Paul C. Taylor teaches philosophy and African American Studies at Pennsylvania State University, where he also serves as the associate dean of undergraduate studies. His books include Race: A Philosophical Introduction and Black is Beautiful: A Philosophy of Black Aesthetics, and he was one of the founding editors of the journal Critical Philosophy of Race.
Because Who Needs Another Tarzan Movie:
Guilty Pleasures in the Black Lives Matter Moment
Paul C. Taylor
(Author’s note: This piece grows out of ideas that I develop in a few places, including in my recent book on Black aesthetics. It answers to an aspiration that has increasingly come to shape my work: to write in ways, and in venues, that connect with people outside the academy. So it might grow up to be an op-ed or a personal essay.)
We all have guilty pleasures, especially when it comes to entertainment and culture. I like Tom Cruise movies, to a degree that my friends rarely understand. But the movies are mostly harmless, and my friends have embarrassments of their own, and life gives us plenty of other things to worry about. So we agree to live and let live, and leave each other to the occasional cultivation of mindless, unworthy enjoyments.
Societies have guilty pleasures too. Think of the fondness that Scandinavians have for fermented fish. Or of the weakness that whoever likes Justin Bieber has for Justin Bieber.
Few of these pleasures involve actual guilt. I don’t feel remorseful for having watched Cruise’s “Jack Reacher” eight times. And I am probably not culpable for anything, save for distorting Netflix’s calculations about the relative popularity of its offerings.
Similarly, the Norwegians I know reasonably well, all two of them, are not remotely ashamed of lutefisk. They agree that it is revolting, and they rarely eat it. But they think of it the way one thinks of family quirks. There are some real characters in this family, we think, as we continue wrapping the holiday presents.
Tom Cruise films and lutefisk may not be truly guilty pleasures, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any. Some amusements ought to shame us and leave us contrite. Especially when they reflect the tastes of an entire society.
For example: Films that celebrate misogyny and sexual violence. The violent, brain-pulverizing spectacle that we call “American football.” Or narrative relics from our racist past.
Like the new Tarzan movie.
“The Legend of Tarzan” is a Hollywood film that either has opened recently or will open soon. I don’t know which because I have tried very hard not to pay attention to it. To be honest, there have been other things to pay attention to here in the US, like more black people dying tragically in dubious (at best) encounters with police officers, and police officers dying tragically in vengeance-driven assassinations by ex-military black gunmen.
But paying attention to these real-world tragedies turns me back to the fiction worlds of film. Certain of our films embody and express a widespread ambivalence about the value of black life. And in doing so, they further alienate black people from the society that we nevertheless, many of us, still try to think of as our own. There is no excuse, of course, for assassinating public servants in cold blood, any more than there is for shooting a cooperating driver at a traffic stop. But there should also be no excuse for tolerating, for promoting, the conditions that make these inexcusable actions more likely rather than less.
To see what “The Legend of Tarzan” has to do with all this, let’s consider how the Warner Brothers website describes the film:
“It has been years since the man once known as Tarzan left the jungles of Africa behind for a gentrified life as John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, with his beloved wife, Jane at his side. Now, he has been invited back to the Congo to serve as a trade emissary of Parliament, unaware that he is a pawn in a deadly convergence of greed and revenge, masterminded by the Belgian, Leon Rom. But those behind the murderous plot have no idea what they are about to unleash.”
I am guessing that what the Belgians are going to unleash is Tarzan, which will serve them right for visiting death and destruction on the Congo. But a shorter description would nearly have sufficed:
A white male hero will do heroic things against a backdrop of suffering dark people.
That description doesn’t really distinguish Lord Greystoke’s saga from “The Last King of Scotland,” “Mississippi Burning,” or “Training Day.” Or, for that matter, from “Gone With the Wind” and its literary forebears. Or, if we change “suffering dark people” to “dangerous dark people,” from “Zulu” or “Colors.”
But why should we distinguish these films from each other? They all tell the same story, at least for anyone who thinks non-white people should at least on occasion be more than props in other people’s dramas.
The stories are not identical, to be sure. Tarzan’s Congo is not the US south of “Mississippi Burning.” And the artistry of Denzel Washington goes a long way toward redeeming “Training Day,” which at least knows it’s trading in racist tropes. (What else can it mean when Denzel shouts “King Kong ain’t got nothing on me”?) But what difference does it make whether we’re in the Mississippi Delta or the Congo, if what we find there are white heroes and black accessories? If we can erase the heroism of everyday black people in segregated Mississippi in order to make the FBI of COINTELPRO (and much else) into a saintly force for good, why not strand a British white kid in an invention called “The Jungle” (plucked from the same imaginative shelf as “The Orient” and much else) and have him somehow become a superhero?
This determination to subordinate black agency to white heroism leads in film to narratives of moral gentrification. These are stories in which white people become the main protagonists in ethically and racially fraught narrative settings – the Congo under Belgian rule, Mississippi under Jim Crow, Uganda under Amin – while the sensible expectation that people of color will exercise some agency in these settings goes unmet. Black people aren’t the only ones rendered invisible in tales like these. Consider, for example, “The Impossible,” a film that explores the 2004 tsunami in south and Southeast Asia by surrounding Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts with “kindly Thais, whose job seems to be rescuing white holidaymakers while not saying anything.” But the black version of this phenomenon is of particular interest to me in the age of Black Lives Matter.
In addition to being an exercise in moral gentrification, the new Tarzan movie appears also to be an instance of whitely antiracism. This is what happens when a narrative decenters black agency in the ways we’ve seen, and insists on white heroism, but does all this while also explicitly endorsing anti-racist ideas.
Our new version of the “Lord of the Jungle” apparently fights against colonialism, sort of, and, I’m told, allies himself with an actual black associate. (Where by “associate” I mean “sidekick.” Keep gettin’ dem checks, Sam Jackson).
The problem is that even here, while we’re openly rejecting anti-black racism, we still can’t imagine black heroism.
It should be easy to imagine an adventure story about fighting evil in the Belgian Congo, or in the segregated US south of “Mississippi Burning,” that has black heroes. It would be easy, in fact, in a world untainted by what Eddie Glaude calls “the value gap,” which assigns white people more value than everyone else. But here, in our actual world, what’s easy is imagining black people as window dressing, or, at best, as sidekicks. This is why Quentin Tarentino’s Django isn’t even the star of his own movie, and why Will Smith turned down the role (keep gettin’ dem checks, Jamie Foxx). This is why Danny Glover’s Haitian Revolution movie got scuttled by potential producers continually asking where the white heroes were. And it’s why all the serious heroes in Marvel Studio’s “Ant-Man” are white and Anglo, while the black, brown, and Eastern European characters (the last of which is, in an age of cinematic fascination with Russian gangsters, not white enough) are helpful clowns.
Thinking of film industry imperatives here is supposed to make us feel better about all this. We’re supposed to think of the fact, if it is a fact, that films that don’t feature white people will not fare as well at the box office. Or that the people who finance films genuinely worry about this threat to the box office take, and govern themselves accordingly. But this fear seems to be misplaced if it is entirely about return on investment. Which makes one think its persistence and influence must be about something else. Like an abiding inability to imagine non-white heroism.
This brings me, finally, to what these films say about our orientation to the Black Lives Matter moment. If our films celebrate and reinforce the idea that black lives are less interesting than white lives, is it any wonder that only 40% of whites support the Black Lives Matter movement (compared to 65% of blacks)? If our films routinely erase black agency, if they can’t help but see blacks not as persons but as a monolithic mass, is it any wonder that we can’t distinguish peaceful protesters from ex-military assassins? After all, the mass either quivers in fear or pain (“Mississippi Burning”) or rises up to threaten civilization (“Colors,” “Zulu”). There is no room to establish a middle ground or to make distinctions – between, say, those who engage in creative non-violence while others buckle under the traumas of PTSD and the corruptions of bitterness.
The people behind this Tarzan film are surely talented, and are almost certainly not racists. (Though one could be forgiven for wondering about Craig Brewer, director of “Hustle and Flow” and “Black Snake Moan,” and one of the screenwriters behind “The Legend of Tarzan.”) But they have used their talents to affirm that some human lives are best thought of as props in other people’s stories, and that freestanding black heroism is, strictly speaking, impossible. They, and we, ought to feel guilty about amusements like this.