יום שישי, 1 ביולי 2016

The Racist Horrors of “Tarzan"

Tarzan Cannot Be Rebooted

By Richard Brody ,

The good intentions of the filmmakers behind “The Legend of Tarzan,” starring Alexander Skarsgård, can’t mask the underlying racism built into the character.

Sometimes filmmakers try to do the right thing and it comes out wrong, as it does in “The Legend of Tarzan.” The movie conveys an earnest effort on the part of the producers, the screenwriters, and the director to reboot Tarzan on virtuous principles, but the results feel constrained to that virtue. Despite the gratifications of rewarded justice that the story delivers, every narrative twist feels calculated to that good-natured end. The movie has a didactic knowingness that undercuts suspense, and even curiosity, at every turn.

The action takes place in the eighteen-eighties, set in the historical context of the colonization of the Congo and the efforts of King Leopold of Belgium to subjugate and enslave its population. In London, John Clayton III, Lord Greystoke (Alexander Skarsgård), formerly known as Tarzan, is summoned to a meeting at 10 Downing Street: Great Britain hopes to do business with King Leopold’s dirty dealers and asks him to go to the Congo as a friendly observer and the invited guest of the Belgian government. John wants no part of it, but he’s taken aside by the American diplomat George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), who explains the true nature of the Belgian occupation and offers to travel with him to the Congo in order to thwart it. (Williams was a real-life person, of remarkable accomplishment.)

Meanwhile, John’s wife, Jane (Margot Robbie), who was raised in the Congo as the daughter of an American teacher (not “missionary”) who worked there, feels stifled and lonely in the cosseting formality of London’s aristocracy and yearns to visit her childhood home and friends. But when the trio reach the Congo they find themselves confronted by a formidable adversary—the brutal and bloodthirsty Belgian administrator Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), who has actually lured the former Tarzan there to deliver him to the leader of a Congolese tribe, Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou), who has a long-standing grudge against him. (Mbonga will reward Leon with diamonds that will help pay Belgium’s debts.) To get the attention of the Englishman, Leon and his troops capture Jane; John and George, along with several of John’s African friends, undertake the perilous task of rescuing her and, in the process, take on the entire infrastructure of Belgium’s genocidal occupation.

Before the battles begin, however, there are scenes of warmhearted reunions. Jane visits the village where she grew up and is greeted there by its chief, a grand, gray-bearded eminence of kindly yet regal bearing. John’s arrival is greeted by an exuberant and full-voiced chorus; as Jane explains to George, “They’re singing the legend of Tarzan.” The man raised by apes also has a tender visit with a trio of lions—to the dubious George, John explains that he and they are friends and affirms that he can, in fact, talk to the animals (a Dr. Dolittle touch that nearly sends the movie into full parody mode).

The movie offers intentional comedy as well, in the urbane George’s efforts to cope with the rigors of the great outdoors, as when he wonders about why nobody tries to ride zebras (the riff on the pronunciation of the animal’s name sounds like a sly Jacksonian improvisation), or when he has to follow John and the other fighters in a free fall over a precipice toward train tracks. Jackson shines, as he always shines, with verbal agility and mother-(don’t-say-it) wit, and he gets to deliver the film’s monologue of moral principle. George contrasts his experience fighting in the Civil War with his service fighting in Mexico, against King Maximilian, and in the American West, against Native Americans—in effect breaking the fourth wall to remind viewers in the U.S. that America’s history of slavery, racism, and imperialism is no different from that of Belgium.

The movie’s Jane is tuned to modern sensibilities as well. She’s no passive victim. While held captive by the hyper-refined Leon—whose perfect manners and arch phrases, masking brutal inflictions, come from the bottom drawer of Hollywood’s movie-Nazi stereotypes—she fights back bravely, smartly, and effectively. But she and John are shorn of all characteristics beside their wiles. So, for that matter, are the movie’s Africans, whose customs and accoutrements are depicted with gentle good cheer and no substance, whose complex societies are reduced to backdrops of amiability—even in warfare, even in the confrontation between Mbonga and John, to settle old scores.

The adventures have a built-in stolidity resulting from under-realized stunts and blunt C.G.I. work; the vines from which John swings have the heavy mechanical undulation of gymnasium ropes, and John’s submission to a beating by a gorilla is full of sound but offers little fury and little fear. The action scenes are efficient rather than exciting, with one notable exception. John makes good use, when all else fails, of his ability to talk to animals; it’s no spoiler (since it’s in the trailer) to say that, when human troops are lacking, he summons other mammalian allies and sparks a stampede (of computer-generated animals that I suppose are buffalo) that lays waste to the Belgian compound with a blithe delight and an unconstrained energy that are missing from the rest of the film.

Yet this sense of inhibition may be the movie’s signal virtue. There are inescapable underlying racist horrors built into the very notion of Tarzan—the idea that, as a white man raised by apes, he’s the white-skinned equivalent of black Africans, their equal as a force of nature but with the natural aptitude to be rapidly civilized, and that, as a white man, he is Jane’s one acceptable African mate. The filmmakers behind “The Legend of Tarzan” exert themselves mightily to disguise the story in a worthy political mission, the good vibrations of homecomings, and the overcoming of long-standing enmities. Nonetheless, the film’s ethnocentric and condescending roots are exposed in unfortunate touches (such as a photograph of the younger Jane in a group of villagers, not one among many but the center of the composition), and the entire movie plays like an effort to hide the filmmakers’ own embarrassment at the subject itself. “The Legend of Tarzan” is like a cinematic comb-over that can’t move too fast or take any chances for fear of revealing what lies beneath.

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