You can take the pulp novel out of history, but you can’t take history out of the pulp novel. God knows David Yates tried with The Legend of Tarzan, Warner Bros.’ recent attempt at character rehabilitation through franchising. The film couples WB’s hopes for cementing a new blockbuster tentpole with Yates’ attempts to scrub Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan yarns of their naked racism, Tarzan of the Apes in particular (being the text that Yates’ film draws on most for its material). If we’re awarding prizes just for showing up, Yates gets a trophy for recognizing Tarzan’s unpalatability for the modern moviegoer. Ironically, he also earns a finger-wagging for even trying.
Maybe don’t give the man too much flak. It’s impossible to divorce Tarzan from the racist undertones (and, hell, overtones) that litter Burroughs’ text. These details are ingrained in the character’s DNA. Tarzan of the Apes doesn’t disguise its substance, the moral of its story pretty much being that white people are better at everything than everyone else, notably black people, who are painted by Burroughs as less human than the Mangani apes who raised him. It’s white supremacist wish fulfillment, where the white male protagonist is physically and intellectually superior to friend and foe alike. You’d think Yates would dump that element first. Instead, he only crosses out Burroughs’ contempt for non-whites. The supremacy stays intact.
That’s good courtesy, of course, but in excising the overt racism of the Tarzan books, Yates accidentally emphasizes the racial dominance at the character’s core. Whether he’s saving Jane Porter (Margot Robbie) from the dastardly clutches of Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz) or making his adventuring partner, George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jckson), look like a buffoon at every opportunity, Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård) runs the show. He is an unstoppable force of Caucasian brawn and cunning, a hunky mirror which reflects the average person’s clownish impotence. Yates tries to fasten positive messages to The Legend of Tarzan’s framework—racism is bad, slavery is bad, all men are equal—but Tarzan’s effortless competence makes an unintended opposing statement: Only the white guy is capable enough to save the day.
Thanks to The Legend of Tarzan’s solid holiday weekend opening, WB’s executives have likely calmed their heart palpitations over its commercial prospects. But if the studio’s dreams of big overseas grosses come true or not, the film’s very existence is puzzling. Who thought this was a good idea? More importantly, good God, why? We live in the #problematic era, where social criticism tends to take priority over analysis of technique. Framed in that context, making a movie based on source material as undoubtedly problematic as Tarzan of the Apes sounds like a remarkably bad idea. It’s a miracle Yates and his producers weren’t tormented by dreams of furious think-pieces, crashing across the web like indignant tidal waves, during the film’s development.
Forgive them: They knew not what they were doing. WB and Yates meant well. Warts and all, The Legend of Tarzan is an honest go at surgically extracting Burroughs’ racism from his own work. The trouble is that they couldn’t do it. In all likelihood, nobody could, which again forces us to consider the wisdom of trying in the first place. (In point of fact, the hubris of trying is its own offense; resuscitating a racist brand to make a buck is very nearly the definition of exploitation.)
In so doing, the film underscores how discrimination can slip so easily beneath our radars, which is arguably a service unto itself. Maybe we need to be reminded of that in 2016. Maybe that makes Tarzan the hero we need after all. You can no more undo the racism of the past at the tip of a pen than you stop its flourishing in the present with a hashtag. The film unwittingly boosts the very ideals Yates means to decry, cutting an oblivious figure that clangs against other 2016 releases, big or small, which feature race as a theme or use it as a backdrop.
Even in the span of just a few years, comic book movies have evolved more on race than the Tarzan series has in a century. Last May, Marvel released Captain America: Civil War, a.k.a., Black Panther Prequel Movie, ostensibly the third chapter in the life and times of all-American hero Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), but also the big screen debut of mainstream comics’ first black superhero.
If it is by coincidence that T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), prince (and, by the end of Civil War, king) of the fictional African nation Wakanda, shares his MCU inauguration in the same year as a Tarzan reboot, then it’s a wry coincidence: The characters feel like spiritual kin of sorts, both being intelligent men with peerless martial talents who wear cultural mantles of authority. In England, Tarzan lives among the aristocracy as John Clayton III, Lord Greystoke, while T’Challa is the inheritor of an entire nation and a member of its ancient royal bloodline. But Tarzan’s roots endorse racism where Black Panther’s roots protest it. (T’Challa fought the Ku Klux Klan in a short story arc that ran from January through November in 1976, for crying out loud.)
For all the traits they share in common, though, these characters couldn’t be more different on ideological bases. Whether on the page or on the screen, Tarzan is defined by assumptions of white preeminence. He is better than his rivals and his allies because the text believes in his inherent betterness as a white man the same way that Donald Trump believes in his own: He says he is better, and so it must be true. Neither Marvel’s comic books nor Captain America: Civil War make any such assumptions about Black Panther, though, because they don’t have to. Superheroics probably come naturally when your ancestors are superheroes themselves, but in either medium T’Challa proves his betterness through deeds rather than through fundamentalism.
If Black Panther is the anti-Tarzan, it should logically follow that Captain America: Civil War is the anti-The Legend of Tarzan. But the former isn’t interested in addressing matters of race and racism, whereas the latter at least lectures us on the evils of oppression. That condescending pill is tough to swallow coming from a movie that’s so unaware of its own inequities—the “oopsie” nature of The Legend of Tarzan’s faux pas only makes those faux pas more frustrating. The film shatters its illusions of harmony by mistake as surely as Zootopia, a cartoon with the sharpness of mind necessary for examining race head on, does on purpose.
The Legend of Tarzan proposes an alternate timeline to our own where King Léopold’s subjugation of the Congolese people is foiled by the intercession of a white savior, who is the best of friends with the country’s tribes. The film’s portrait of racial unity is equally condescending and tone-deaf for its reinterpretation of recorded reality. Tarzan has always been a white savior figure, and The Legend of Tarzan doubles down by designating his adventuring partner, George Washington Williams, as its comic relief character, and by using Tarzan’s tribesmen pals as scenery. It’s hard to tell which is more appalling: Treating Williams, a very real human being who spent the bulk of his time on Earth fighting the mechanics of slavery, as a schlemiel, or by keeping the people most affected by Léopold’s reign on the sidelines. (Ignoring the genocidal consequences of Belgian colonialism in the Congo Free State doesn’t look good, either.)
But we accept the film’s race dynamic because it’s the status quo for stories like The Legend of Tarzan, which traditionally pair white leads with minority sidekicks. The Lone Ranger has Tonto. The Green Hornet has Kato. The Ghostbusters have Winston Zeddemore. Tony Stark has James Rhodes. That’s history, folks. Pop culture has indulged in egalitarian fantasies for years, and Zootopia exposes those fantasies as facile. We trick ourselves into believing we live in a post-racial era where everyone gets along and anyone can be anything. It’s a myth worth living up to but a myth nonetheless, one The Legend of Tarzan embraces enthusiastically and Zootopia rejects.
In fairness, Zootopia can’t keep up the real talk for its duration, and so the film ends in true animated kids’ movie form on the happiest note possible, but the initial bluntness is refreshing even if the metaphor is inadequate. And if Zootopia is an inadequate metaphor for exploring social prejudice, it’s because the language we use to talk about prejudice is inadequate, too. In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates—certified genius, journalist, and by happy chance the writer on Marvel’s latest Black Panther comic series—writes that “our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.”
We filter discussions of racism through buzz phrases and popular terminology with casual ease, but racism is foregrounded in violent force and not simply violent language. There is an intrinsic kind of violence to racist dialogue, too, even if words, per the old schoolyard adage, can never hurt us. (It may come as no surprise that Tarzan was forbidden in Coates’s childhood home.)
Maybe this is why Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room struck a nerve among viewers as well as critics: It adopts racism’s dialect while visualizing its philosophy through action. Note that Green Room’s cast is thoroughly white, and that its brutalities are inflicted on white people, by white people. This does not easily fit into the American cultural narrative where racial trauma is visited upon minorities by whites.
But also note that whiteness is a poor defense against white supremacy and against racism for the tolerant. In June, neo-Nazis rallying in Sacramento met resistance from anti-fascist counter protesters, and in the resultant confrontation, a dozen people, some black, some white, some Latino, suffered wounds that demanded medical attention. (In this, at least, white supremacists don’t discriminate, for all the cold comfort that’s worth.) So Green Room captures in images what Coates believes our “phrasing” can’t: Racism’s barbarity, articulated in the slash of a machete, the report of a shotgun, the bite of a pit bull. The film is a savage lesson on how the words that convey the politics of white supremacy veil its destructive potency. Its stomach-churning graphic qualities enhance its effect as entertainment and as an urgent social warning.
Recently, IndieWire’s Eric Kohn made a similar point about Dark Night, a film inspired by the events leading up to the 2012 Aurora, Colorado mass shooting, arguing that movies like it exist not because of Hollywood profiteers, but because of “much deeper social problems embedded in the social fabric of this country.” So too does Green Room, a gorgeously shot, utterly hideous work of art that stares into the vulgar heart of American racism. But Green Room is an example of an extreme. Like Atom Egoyan’s Remember, where Dean Norris plays a man who hoards the relics of his father’s Nazi activities as squirrels hoard nuts, the white power group of Green Room is white supremacy and racism at its most terrifying.
The Legend of Tarzan is not that. It’s more common, and in a way more dangerous. The film pats itself on the back for reconfiguring the character’s identity as a piece of racist antiquity, but that ignores its privilege as Hollywood product. Racism can’t be erased from history. The belief that it can helps perpetuate it today. Instead of erasure, we should focus on cleansing, the absolute ablation of racist thought from our culture. Movies like The Legend of Tarzan don’t advance that goal. They just prompt us to try harder.
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Movie Mezzanine and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.