As the dust settles from the release of Legend of Tarzan, the “long game” will start, and that includes taking stock of the status of Tarzan as a cultural icon and potential film franchise in the future. As all of those who are fans of Tarzan and have been paying even a little attention know — Legend of Tarzan was met with a tremendous amount of headwind coming from not just movie critics who didn’t “get” the film for whatever reason, but from movie and cultural critics who believe that the expiration date for Tarzan is passed; that it is a dated concept that has a fatal flaw that disqualifies it for further promulgation as a 21st century concept. That flaw, they argue, is the white savior trope; the fact that the core concept places a white hero in Africa where he excels, besting beasts and black men in the process, and in so doing reaffirming a white superiority, colonialist/imperialist and even inherently racist message that is so distasteful by 21st century standards as to make the entire concept unworkable.
I make it a point to read every one of these attacks. On a personal level, I care deeply about Tarzan and the entirety of the legacy of Edgar Rice Burroughs. I believe there is great, lasting value in what ERB created; I believe that my own personal life journey was molded in a very positive way by my intense immersion in the worlds and characters of ERB, and it certainly did not produce in me any racist tendencies or other negative qualities. As I have written elsewhere, reading ERB taught me to believe in my ability to better myself physically and intellectually through hard work (isn’t that what Tarzan did?), it taught me to believe I could accomplish great things (still unfulfilled, but not for lack of trying), it taught me to believe there was a Jane or Dejah or Thuvia or Duare out there who would be worthy of a lifetime of love and dedication. These seem like timeless values that should be valued and promoted, not yanked off the shelf and buried.
Ah, but that’s just me.
The other side has a lot of voices, and in the cultural dialogue that’s going on out there, they are becoming ascendant.
I hope to write substantively about all this — in fact have begun doing so, behind the scenes. The Tarzan Files has many purposes, and one them is to serve as a filing cabinet for articles and ideas that seem important to me as they relate to Tarzan as he exists in the world of ERB and in the larger world.
So . . . . it’s time to start taking a look at some of the “negative press” that’s out there. I won’t just share every gripe that I come across. But the more notable ones deserve, well, to be noted.
Here is one. Of many.
Taking Tarzan to Tusk
by Hamid Dabashi, Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University
As a lame legacy of Hollywood, Tarzan is irredeemable and should simply be allowed to fade out in a gentle death.
I teach a graduate seminar at Columbia University we call: “Postcolonialism: Film, Fiction, History, Theory”, in which I have included, since its 1999 publication, Adam Hochschild’s mesmerising book, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa.
Imagine my surprise a few days ago while scrolling down my newsfeed to see the same Adam Hochschild had written a film review on the new version of the old Tarzan films, The Legend of Tarzan.
Prompted by Hochschild’s piece, I went to see the new Tarzan, and 30 seconds into the film, I was sucked in by the opening historical note that as a result of the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 Congo was divided up between Belgium and the United Kingdom.
So here I was, caught between my childhood Tarzan fantasies and my adult critical thoughts, undecided between a swinging rope suggesting itself here and a postcolonial hat commanding attention there: which one to pick, and which way to swing?
The Impossible Epic
The problem with this or any other Tarzan in this particular age in which we live is embedded in what Jordan Hoffman, the Guardian film critic, aptly calls “the uncomfortable optic of this glorious white couple being cheered and paraded around by their happy, loving black pals”.
The fact is that as a lame legacy of Hollywood racism building on good old British colonialist literature, Tarzan is irredeemable and should simply be allowed to fade out in a gentle archival death.
The image of a swinging Swedish Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard) and his Snow White Jane (Margot Robbie) in the company of chest-beating apes and kindly African tribes has long since ceased to cut a palatable scene, let alone at a time when white police officers are hunting down and executing young black men in the urban jungles of our daily lives.
The vicious brutality of Belgian colonialism in Congo, however, finding its historical way into the Legend of Tarzan has a bit of poetic irony to it.
Two narrative traits of European racist colonialism – one historical fact and the other literary fantasy – here collide and implode into each other, and conclude in a rather ludicrous nullity.
The historical record of that rabid greed and the phantasmagorical fiction of the swinging white man that kept European colonialism good company here come together in this latest Tarzan to upstage and dismantle each other at one and the same time.
Let me explain.