Is The New Tarzan Movie Racist?


The Harry Potter director, David Yates, has a Tarzan film coming out July 1st, and I’m guessing I’ll see it, but I’m also thinking about race with regard to it: why is Tarzan always white? The recently departed Muhammad Ali asked this very question in the 1960s, and has a thoughtful clip at YouTube reflecting on this (see below).

I wonder what sorts of nods to 21st century sensibilities the director incorporates into this film. At various points in the trailer, for example, I see a white Tarzan, the embodiment of individual persona, and tribal black men virtually indistinguishable from each other. How might the director play against genre type (and stereotype) in the context of the full film itself? And if he doesn’t bother–if he lets racist assumptions play out with a shrug as being “just action entertainment”–what does that say about this cultural moment, and with Donald Trump looming like a heavy cloud over our collective cultural life?


I have a similar question as to what it means for our cultural moment with regard to the new Ghostbusters film in which women, rather than men, play the lead characters. Here we have a nod to feminism–and yet the reaction from the chauvinist right has been sharp–much like the right’s reaction to Hillary Clinton. I wonder if a black Tarzan was contemplated by the director–then dropped as an idea for the controversy it would entail, perhaps sinking the film at the box office.

For instance, one could imagine an African American or African Brit family coming to Africa and falling into similar circumstances as the white family in the film, leaving behind an orphaned child raised by apes–and then letting the genre play out without the uncomfortable racist overlay of a clever and superior white man battling scores of cookie-cutter black men. But then maybe white audiences in Europe and America wouldn’t go see it in sufficient numbers to make the film a blockbuster. Hmm.

I like Tony Warner’s reflections on learning of a 2016 version of Tarzan coming to theaters:

“This is the house of Tarzan, the killer of beasts and many black men”. This is how Tarzan introduces himself to Jane in Tarzan of the Apes (1914). Later in the book he rescues her from a “black ape rapist”. Tarzan started off as a character written by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) in the 1912 All-Story Magazine before being edited into a series of books and films….

Racism permeates all the Tarzan spin offs as they always portray black people in a negative manner. The only possible exception is George of the Jungle (1997) starring Brendan Fraser, where black people were given some of the best lines and turned the stereotypes upside down….

The most recent [2016] version of Tarzan is a German production but it would be naïve to think there will be an authentic black presence in it. Given the source material one wonders why there is such a sustained interest in resurrecting this colonial figure of white supremacy in the 21st century.


About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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