The problem with Tarzan

Story highlights

  • Lewis Beale: Tarzan, a storyline of white hero in Africa (and relic of paternalistic imperialism) is back in new movie
  • He says in an era of heightened race consciousness, film an anachronism showing Hollywood's cluelessness about Africa
  • Beale: While film not overtly racist, it speaks to lingering racist mentality, and Hollywood's need for change

Lewis Beale writes about culture and film for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and other publications. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)It's 2016. Can anyone explain why Hollywood is releasing a new Tarzan movie?

For nearly a century, Hollywood has been churning out versions of the loinclothed legend, swinging through the African jungle on a fever dream of colonialism and paternalistic imperialism.The basic template: Hot white guy, babe wife, clueless, and often dangerously savage, African natives.
    For years, in fact, it seemed like one of the few ways American filmgoers could see sub-Sahara Africa onscreen at all was through the exciting adventures of buff white actors, like former Olympic swimming gold medalist Johnny Weissmuller (probably the most famous Tarzan), and hunks like Lex Barker, Gordon Scott, Jock Mahoney and Mike Henry.
    Since 1918, with the silent flick "Tarzan of the Apes," there have been over 40 versions of the boy-raised-by-apes tale, including, of course, a Disney feature. Titles like "Tarzan's Secret Treasure," "Tarzan and the Leopard Woman," and "Tarzan's Three Challenges" have featured the hero in exploits that have taken him as far afield as India and even New York City.
    Now here comes "The Legend of Tarzan," which had a big opening weekend at the box office. This new take on the Edgar Rice Burroughs creation, which first appeared in print in 1912, is, for one thing, a total anachronism in an era of heightened race consciousness.
    And by greenlighting this film, it seems that Warner Bros., the film's distributor, did not get the memo that the new movie, while not overtly racist, remains the product of an early 20th-entury colonial mentality -- yet another example of the developed world patronizing the Third World.
    That a member of the white aristocracy has to lead the natives, who can't seem to do it on their own, is just another indication of how Hollywood has mostly portrayed Africa and Africans for decades -- either with smirking racism, or tut-tut condescension.
    Since movies began, this offensive depiction has manifested itself in several ways:
    -- Promoting the "ooga-booga" stereotype of Africans as superstitious, simple and savage, which can be seen in many of the early Tarzan movies, and in films like "King Kong," (those Skull Island native scenes are ooga-booga to the max), 1931's "Trader Horn" (which features a white blonde jungle queen fighting a hostile tribe) and 1965's "The Naked Prey," in which a white man who offends a native tribe is first tortured, then hunted for sport.
    -- Portraying the natives as a seething mass, with no attempt made to provide any sort of individualized characterization. Take, for example, "Zulu," a fine 1964 film about the 1879 battle of Rorke's Drift, in which 150 British soldiers held off an army of 4,000 Zulu warriors. Although the Brits, including star Michael Caine, are carefully delineated, not one tribal warrior is fleshed out.
    -- Ensuring that if there's a major black character, there's a white man who is his equal, or gets more screen time (exception: Nelson Mandela). Any number of films fit this template, including 1987's "Cry Freedom," in which white journalist Donald Woods' role is larger than that of murdered activist Steve Biko; 1975's "The Wilby Conspiracy," in which a black activist and white engineer are forced to flee South African police; and 1957's "Something of Value," in which a white and black boy who grew up together split apart over racial issues
    -- If an African is the main character, it has to be in atmosphere of genocide, civil war or dictatorship (exception: Nelson Mandela). A recent example is last year's "Beasts of No Nation," in which Idris Elba is the leader of an army composed of child soldiers. Also in this category is 2004's "Hotel Rwanda," with Don Cheadle as a hotel manager during the Rwandan genocide, and 2006's "The Last King of Scotland," with Forest Whitaker as crazy Ugandan leader Idi Amin.
    -- Africans? What Africans? The most egregious example of all has to be Disney's 1999 animated "Tarzan," which, although taking place on "the dark continent," contains not a single African figure. No gun bearers, tribal leaders, nada. It's as if some anti-black plague has struck.
    "The Legend of Tarzan" thankfully avoids many of these mistakes. There are several speaking roles for native characters, most of them played by honest-to-God African actors, like Benin native Djimon Honsou. The film makes a serious, if limited, attempt, to show a sophisticated view of African society, with its bustling villages and family atmosphere. And there are, thankfully, no ooga-booga moments.
    That's fine, but these are just baby steps. You'd think that a continent with several hundred million people, which has seen the rise and fall of mighty empires, and has produced great art and culture, would have more stories to tell than the ones Hollywood chooses. That this is not the case speaks to a lingering racist mentality, and our profound ignorance of an entire global region. Same as it ever was.
    How to change this? Well, the recent announcement that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science has added 683 new voting members, nearly half minorities, means that the color palette in Hollywood movies, and the subjects they take on, may be expanded accordingly.
    For now, however, if you want to get the straight dope on Africa, it looks like you'll have to check out the works of real African filmmakers. You could start with the 2014 film "Timbuktu," about how jihadists come to a small village in Mali. Or "Tsotsi," the 2005 Oscar winner for foreign language film, about a young South African street thug who steals a car and finds a baby in the back. No white super heroes in these films. Just real Africans doing real things.