Because of my History of Horror and Sci Fi film class back at the University of Alaska Anchorage in 1991, I did some digging into Edgar Rice Burroughs and what I found was not very good. Yes he became a prolific Sci Fi writer, but his stories were rooted in some of the most racist mindset I have ever seen. I put it all in context considering the racial climate of the time but he does not get a pass.

Without knowing the story of Tarzan, I saw a white man who saves the black savages from themselves. Tarzan has the superhero powers, abilities and qualities that none of all the strong, physically fit black Africans could manage to obtain. Really? By the time Tarzan makes it to the talkies, his inherit racism had been toned way down. But make no mistake, the original depicts Tarzan was or even more racist than of all the colonizers who staked their claims over people and land of those already inhabiting the various countries. Especially after a black African chief kills Tarzan’s ape mother Kala, Tarzan was out for black African blood.

Tarzan was such a successful series, we are still watching it today. Of course the new movie has tried to remove the racism on which the character was based but I don’t know. Adding Samuel Jackson and Djimon Hounsou to the movie doesn’t change the original story. But I do wish to see how they attempt it.

“Tarzan” and “King Kong” after “Birth of a Nation” probably did more to show the world that blacks were savages than slavery itself. For instance, in the original King Kong and the first remake, the tribal chief offers six of his tribeswomen for Ann Darrow. Even as a youngster I hated seeing that. If you don’t know your history, you may see your worth as a black woman reduced to 1/6th that of a white woman. I was too through.

Dorothy Dandridge played Queen Melmendi in “Tarzan’s Peril” with Lex Barker. I don’t blame any black actors for any of those roles we now see as demeaning. They were feeding their families for the most part and sending their children to college so they would NOT have to take those kinds of roles.

Back to Tarzan. Those images of savages worked for so long, that we still have to explain to certain individuals the real about black Americans, Africans and Africa. I recall hanging out with a college friend La Shelle Upton-Moore, and one of my dorm mates said something about a family member or someone she knew visiting Africa. Then she said “the civilized part”. Both LaShelle said at the same time, “All of Africa is civilized”. We were all in our early 20s, and that young woman got a quick lesson.

South Africa was still under Apartheid and Namibia had just recently gained its independence from South Africa. Just 10 short years before Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia named after Cecil Rhodes who had acquired all that land. Cecil the lion that was slaughtered last year was named after this same Cecil Rhodes who was the also the creator of the Rhodes Scholar program) and the troubled Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo) had gained self-rule but still very marginalized. In those terms, I would say that minority rule and dictatorships were truly uncivilized in the political sense. But this young lady was implying that the people were savages. Can’t blame her though. She had only seen what the media had chosen to depict.

The Tarzan character became so popular that several countries developed their own versions. I have seen Italian Tarzan, Spanish Tarzan, Hungarian Tarzan and even Chinese Tarzan. The Burroughs estate sued or intervened on other unauthorized versions in order to keep the Tarzan name/character as intellectual property so many of the productions changed the names avoiding further legal fallout.

Still, Tarzan still fascinates audiences world-wide and I will probably see the movie because I like a good Sci Fi flick. But I’ll be looking with a critical eye as well as for the entertainment value of those special effects. I still don’t know how they can erase Burroughs’ original intent. Disney tried it but it did not work as there was back lash from that effort as well. But at least I can keep it all in the proper context.

Now that I know all about the story of Tarzan, I still see a white man who masters the jungle better than any person born and raised in Africa can and saves the black savages from themselves and white outsiders coming to colonize or do other harm. I did not even get started on the Jane and Boy characters.  I may wait for the cable version of the movie. I don’t want to contribute to the Burroughs’ estate as it must be getting a proceed of some kind.

On a funnier note, I love the new Geico Tarzan commercial. It is hilarious.

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