In his long and illustrious film career, Samuel L. Jackson has played a dancing crackhead, a Jheri-curled killer, the coordinator of a team of Marvel Comics superheroes (a favorite role of this writer), a Jedi knight and the ultimate house Negro.
On Friday he plays George Washington Williams, the pioneering black American writer and African human rights activist, in a major Hollywood film.
Sounds good, right? Well, he’s going to be side by side with Tarzan.
A character created by American fantasy writer Edgar Rice Burroughs when the sun never set on the British Empire, the Lord of the Jungle has had so many incarnations over the last century, the public reaction may be more varied than originally assumed. To many millennials, Tarzan might be a cuddly Disney animated-movie character—The Jungle Book, starring a white boy, coupled with a “bad boy” love-story angle. (The Disney joint was not the first cartoon to modernize him; in the 1970s, he was repackaged for CBS’ Saturday morning as a tanned explorer-adventurer who looked like, coincidentally enough, a grown-up version of Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli.) To the hip-hop generation/Gen X, baby boomers and pre-baby boomers, he was the star of an immensely popular 1930s and 1940s black-and-white film series in which Africans were depicted as mumbo-jumbo-mouthing servants who either cowered in fear or fell to their deaths from cliffs while carrying white people’s baggage (pun intended).
These movies, endlessly rerun on local television stations roughly from the 1960s through the 1980s, were one of the main “educators” for generations of Americans about Africa—that it was a large, savage wasteland filled with subhumans.
Meanwhile, the larger-than-life George Washington Williams, a major writer and participant in 19th-century black history, is barely an answer to a Black History Month trivia question today.
Williams journeyed to the Congo and was shocked that the Belgians were treating the Congolese like horses, working them to death. In 1890 he wrote an open letter to Belgian King Leopold II, defining and outlining the evils of his nation’s colonialism, outlining the human price of the rubber and ivory he was stealing:
Your Majesty’s government has sequestered their land, burned their towns, stolen their property, enslaved their women and children, and committed other crimes too numerous to mention in detail. It is natural that they everywhere shrink from ‘the fostering care’ Your Majesty’s government so eagerly proffers them.
What else was Williams? A Union Civil War soldier at 14. A Boston pastor. A lawyer. An Ohio state legislator. A journalist. The author of three major works of African-American history: History of the Negro Race in America From 1619 to 1800 (vol. 1); 1800-1880 (vol. 2): Negroes as Slaves, as Soldiers, and as Citizens, the first detailed, scholarly history of African Americans; and A History of the Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1865.
Williams died in 1891 at the age of 41. The great historian, and now ancestor, John Hope Franklin, who wrote the first full biography of Williams, described him thusly: “As enigmatic as he was brilliant, as hedonistic as he was energetic. … I know of few lives so exciting, so filled with adventure, with pioneering activity, as the short life of this remarkable man.”
In The Legend of Tarzan, Jackson plays a version of Williams who goes to the Congo with Tarzan to fight against an evil Belgian captain. So, thanks to Hollywood, the real-life rape of the Congo by Belgium, and the black-led human rights activism that responded to that crime against humanity, will mind-meld with the most famous fantasy white supremacy character of the 20th (and, now, 21st) century.
Art has the right to be what it wants, but that doesn’t mean the consumer has to support it commercially. (So as much as this writer wants to see what a 2016 Tarzan movie would be like, a ticket will not be bought; someone has to draw a line somewhere.) The version of Williams that exists in this author’s mind, a complicated man who was dedicated to the human rights of African people, will remain intact for now.
Blacks still do not control the high-end production and worldwide distribution of their own culture; in the specific case of Hollywood, they still cannot green-light a major-studio film. So the only power blacks have is the ability to shout a loud economic “No” to Tarzan, no matter what actor or “positive” character is in it, or even what the film has to say about the devilish nature of European colonialism.
Todd Steven Burroughs, an independent researcher and writer based in Newark, N.J., is the author of Son-Shine on Cracked Sidewalks, an audiobook on Amiri Baraka and Ras Baraka through the eyes of the 2014 Newark mayoral campaign. He is the co-editor, along with Jared Ball, of A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X and the co-author, with Herb Boyd, of Civil Rights: Yesterday & Today.