Legend of Tarzan is, based on box office performance, on the cusp of what could be called “sequel-worthy” — not quite there yet, but with a good strong push from a creative team who wants to make a sequel, and with perhaps some clever optimization of tax rebates and other enlightened strategies to keep the budget down — it could be getting close to where a sequel pitch might get taken seriously. But ….. the foregoing only takes into account the box office performance. Unfortunately, there is also the matter of all the flak the studio has gotten from “social justice warrior” critics who object to the very idea of a Tarzan movie in 2016 (much moreso in 2019) on the grounds that it reinforces racial stereotypes and perpetuates a white savior storyline that is sooooooo repugnant that no Tarzan movie should ever be made again, etc, etc, etc.
Does this type of vociferous social justice criticism of the very concept of Tarzan matter? Are studio heads listening?
I think the short answer is that if the film had made $1B globally the studio heads would react with “the people have voted with their box office dollars and this is a manufactured problem, not a real one” — and would merrily go about their way making a sequel.
But that’s not what happened.
Legend of Tarzan has outperformed industry experts; audiences have liked it; but critics did not like it and and particular class of critics (the social watchdogs) have truly savaged it. Why would WB stick its toe into that water again? Remember, it took Jerry Weintraub, a lion of a producer with a network of relationships like no other, to get the first film made, and now Jerry is gone. Who will replace Jerry in advocating for a sequel? I’ll leave that as an open question.
Which brings me to the Ten Commandments.
I do think that in order to even get the attention of the studio, a pitch for a sequel will need to address the social justice arguments against it. It cannot be dismissive of them; cannot be “haters gonna hate”. Sorry, but no.
Hence the Ten Commandments.
I don’t actually have ten, but maybe somebody out there will add a few, wiki style, in the comments.
A Co-Equal Black African Character With Agency–and African Culture as Complex, Nuanced, and Sophisticated
The first film made a genuine effort to treat African characters with respect, I get that. The Kuba were presented as peaceful, intelligent, and reasonably sophisticated –not uncouth savages. Mbongo was shown as intelligent. And of course there was George Washington Williams, played by Samuel L. Jackson, who was the whole reason for Tarzan returning to Africa. So on one level, fans of the film will say — isn’t that enough? But you saw the criticism — no, it wasn’t enough. Why? Well, the critics pointed out that no Kuba had no more than a line or two and most of what they had to say was to praise Jane or Tarzan and express love for them. Mbongo was dismissed as sort of a glorified cameo.
There must be a nearly co-equal black African character with agency equal to Tarzan’s.
For those who, like me, aren’t necessarily up on social science lingo – definition of “agency” in this context:
In social science, agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. By contrast, structure is those factors of influence (such as social class, religion, gender, ethnicity, customs, etc.) that determine or limit an agent and his or her decisions.
Mbongo has already been established as a character who might fit the bill for this. Certainly Djimon Hounsou can carry the load. Would it be as an antagonist of Tarzan? Or an ally? If an ally, it cannot be “sidekick” and cannot be subordinate.
And finally on this one — African culture must be shown to be complex, sophisticated, and nuanced. Vastly different from European culture — but internally, when you’re on the inside of it, fully developed in its own ways. (For inspiration and ideas, see Being Colonized: The Kuba Experience in Rural Congo 1880-1960, which is a fascinating account of Kuba culture and the experience of what it was like from the Kuba perspective to be Kuba in the pre-colonial period, then to be colonized and “civilized” by the Europeans.)
Colonialism, Including British Colonialism, Must be Critically Examined
I expect pushback on this because in the books, which I love, Tarzan was never, to my recollection, at odds with British colonialism. I get that, and I have a warm fuzzy spot in my heart for the way ERB depicted British colonialism as essentially benign, with Tarzan eventually becoming “Big Bwana” on the estate. It was being written in the early 1900s. People believed in thngs like Manifest Destiny and the White Man’s Burden. (Even though Burroughs penned a parody, The Black Man’s Burden.) It works in the books. But it won’t work in a 2018 film, unless the idea is to just abandon the task of neutralizing the social warrior critics and let them have a field day at the expense of the movie.
A word about major Hollywood movies (a mainstream global cultural event to be seen and absorbed by many millions in every country in the world) vs , for example, the writing of a pastiche Tarzan book (a small niche endeavor meant only for at most a few thousand Tarzan passionistas). It’s impossible to escape or ignore the potential for profound cultural impact, positive or negative, that a major Hollywood film released in all the countries around the world can have. We can rail against excessive political correctness all we want, but a major motion picture from a major Hollywood studio has the potential to play a meaningful role in shaping global societal views on an issue as large as the role of European culture in overwhelming African culture during the colonial period. And because of that — a major Hollywood film has social responsibilities that a niche enterprise can ignore but a major Hollywood film can’t. A major Hollywood film does have meaningful responsibilities that come from being, by its very nature and “major-ness”, such a global cultural juggernaut.
So given this reality — what are the options?
In the first movie King Leopold is set up as a baddie…… but it’s not enough portray King Leopold as rapacious and evil but leave the Brits and other colonizers un-criticized. All colonizers, while not necessarily evil, would need to be shown as have a negative influence on Africa and Africans — not 100% negative, there could be aspects that are positive. But the social warrior critics are never going to let the movie off the hook if it in any way glamorizes or paints as acceptable the entire colonial relationship as it existed in 1890s Africa in the aftermath of the Berlin convention, etc.
How can this be done?
It’s not easy, that’s for sure. A central feature of Tarzan, the literary character, was that in Africa he eventually lived as Lord Greystoke on what can only be described as a grand estate as a colonial master of his realm – a benign white ruler of his parcel of Africa – and would whip out his doeskin loin cloth and take the trees, reverting to Tarzan status, only when circumstances required it. This seems to be the setup that were were left with at the end of the first film as well.
But I don’t think it works to resume with Tarzan and Jane living as Lord and Lady Greystoke in the old Porter home on the outskirts of the friendly Kuba village.
What would work?
I dunno. It’s not easy.
Without knowing how we bend the story to get there, I keep thinking that between the end of the first movie and the beginning of the second, some bad things need to have happened. The Kuba need to have been driven from their land and have migrated someplace else, far away. Perhaps Jane and young John are safely in England, while Tarzan has remained in Africa for some reason — and that reason can’t be to protect the Kuba tribe, nor can it be in the service of colonialism in any way. Can it be subversively anti-colonialist?
The Relief of Emin Pasha?
One thought that keeps occurring is that perhaps this historical expedition to rescue Emin Pasha could be used. The timing is off a little — it took place from 1886-1889 — and the sequel would happen in the early 1890s but I don’t think that’s a dealbreaker. Emin Pasha was the supposedly besieged European governor of Equatoria, which would have been just across the border from Congo Free State. Pasha was threatened by Mahdist Muslim forces who had captured Khartoum, to the north, in 1885 and were spreading south into Equatoria, which was a province of southern Sudan, bordering on present day Uganda and Congo. The expedition to “save” Emin Pasha was headed by Henry Morton Stanley (of “Dr. Livingston, I preume” fame) and the relief expedition came to be both celebrated and criticized for d came to be celebrated for its ambition in crossing “darkest Africa”, and and criticized notorious for the deaths of so many natives and of its own members the diseases which they unwittingly left in their wake. It’s a very messy business, with lots of action, and ultimately when they find Emin Pasha he doesn’t want to be saved. Emin Pasha turns out to be a fascinating character — born Eduard Schnitzer, a German Jew in Silesia, he was a physician and naturalist who ended up in Africa as Emin Pasha and may (or may not have) become a Muslim. When Stanley finally reached him — he didn’t want to come out. So . . . without gong into all the details, there is a great deal going on in the Emin Pasha expedition that has the potential to a) provide adventure, b) present all European colonialism in an unfiltered light, and c) involves non-stereotypical characters and situation — starting with Emin Pasha himself, who is a bit of an enigma and worthy of some exploration.
The question is — too heavy? Not pure enough adventure? What would Tarzan’s role be? Could he be a reluctant participant in the expedition who gradually faces a moral crisis over what it represents, and eventually switches sides? But then wouldn’t that fall into the trap of the “white savior” trope?
But there is something interesting there to be explored.
Or, Perhaps, An Adventure Among the Only Uncolonized Africans
As mentioned about, the South Sudan province of Equatoria was just across the border from Congo Free State. Keep going northwest a little and you’re in Ethiopia.
Ah…..Ethiopia.Now there’s an interesting place. (I lived there from 1981-83, so I have a personal interest in it.) The only uncolonized African country. In the early 1890’s the Italians, who had been left out of the Berlin agreement of 1884, were trying to get their claws into Africa via Ethiopia, which is in the Horn of Africa and included at that time mountains, deserts, and rain forests, and was a real country, ruled by Menelik II, who claimed uninterrupted male line of descent from the biblical King Solomon, and who was busy trying to re-establish Ethiopia to its former status as the Axumite Empire — which had been regarded as one of the four most powerful kingdoms of the ancient world. Menelik signed a treaty with Italians which he considered a treaty of friendship, but which the Italians viewed as making Ethiopia an Italian protectorate. It all came to a head in the famous Battle of Adwa in 1896 in which a massed army of 100,000 Ethiopians, without any help from any Europeans, defeated the invading Italians and sent them packing back to Italy.
What about Tarzan getting drawn into that situation? There you would have a story which depicts arguably the proudest moment of Africa during the period of colonization; illuminates a complex and sophisticated African culture not molded or shaped by Europe; and shows the Europeans getting soundly defeated by native Africans without European intervention.
The problem would be …. if you make Tarzan a difference maker on behalf of the Ethiopians, then you’ve got white savior again, so that doesn’t work.
Could Tarzan be in Ethiopia for some other reason (helping archaeologists or anthropologists?) and have a sort of parallel adventure in which whatever grand task he must perform at the end is parallel to, but not a part of, the battle between Ethiopia and Italy?
I’ll stop there. It’s time to make breakfast. I think I only have a couple of commandments so far, and a lot of speculation after that. But let’s recap the two big commandments:
- Black African character with full agency almost co-equal to Tarzan. African culture shown as complex, nuanced, and sophisticated.
- Tarzan at odds with all colonialism, not just the evil King Leopold. British colonialism doesn’t get a pass. The entire European incursion into Africa is to be looked at critically and depicted in a way that does not advance or reinforce stereotypes that are now viewed as inaccurate and dangerous.
Boy, I expect this whole post will annoy a lot of people whom I normally don’t annoy that much. I don’t mean to do that. I just want to see another Tarzan film in my lifetime, and yet I feel like there are many factors working against it. I’m just trying to figure out a way to thread the needle, and it’s not easy.
UPDATE (NEXT DAY)
Lots of interesting comments here and on Facebook. One common theme is that a lot of people feel it should go the fantasy/lost civilization route. I’m having a very mixed reaction to that notion and I want to add something about that.
First of all, I hope, think, and believe that one takeaway from the movie is that an ERB romantic adventure is still viable and will continue to be viable as a format/structure for movies in the 21st century. The box office performance is, when you set aside the high cost of the film, sufficient to allow someone to make that case. There is an audience out there for this kind of movie. (But then we sort of knew that from Avatar anyway, didn’t we?)
Secondly, I think we know that the creative team who made LOT is kind of locked into the historical setting and framework. That doesn’t mean they couldn’t do a re-think and we could even play a role in helping them do a re-think. That’s not a grandiose thought — “wisdom of the crowd” is an established data point worth considering, and we have the means to put ideas in front of David Yates, David Barron, Adam Cozad, and the rest of the creative tam. Doesn’t mean they will agree — but they will read and consider. So this is not just idle conjecture.
Third … every time I think of doing a lost civilization story with this setup (director, cast, characters) I have a two phase reaction–first phase, yeah, that would solve a lot of problems and could work ….. followed by second phase — hmmmm, I just don’t know if that’s a good fit for this character and setup that has already been established. Yes if it’s a reboot and everything is new, but for a sequel . . . I don’t know.
But let’s say okay, let’s try and do a lost civilization fantasy sequel. How would that look?
Presumably it would use Opar, which has already been established–at least the gates of Opar have been established, which is good since the rest of it is a blank slate. How would it go from there? Would the inhabitants be white, black, or something else? If they are white — bam! — seems like the social warrior critics will have a field day. If they are black and Tarzan fights them –bam!– whacked again, as I don’t think any negative depiction of black Africans as a group is going to escape the wrath of the social warriors. If they are black and Tarzan helps them — bam! — white savior trope.
So, I’m attracted to the idea, but not really convinced — possibly because of a failure of my own imagination. I wish someone (hint, hint) would think it through and lay it out for me.