Harry Belafonte, Legend of Tarzan, and the Race and Values Discussion

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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?

See our study page on Edgar Rice Burroughs and the Racism/Imperialism Discussion.

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.


  • Yes,you are right about colonial times and the ease with which Eropeans regularly fell in love with Africa but my reference was to today’s sensibilities and whether or not Yates would tred with care regarding his treatment of the native population of the times. It will be interesting to see if Tarzan’s encounter with Mbongo is as a result of Rom’s plotting or if Tarzan goes to him on his own,to make a treaty and form an alliance which would mean that Mbogo’s blow ,that Tarzan appears to be submitting to in the trailer , is just the opening salvo or precursor to an eventual parley between them. . Most likely the blow itself is about Tarzan killing Mbongo’s son. I think there is an alliance in the wind ,regardless of how the Tarzan/ Mbongo confrontation comes about,since it’s difficult to imagine how Tarzan and Williams are going to take on Rom and his men with MBongo and his tribe at their heels as well.

  • Good thoughts and I agree with all of them except this: “It’s difficult to fall in love with Africa while at one and the same time showing it’s natives as somehow ” less than”.” ….. Well, generations of colonial Brits and French and others did manage to fall in love with AFrica while considering the natives to be “less than” . . . . . but that’s just a quibble. I think you’ are right …. the main conflict will be between Tarzan and Rom, bu in order to that he’ll have to defeat or form an alliance with Mbonga . . .who, pas played by Djimon Hounsou, will clearly be formidable.

    One thought I have had is that there’s a little bit of “sins of the past” coming back to haunt Tarzan. There’s a storyline floating around that Rom engineers it that Tarzan gets turned over the Mbonga, who has a legitimate grudge — that grudge being (if Burroughs backstory applies) a) Tarzan killed Kulonga, Mbonga’s son (never mind that Kulong killed Kala, and b) terrorized Mbonga’s village (“he was thought to be an evil spirit, a ghost in the trees”)……so there would be some form of comeuppance for past sins against the tribe, which would be pretty interesting as a kind of ‘b’ storyline . . . .

  • I think there has been consideration given to this ” sticky issue” judging by the fact that included in the trailer is a scene in which Mbongo punches Tarzan and he falls flat on his ass. That scene was included in that very brief first peak in which every scene was specially hand picked for a reason. That reason, in my opinion was to send a message to viewers that Tarzan was not going to be portrayed as the Great White hope,there to save the black native population from other whites,

    I think the film makers have worked out a treatment that will show That,yes ,Tarzan has a particular skill set that makes him a superior opponent to any enemy,white or black but that his choice of ” enemy” will be propelled by a very specific set of values and likewise his choice of ” friend” will also be channeled through a very specific value system. None of which,will be generalized enough to be seen as descriminatory or demeaning toward the native population. Also Tarzan has been partnered by a real life black humanitarian ,Williams,whose role in the film,I am guessing, is to be the spokesman for any ” help”or “aid” Tarzan and he,as a unit, give the natives.

    Meanwhile Tarzan, I suspect, will be mainly concerned with rescuing Jane and dealing retribution upon the heads of her captors,which as a natural consequence may at the same time be of assistance to the natives. In other,words ,I don’t think this movie is setting up Tarzan to be a do gooder at large in Africa to rescue the poor suffering natives from their oppressors. It’s obviously not showing a Tarzan who is predudiced against blacks or sees them as inferiorsince his partner ,Williams , is black and will occampany him throughout this adventure. It is after all, an adventure and meant in Yaes’s own words to make us ” fall in love with Africa”. It’s difficult to fall in love with Africa while at one and the same time showing it’s natives as somehow ” less than”. Africa and Africans by their close association have to be respected together as a unit or there is no ” falling in love” that is possible. I am guessing that Yates is well aware of this important connection as well as the ” political” waters he must carefully negotiate if his film is to be well received.

  • The portrayal of Blacks in the Weissmuller movies is indeed fairly horrible. There’s not even a named Black character in Tarzan the Ape Man. And when the white hunter shoots one of Tarzan’s fellow ape before his very eyes, he takes revenge on two hapeless black porters whose only fault was wandering on their own… and the white hunter is never punished for his actions. No doubt The Legend of Tarzan will feature more positive black characters. I can even bet all the really devilish people will be white… as with Burroughs.

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