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New 'Tarzan' remake faces racism, sexism head on

June 29, 2016

Tarzan may be a classic character, but his story is rooted in colonialism, where white men saved the day. "The Legend of Tarzan" acknowledges the yodeling tree-swinger's past, while updating him for a modern society.

Scene from The Legend of Tarzan, Copyright: picture-alliance/AP Photo/J. Olley
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/J. Olley

When Edgar Rice Burroughs first penned the story of the King of the Jungle who was raised by apes, over a century ago, the Western world was embroiled in colonialism, African stereotypes were the norm, and women had only recently won the right to vote.

Tarzan was a product of his time - even his name, in a jungle language invented by Burroughs - translates as "white skin." He embodied the romantic adventure of that era, but has since become something of an embarrassment on our bookshelves.

While many would likely have gladly seen the jungle boy's story buried away, Tarzan has already been the subject of over 50 authorized films and seven series over the past century and is so deeply rooted in our cultural consciousness that he cannot simply be made to disappear.

"Edgar Rice Burroughs just tapped into a primal myth of humanity," author Scott Tracy Griffin, who wrote "Tarzan: The Centennial Celebration" and the forthcoming book, "Tarzan on Film," told news agency AP. "He is an orphan who is stranded and must find a way to his manhood and to reclaim his legacy."

Tarzan sees slavery with his own eyes

But, as "The Legend of Tarzan" shows, he can be transported into our time and made to reflect modern values of intercultural respect, color blindness and gender equality.

The film, directed by David Yates, premiered on Monday in Los Angeles and opens on Friday (01.07.2016) in the US. It aims to embed the story in a historical context while at the same time discarding some of the most problematic elements. It's also packed with plenty of modern-day action.

It opens later in Tarzan's life, after he has already married Jane, played by 25-year-old Austrian actress Margot Robbie, and lives in England as parliamentarian Lord Greystoke.

The adult Tarzan (played by Alexander Skarsgard) is invited by Belgian King Leopold II to visit the Congo, but it's George Washington Williams (played by Samuel L. Jackson) who convinces him to go - and investigate reports that Leopold has enslaved the locals.

Williams is not a fictional character: In real life, he was a Civil War veteran and historian who uncovered the atrocities of colonialism in the Congo.

"Even though the enslavement is there, you see it and he's there to right that injustice," Samuel L. Jackson told AP. "He's part of a world where he is integrated into that society and he understands his place in it."

Jackson told AFP that he had visited Washington's grave in England while filming a Tim Burton production there last year: "George is a pretty fascinating guy."

Jane: a modern woman

The presence of racist stereotypes is not the only criticism of the original Tarzan story: It also presents a skewed portrayal of women.

However, that was something actress Margot Robbie, who shot to stardom in Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street," wanted to change. "I've never wanted to play the damsel in distress, and Jane is anything but," she said.

In most of the previous 50-some Tarzan films, Jane would have screamed for Tarzan's help when danger approached - and he would have swung in to save her. But in one memorable scene in "The Legend of Tarzan," Jane has been captured by Leopold II's henchman Leon Rom (played by Christoph Waltz). He demands that she scream for Tarzan; instead, she spits in his face.

Film poster The Legend of Tarzan 2016, Copyright: Warner Bros. Entertainment
"The Legend of Tarzan" opens around the world from June 29 to July 30Image: Warner Bros. Entertainment

"If they don't create the kind of roles that women are going to be able to relate to, then they're not going to enjoy watching them as much," Robbie said of the gender imbalance in Hollywood productions.

When it comes to speaking roles in major films, studies have consistently shown that men outnumber women by up to three to one for speaking parts.

Tarzan meets the zeitgeist

While "The Legend of Tarzan" is the first high-budget effort to update the loin-clothed jungle boy, past adaptations of the story have often mirrored the zeitgeist of the time. In the 1950s, the films were inspired by Westerns, while the 60s saw a James Bond influence.

"Producers have been able to tap into whatever is going on in society and put Tarzan into that," author Scott Tracy Griffin said.

Just how many people from 2016 will buy tickets at the box office for a politically correct Tarzan, however, remains to be seen.

kbm/eg (AP, AFP)