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What if we recast movies with people of color?

<i>The Legend of Tarzan</i>

The Legend of Tarzan


This tweet by Grantland writer Wesley Morris encapsulates what's wrong with the above scene from The Legend of Tarzan:


Aside from shock one receives from seeing Jackson’s goofy, painful looking heavily combed hairdo (what would it take to make his hair do that in the 1800s, let alone in 2016?), it's shocking how unbelievably ridiculous the conceit of this story is.

Did no one along the way consider that a story set in Africa should involve Africans?

To be fair, the story was originally written by Edgar Burroughs (he died in 1950, and rests in Tarzana, California) for imaginative, young, early-to-mid 20th century white boys. It's to be expected that's it's a little silly and mid-century racist. The story: While at sea, a white family is robbed by crazy Africans, or mutineers, who kill the mother and bring back the son and father, who they toss into Africa. The father is killed by an ape, so the boy is raised by the apes, and becomes King of the Jungle. The white boy-man, whose jungle name is Tarzan, runs into, of all people, a white lady (take a moment to remember that is set in Africa) when she stops by, falls in love, and goes back to civilization. 

What really shocked me to my core when reading that Morris tweet was remembering my first access point into Tarzan: the comedy version starring Brendan Fraser. The tweet transported me right back. I was a kid, watching with a bunch of black people — old, young, many of whom had actually grown up in fucking Africa — and no one said shit. Nothing. Not a thing. We just popped in the VHS, had a few laughs, some 'za, and it was bedtime.

To reimagine the story of Tarzan, King of the Jungle, with black people would entail acknowledging that black people are complex humans and not feral animals. This new installment has a really evil white guy (Christoph Waltz is having all the fun, as he is amazingly wont to do). But how about having the story involve black people in Africa, some of whom are smarter than other black people, some of whom are evil, and some who are not. It would make for a whole spectrum, stuff kind of like real life, where black people aren't just a few things, and it would make the story involving a bunch of blacks onscreen that has nothing to do with blackness.

This is an animated movie about a white boy who has adventures with a bunch of giants in a magical giant land. The only recent-ish wide-release animated movies starring black people are The Princess and the Frog and Home. Both feature black females. The Princess and the Frog involves a black woman being courted by a frog. Home, on its face, seems chill, but that's it, really.

And then there's The Prince of Egypt. Although the entire story is set in Egypt, with the majority of the characters and dialogue being between Egyptians, here is the cast list:

Val Kilmer
Ralph Fiennes
Michelle Pfeiffer
Sandra Bullock
Jeff Goldblum
Danny Glover
Patrick Stewart
Helen Mirren
Steve Martin
Martin Short.

It might be hard to look past all of that star power, but note how long it took to get to a black guy, and how many black people there are. Just Glover. James Avery, a.k.a. Uncle Phil from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, is listed as an additional voice. Further down the credits, a black guy named Bobby Motown voices a child.

The princess in The Princess and the Frog, at least, is voiced by a black woman (Anika Noni Rose). Same with the the black girl in Home (Rihanna).

I have no thoughts specific to The BFG other than, when you hear the words "animated magical fun for the whole family," the last thing you are thinking about are brown people. Think of a really fantastical but typical character — like magical children who go to school — and a black girl will not be conjured. Worse yet, if a black girl is interjected into the oh-so-crazy world of broom transportation, it isn't a pleasant surprise. Instead, it tends to make people very angry. Run right past curiosity or even confusion, pass go, and park in rage, as seen with Noma Dumezweni, who was cast as an adult Hermione Granger in the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

One way the internet has influenced us for sure is that we've all gotten reeeeallly good at burning each other. Music and literature are visceral and powerful in their way, but theatrical imagery, even animated, tends to make people passionate in a way that has made the gatekeepers of film all the more intense. Jean Baudrillard made this argument concerning television and film imagery, that it contains a power capable to traumatize and control, a power that surpasses previous mediums. We've been controlled, conditioned to believe mainly white people, primarily men, should be seen and heard.