While most websites are just playing the trailer and pasting in the promotional copy from Warner Brothers, some are offering reactions to what they’re seeing. One theme that has come up not so much in articles and posts, but in a lot of comments, is colonialism and the appropriateness (or lack thereof) of a “white savior” story in 2016. One well articulate take on this issue (which I will be revisiting here more than once, and in depth, as time goes on) is on The Mary Sue.
The Legend of Tarzan Trailer Can’t Hide Its Colonial Roots
But can it salvage them?
I have to say, while I try to avoid judging a movie by its trailer, I’m a bit cautious about the Tarzan trailer. Burroughs’ Tarzan novels in the first half of the 1900s were wildly popular, but definitely indicative of the time period–specifically in portrayals of gender and race. That’s not to say there weren’t some moments critical of the “civilized” western society, but many of the colonial attitudes wouldn’t hold up well in a modern adaptation.
The beginning of the trailer opens with a foggy view of the Congo, the tribe led by Hounsou’s Mbonga, and Christoph Waltz as the narration ominously states:
The jungle consumes everything. It preys on the old, the sick, the wounded. It preys on the weak, but never the strong.
The image of the river, the personification of the jungle, and the sinister tone reminds me a lot of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and not in a good way. Like Conrad, Burrough’s book played on notions of primitivism and the jungle as a source of fear. Intended or not, there’s an existing stereotype and damaging tradition that the film plays with, in which Africa is painted as a savage, prehistoric, and unearthly place. Chinua Achebe explores this in “An Image of Africa,” calling the fictional Africa a “metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril.” To be fair, the uncanny, mystical aspect is somewhat unavoidable with human-like gorillas. Additionally, the backdrop of colonial guns versus a tribe with spears are ringing a few warning signs. An important thing to note is that even if these texts are ultimately critical of colonial violence, they can still perpetuate really harmful and racist images.
I think this misses a key aspect of Burroughs’ Africa which I think is contained in Yates’s Africa — and that is a reverence for the primal beauty of it all, and an appreciation for natural life as it’s manifested in the creatures of the forest. This is quite different from what is depicted in “An Image of Africa” … Overall, thoguh, this is a good, thoughtful take on this issue which acknowledges an issue that is really going to be there throughout the run-up to the release of the movie — think of it as the Tantor in the room — but at least the author, while concerned, doesn’t leap to conclusions but rather gives the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt, temporarily at least, until more information is available.
Please read the whole post — good stuff. Here’s the link: The Mary Sue: Tarzan Trailer