I had never considered the idea that the titular character in the Tarzan movies being white was exploitative and revisionist. In my view, it made for compelling cinema storyline much the same way God being a black Morgan Freeman in Bruce Almighty or a diminutive and bespectacled George Burns in Oh God. A black Tarzan swinging from vines through the jungle would be rather predictable and boring. But the sharp contrast of a white Tarzan swinging through the jungle pursued by charcoal dark natives literally jumped at you back in the day when we were introduced to the franchise via black and white television.
Years down the line today, perhaps on account of a refined movie palate or may be because of my anger arising from the perennial reenactment of the Hunger Games by the American police on African Americans, watching the Legend of Tarzan, the latest installment in the franchise, further angered rather than entertained me.
The Legend of Tarzan opens with graphics across the screen announcing with revisionist casualness that in 1884, the great powers of the world partitioned Africa amongst themselves (like an entire continent of flesh and blood human beings were some wild game mowed down in the Serengeti and its carcass butchered and shared out amongst hunters). The graphics further situates the location as “The African Congo” (as distinct, I suppose, from the American Congo and European Congo and that other Congo spelt with a “K” which when you think about it as a double entendre; is basically what the great powers did to Africa in 1884 when they partitioned it and … you get the picture).
In typical colonial revisionist ignorance and appropriation, a pale-skinned and blond-haired Caucasian child raised in the jungle by Gorillas who had killed his father is proclaimed “Africa’s most famous son”. Relocated to England years later as an aristocrat member of the House of Lords, he accepts an invitation to return to Africa or as his equally pale-skinned and blonde-haired wife calls it; “Home”.
In the real world, it would be a fair statement to say a white man can’t run faster than a black man. But in a revisionist cinematic world, “Africa’s most famous son” is a white man who runs through the jungle faster than the natives and forms bond with the animals that even the natives can boast of. Heck, his sixth sense is sharper than that of a lion. Like Superman, Tarzan’s ears are so finely tuned that he was able to pick up Jane’s distress cry in the jungle when she was apprehended by goons who had taken her hostage as bait. But a pride of lions devouring their prey can’t smell him from afar until he interrupts them in mid-lunch. And in a move that just beggars belief; they engage him in a mutual “hey buddy, long time no see” body rub in acknowledgment of a bond of friendship forged when he was still a resident of the jungle.
In their own homeland, native Africans become secondary upon the arrival of a blond-haired white god with sculpted abs. They literally worship him and his blonde-haired goddess. On account of his arrival, their Chief and kin are killed and their houses set ablaze. 800 natives manacled in a train are rescued by Tarzan swinging through the African jungle like he owns it. Jane is not left out in the white saviour/messiah business either. She escapes capture on a boat, rescues a captured native from drowning and outswims approaching hippos, assumes a submissive position to ward off an attack by a group of gorillas but lets off an empathetic cry when they were slaughtered by the bad guys that was decidedly stronger and more heart-wrenching than her grief when hapless natives were slaughtered during her and Tarzan’s capture. As in real life, the black man is apparently not as important as a gorilla.
The movie utilizes flashbacks to explain Tarzan’s backstory but never quite explains his ascendancy to aristocracy and the House of Lords. As Tarzan, Alexander Skarsgard wasn’t so much king of the jungle as he was eye candy English aristocrat in the jungle. For one fabled to have a deep connection with the jungle and its animals, there was a glaring disconnect between him and them. Whatever connection one saw seemed contrived and even perfunctory. Margot Robbie’s Jane had the romanticized physical attributes expected of a fair Caucasian maiden in the African jungle. But the kick-ass persona of her Jane seemed more in tune with the independent woman conventional wisdom of the 21st century than the damsel in distress favoured by the narrative of the 19th century in which the movie is set.
Another disappointment for me in this movie was Samuel L. Jackson and Christopher Waltz. How could notable thespians of their calibre lend their names and presence to this hogwash of exploitative and revisionist cinema? There was nothing in the script to inspire great acting and nothing in their respective performance to justify their casting. For a movie set in 1890, Samuel L. Jackson played his character with a clearly 21st century accent and swag. He made no noticeable attempt to infuse period authenticity in his character and carried on acting like he was playing a watered down version of Jules Winnfield from Pulp fiction.
The final battle scene just reeked of the thoughtless implausibility that pervaded the entire movie. A long-absent Tarzan who had only just returned to the jungle was able to summon reinforcement in the form of a wildebeest stampede to crush the bad guys but the natives who had spent their entire lives in that land could not form such alliance with the wild animals and enlist their assistance in running the plundering colonialists off their land. And in the stampede, the rampaging animals managed to trample only the bad guys with seeming laser-guided precision whilst missing the good guys.
In the Legend of Tarzan, it is the white colonialists who plunder the land. It is they who slaughter both man and beast but it is the natives who are referred to as “savages”. The Legend of Tarzan is a crappy big budget Blaxploitation movie with white actors in lead roles. It came across as intrusively annoying and diversionary as an all lives matter poster in a black lives matter rally.