and bullying. Tarzan movies screened at 11.00am every weekday morning during school vacations. As many activities as one might have during school vacations there are always those rainy days one would stay in, turn on the gogglebox and find Tarzan beating the bejabbers out of 27 Africans all at once or saving Jane from some nameless “tribe of cannibals”. I sometimes fought every day of every week during term time responding to jibes often progenitored by some reference to Tarzan. “If Tarzan and Jane were white, what would you call Cheetah? The good looking one….” After repeated trips to the headmaster’s office, one realises that reacting to each and every slight is not the most progressive expenditure of time. Response was futile, but so was compliance as the jibes continued.
Strangest of all is the insistence of movie producers who repeat a formula when the movie ticket purchasing public fails to show any real enthusiasm for the venture. Despite Yates’ deft cinematic caress, Skargaard’s abs and Robbie’s dazzling smile, the latest adaptation of Roald Dahl’s BFG gave Yates’ Tarzan a box office hiding on opening weekend in the USA as Legend Of underperformed in a manner that indicates Warner Bros might only recoup the $400m it requires for the film to break even by way of performance in markets (probably Asia) outside of the US. Considerations on whether a sequel and subsequent franchise series remain viable are presently on hold. Some might claim a box office flop is no less than the producers deserve but some might ask why anyone would risk $180m on a project which features Robbie’s assertive Jane chained to a post for 50 minutes waiting for Tarzan to rescue her and where the Africans cower in the background while Tarzan and his animal friends defeat the Belgians on their behalf during an era when the movie industry is facing charges of ongoing recidivist bigotry.
Media analyst Trevor Fogah Griffiths ponders whether photoshopping Tarzan onto the legend of a real life African-American hero’s legend represents an example of Hollywood’s oft-declared attempts at “wider inclusion and greater diversity”.
Samuel L Jackson as George Washington Williams (left) Sister Sipho in activist mode
“It’s not the first time,” he proclaims. “Bass Reeves became a pre-eminent bounty hunter across Arkansas and Oklahoma in the late 19th Century, so good they made him marshal in several big frontier towns. He’d clean ‘em up and move on, him and his indigenous American tracker and the horse he could communicate with by whistling. TV executives loved his legend so much they made a TV series named Lone Ranger.” One might ponder whether the Lone Ranger’s mask was a psychosomatic attempt to further obscure Reeves’ heritage while contradictorily leaving a signifier to the fact that the real Reeves could also have been portrayed by Samuel L Jackson.
Internationally renowned anthropologist Dr Lez Henry, author of the groundbreaking tome Whiteness Made Simple: Step Into The Grey Zone, theorises on the perpetuation of intellectual genocide and the cultural misappropriation of African art, fashion, culture, music and even historical achievements and religion. “Tarzan almost perfectly epitomises the European ethnocentric crisis which has enveloped the white male psyche since the loss of his former empire and colonies,” states Dr Henry.
“The creation of the Tarzan myth and continual misappropriation of African accomplishments by attributing them to Europeans emanates from the type of colonial imperialist sentiment which bolstered the bruised egos of Europeans who confused military barabarism and genocidal tendencies with racial superiority,” he continued. “Similarly, we notice how many computer and online games concern themselves with the establishment of ‘empires’ through the brutal subjugation of non-Europeans. This may partly explain why English soccer fans claim victory through streetfighting when confronted with the reality of a national team that repeatedly fails to live up to their construct of ‘superiority’ on a level playing field, where so-called ‘inferior races’ explode the myths they disseminate about their capabilities as fantasy. Within this context it becomes easy to understand why these psychologically fragile people continue making up ‘new’ adventures for the likes of Tarzan and James Bond.”
Movie director David Yates (left) and self-avowed bigotEdgar Rice Burroughs (right) 1875-1950. Separated at birth?
Dr Henry’s assessment dovetails with the observations of Credit Suisse CEO Tidjane Thiam, who offered a point of view of the recent Brexit conclusion to the recent referendum conducted on Britain’s membership within the European Economic Union based on his 12 year tenure in Britain. Mr Thiam said he felt that the decision came as a result of a mass hubris exacerbated by concerted lack of investment in education of recent decades and demonstrated evidence of a distinct intellectual underclass in Britain, seemingly incapable of coping with the complexities of the modern world.
Sipho hopes her accusation of Euroenvy might lead to an evolution in thinking. “Some might dismiss our protest to a movie as trivial as Tarzan as inconsequential but we sometimes have to shake people out of their comfort zone by hurting their ego, rather than attempt to appeal to their humanity or intellect,” she declares. “The atrocities that so appalled George Washington Williams in Congo Free State in 1889 continue today. 1,152 women are systematically raped, tortured and mutilated in Democratic Republic of the Congo everyday. A child dies of starvation or some other war-related atrocity every 30 seconds, children aged six to twelve are forced down mines for 14 hour shifts and near six million Congolese have lost their lives in the modern version of this near 140 year holocaust. We can only imagine how dispiriting their situation is and how desperate they have to be to leave family and their homes to seek refugee status.
No Tarzan swinging in to rescue these real life atrocity victims
“A film is entertainment but entertainment should always aspire to art and you cannot make art from lies. If you didn’t intend to highlight George Washington Williams’ heroism that is your prerogative, but why seek to rehabilitate your ill-deserving idol and his ill-deserving author by detracting from a real hero? This man has descendants and relatives who may be proud of his achievements but you feel you have the right to tarnish their heritage just because you can? If there isn’t a definition for intellectual genocide then perhaps someone needs to create a verb which articulates it and cite this incident as an accurate example.”
A spokesperson for David Yates declined to comment on the petition or criticisms of his latest film’s content. A spokesperson for Warner Bros said the ‘reboot’ of the Tarzan fable was “conducted in good faith and sensitivity” and had sought the input of “all interested parties.”