(submitted to the New York Times Letters to the Editor on Tarzan and Black History Month)
February 6, 2000
As did probably thousands (perhaps millions) of Americans this past week, I watched Disney’s blockbuster animated feature Tarzan. I was awed by the breathtaking mixture of conventional and digital animation and moved by the story of “family.” Being a teacher of French and Spanish, I was impressed that the DVD contained not only English, French, and Spanish spoken language versions, but also featured soundtracks with Phil Collins singing in each language.
Tarzan has always been both a frustrating and fascinating character for me. Why didn’t he have a moustache or beard? Did the apes that raised him shave daily? Edgar Rice Burroughs’s original novel Tarzan of the Apes explained these questions to me. Since Tarzan took so long to mature (an ape is an adult by ten years old), he was thought to be retarded and weak. He also was disgusted with his treatment by the other apes and wanted to set himself apart. Having noticed clean shaven men in books, he fashioned a crude razor and shaved his face of the growth that, in his mind, made him more like an ape.
Wait a minute, you ask? Books? How did Tarzan have books? In one of his more clever inventions, Burroughs concocted a way for Tarzan to learn language. His (human) parents were sailing to Africa while his mother was pregnant. Since they planned to begin educating their child there while working for the British colonial government, they brought along with them children’s readers. However, a mutiny by the crew forced them ashore in the now infamous jungle where their son, the future Lord Greystoke, was to be born. They fashioned a tree house where they lived until their deaths a year after their son’s birth. Years later, Tarzan discovered this cabin and the books filled with pictures of creatures that resembled him. Underneath these pictures were what he first thought were bugs. He eventually discovered that these “bugs” were in fact letters and words, which he taught himself to read even without knowing how to pronounce them. In an even more eccentric twist, Burroughs makes Tarzan’s first human encounter with a Frenchman, not an Englishman, so even though he can read English, French becomes the first human language Tarzan learns to speak.
My young mind was blown away by this story. At the novel’s end, Tarzan returns to England to reclaim his heritage as a noble gentleman who fluently speaks two languages—no “Me Tarzan, you Jane” brute here! Disney’s version also has Tarzan speaking in grammatically correct (if simple) sentences and attributes his linguistic facility to his incredible gift of mimicry. I figured it to be a rather unsubtle way to use the moniker “the Ape-man” even though in this version he is raised by gorillas.
Maybe I overanalyze things. After all, this is just a story—a cartoon for God’s sake! But then my wife asked me something after viewing and enjoying the film. It seemed a rather innocent and common question at first. But it led me to a series of questions and realizations that both saddened and angered me. This is often the way something pernicious begins.
“When do they show the voice credits?” she asked.
“They’re coming up in a minute,” I replied and quickly offered more information than she wanted, as I am too often prone to do. “Tony Goldwyn, Minnie Driver, Rosie O’Donnell, Glenn Close, Lance Henriksen, Brian Blessed…”
“No Blacks?” she asked. I stopped for a moment. No, come to think of it, I didn’t remember seeing the names of any Black actors. We watched the credits again and did not recognize any. Mulan, Disney’s recent animated feature set in China, featured the voice of Eddie Murphy. The Lion King, the last Disney film set in Africa, featured a host of Black voices. But in Tarzan there were none.
Then it hit me. There were no Africans in the movie either. At first, I was relieved that there were no stereotypical depictions of spear-wielding “savages” with bones stuck through their noses or “cannibals” dancing around a gigantic boiling pot. But then, I realized that I had watched an entire movie, a cartoon, about Africa and set in Africa, without seeing even a single Black cartoon African face.
How could there have been no Africans in the story? How could Tarzan avoid seeing Africans in Africa for over twenty years? Suddenly, I remembered something from the Burroughs novel. Tarzan had encountered Africans at the age of eighteen, but he held them in low esteem. Tarzan considered them “more wicked than his own apes, and as wicked and savage as Sabor [the lioness], herself.” He killed the native Kulonga to avenge the death of his “mother” Kala. He killed another for a breechcloth to hide his nakedness like a “man.” Burroughs made a point of describing these natives as savages and cannibals (complete with the giant boiling cauldron) so that their killings appeared justified.
Perhaps Disney decided to eliminate all references to Africans to sanitize the unpleasant and potentially racist elements of a nearly ninety-year-old tale, I thought. But the “father” Kerchak remained in the movie in spite of the rather unpleasant fact that in the novel Tarzan killed him. Then another idea came to me. His “mother” Kala kept Tarzan’s past from him. She wanted him to believe that she was his mother. But what if Tarzan had run across Africans before he saw Jane in this modern retelling? Wouldn’t he have recognized them as one of his own and compared his hand and heart to theirs? That would really complicate the plot of a summer Disney family movie. Tarzan might even fall in love with an African girl!
Now, I am not one who readily gives in to conspiracy theories, but I kept thinking about other decisions made in Hollywood concerning race. One of the most popular comic book characters created in recent years, Todd McFarlane’s Spawn, was made into a feature film a few years ago. The main character, Al Simmons, dies, is sent to hell, and makes a pact with the devil to serve as his hell spawn just to see his wife again. But when Simmons is returned to Earth, it is years later and his wife has remarried (his best friend, no less) and the couple has a child (which Simmons was apparently unable to provide). In the comics, Simmons, his wife, his best friend, and the daughter are all African-American. However, Hollywood was afraid that the movie version of Spawn might be considered a “Black picture” with so many African-American characters. The powers-that-be decided instead to cast a white actor in the role of Simmons’s best friend. In an industry that is squeamish about having an A-list actor like Denzel Washington playing roles where he would be romantically involved with white female characters, it was deemed better to have an interracial marriage than to have three principal African-American characters in a “mainstream” film.
The linguist in me finally realized the great mistake in Edgar Rice Burroughs’s and Disney’s stories. In the cases of children raised in the wild, so-called “feral children,” natural human language acquisition must take place within the “critical phase” before puberty. If it does, the child will be able to learn and speak language normally. If the child is not exposed to language until after puberty and the lateralization of brain functions, the child will never completely master the intricate inflections, derivations, conjugations, and pronunciations in language. So the “Me Tarzan, you Jane” type of speech is about as good as it will get. In order for Tarzan to speak normally, he would have had to have had regular exposure to some natural human language before his teen years, not as an adult. If Tarzan were to have had regular exposure to human language as a child, it almost certainly would have had to come from Africans. Can it be that even in fiction it is more plausible to have the “Lord of the Jungle,” a true British Lord, nurtured by an ape (or a gorilla), than by an African woman?
Almost nothing done in the entertainment industry (especially by the Disney empire) happens by chance. The release date for the Tarzan video and DVD stuck in my mind. A movie set in Africa without a single African face was released on February 1—the beginning of Black History Month. Disney usually releases its major summer feature on video much later than the industry standard four to six month after the theatrical opening. They have instead chosen to wait about ten months until the spring of the following year as a means of promoting its coming summer feature. So why then was Tarzan released so early by Disney standards? Was it a cheap way of trying to cash in on Black History Month (not that African-Americans view Tarzan as part of Black History) or was it meant as a slap in the face (“Ha! Fooled you! No Africans!”)? Why not choose January 25 or March 7 to avoid the issue altogether?
I truly hope that I am simply making a mountain out of a molehill, but the problem with being Black in the United States is that you can never truly be sure. Trinidadian writer Earl Lovelace once said “our experience has had as its central theme not slavery and colonialism, as is often thought, but the struggle against enslavement and colonialism.” For African-Americans, our experience is similarly rooted not in slavery and racism, but in the struggle against enslavement and racism. This Black History Month is serving as a painful reminder that this struggle is not yet confined to history.
Milton Alan Turner