Harry Belafonte, looking absolutely spectacular at 88, guested today on Fareed Zakaria’s Global Public Square on CNN and discussed Hollywood and race relations. Belafonte famously cited his experience viewing Tarzan the Ape Man in his Academy Award acceptance speech a year ago, and in his appearance on Zakaria he went there again, albeit in a more measured way. He starts out by telling the story of seeing a Weissmuller Tarzan movie:
A lot of kids in Harlem couldn’t wait to go see the movie.. . . as the picture opened and played, throughout the course I found myself being impacted by the way the Africans were portrayed. Here was this large group of people, they were indigenous, and here they were, stumbling through the forest, and everything they attempted to do, they could only do, they could only be guided by the beings of Tarzan, the great white hope. And I watched that, and when I left there, the one thing that I remember distinctly was that I did not want to be identified with Africa. I did not want to be an african. The way Africans were depicted it was so demeaning, and they represented such stupidity, and such absence of intelligence. And I decided the last thing I ever wanted to be was an African and to be referred to as a descendant of Africa.
Here is the YouTube clip of Zakaria’s show, cued to Belafonte’s appearance. It’s worth watching the video to hear him speak these words over images depicting what he’s talking about. He and Zakaria go on to acknowledge that things have changed a lot over the years . . . and there is no discussion of the upcoming Tarzan, as the point of the piece is to talk about the #Oscarssowhite controvery, not Tarzan movies. Scroll down after the video for more thoughts on “Tarzan and the Race and Values Discussion” . . .
Thoughts on Tarzan and the Race and Values Discussion
I think it’s important to realize — as Zakaria does — that Belafonte’s experience as a young black child watching a 1930’s Tarzan movie is compelling and viscerally makes the legitimate point that Hollywood movies affect values in viewers. Who can deny that? And thus, as a culture who gives rise to these movies, a discussion of how the movies then and now affect values is an important discussion. Which brings us to Legend of Tarzan 2016. What will be the feeling that is carried by a young person of color when they go home from watching Legend of Tarzan in Chicago or Detroit or Johannesburg or Addis Ababa?
I think it’s important that those of us who are cheering on David Yates’ Legend of Tarzan fully take on board the fact that the kind of perspective that Belafonte brings to this issue is widely held nowadays, and thus any movie being made in 2016 and released widely around the globe is going to be subject to a great deal of scrutiny. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. There is no doubt that in the early (and not so early) Tarzan movies and to a certain extent in the books (with exceptions — the Waziri, etc), the depiction of black Africans often veered into the realm of “exotic background” which could produce the kind of steretypical and ultimately negative depictions seen in the clip above, and in turn the depictions could easily evoke among young black viewers the kind of reaction that Belafonte had. I get that. And I’m pretty confident that the filmmakers who have made Legend of Tarzan get that. But still I have concerns that I think are well founded that this issue is going to be dog the movie unless the filmmakers have figured a very clever way out of this particular forest.
For example — even if, as appears to be the case, the African participants are depicted as proud, powerful warriors more like the Waziri or the leopard men than Mbonga’s hapless cannibal tribe (even though the character name used for Djimon Hounsou is Mbonga) — the potential is there for the movie to fall short in what many of the fans of the books would consider an unfair political correctness test. Tarzan is the hero, Tarzan is white, Tarzan will undoubtedly be depicted as having some degree of superiority over his antagonsists which will in some fashion allow him to prevail — and so if blacks are the antagonists and he prevails over them, then he’s better than they are and that’s perceived as a problem. Or if they are his allies and he helps them, that’s a problem too –the movie gets tagged as patronizing, imperialistic, etc . . .
Many in “our crowd” (ERB enthusiasts) will just throw up our hands and cry: “Unfair!” I’m not one of those. I believe that when you spend $180M on a movie and another $100m to promote it and put it in virtually every cinema location in every city around the globe, you do have to think about these things and it’s not just a matter of political correctness. Major Hollywood films are as powerful a mechanism for value promotion as any single thing in the global culture of 2016. They are all the more powerful because the values come wrapped in pop culture candy. Filmmakers do have an obligation to apply to their films the current “state of the art” awarenes of what values they are subtly and not so subtly promoting. Not that they do, of course, but it’s fair to believe they should, and fair to criticize them when they don’t.
The reality is that Tarzan is a film vehicle that is based on a century old model that is timeless in its appeal on the one hand — but which was created within a temporal and cultural context that is vastly different from today. In 1912 the British Empire held sway over a quarter of the world’s surface and 20% of its population and this was considered a good thing by many (though not all) . . . .Jim Crow laws . . . . segregation . . . . all of that was embedded in the culture and – the anti-imperialists notwithstanding– was not the subject of widespread debate in the popular culture of the day.
This reality gives rise to two thoughts which I will end with.
One, it’s unfair in the extreme to apply 2016 standards of cultural awareness to a book written in 1912. Any analysis of that book must make allowances for the time in which it is written.
But — two — it IS absolutely fair to apply 2016 standards of cultural awareness to a movie produced in 2015 for release in every theater complex around the world in 2016.
So I do believe the race and values discussion for Legend of Tarzan is timely, relevant, and meaningful, and I just hope that the filmmakers have truly figured out a way to navigate the minefield that awaits the movie.