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The Tarzan Syndrome

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Here’s what trips me out. Why is it that every significant Hollywood movie about Black people can’t just be about the Black people? It’s got to be about the White people who saved the Black people and showed them how to be human beings of worth. Glory, Mississippi Burning, even Biko. Come on! Stephen Biko is reduced to a supporting character in his own biopic! Well, at least that’s better than poor Medgar Evers. Apparently his life story was about the battle between Alec Baldwin and James Woods.

The one movie I can point to in recent memory that gets it just right isn’t even about American Blacks, although African-Americans are the ones who should be crying out the loudest about this cinematic injustice. The movie that gets it right is Hotel Rwanda. The movie is not about U.N. forces come to save the poor non-self-reliant savages. It is not (thankfully and surprisingly atypically) about the intrepid young White American reporter who brings the plight of the Tutsis to the attention of the (White, Western) international community, thereby saving the helpless Africans while at the same time securing the heart and loins of the White British humanitarian aid worker.

No, the movie was about Paul Rusesabagina and how he helped to save thousands of Rwandans from genocide. The movie has plenty of White characters, but they are neither portrayed as the saviors nor as the villains of this piece. They are, as should be the case with any pic about Black folk made today, integral to the story (Hutus and Tutsis would not have even been driven to those ends without the influence of White European settlers) but tangential to its telling (best embodied by Nick Nolte in, sadly, his most substantial role and capable performance in years). Even my seven-year-old son was enthralled with the picture.

We need more films like Hotel Rwanda and fewer of the typical Hollywood fare concerning Black stories, typified by the dreaded Tarzan syndrome. Whiteboy gets dropped into the heart of deepest, darkest Africa and ends up running the continent. Not only is he better than any native-born Black African, but even the animals defer to him. Edgar Rice Burroughs would have us believe that not only is Caucasian genetic material heartier and more adaptable than anything that could come from a Negroid, but also (and here’s the real slap in the face!) that even apes are more effective parents than Blacks.

I’d love to see a mythology built around a young African orphan raised by mountain goats and growing up to be the revered and undefeatable barefoot-skiing protector of Switzerland. Unfortunately, Paul Mooney was right. I am in my lifetime more likely to see the mega-budgeted film The Last Nigger On Earth starring Tom Hanks.

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About Sherrodzilla

  • http://musicandes.com/ Lynette Yetter, author of the novel, Lucy Plays Panpipes for Peace

    I love your idea of “a mythology built around a young African orphan raised by mountain goats and growing up to be the revered and undefeatable barefoot-skiing protector of Switzerland.”

    You’re a writer. Write that screenplay. Make it happen. :)

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Wonderful article –

    The really sad thing is that there are so many of my fellow whites out there who just don’t get it. They seem to think that since the Civil Rights Act passed, it’s all good and everybody’s equal so no further struggle against racism and prejudice is necessary.

    But racism is alive and well – I’ve seen it in every culture I’ve visited around the world. As long as there are different colors of skin, there will be racism…and what many people don’t realize is that right here, right now, is the least racist moment in human history.

    Think about that. It’s certainly nothing to brag about, but a sign of just how much farther we have to go.

  • Edouard Kayihura

    Hello Sherrodzilla,
    I happen to be Rwandan — particularly, a survivor from the Hôtel des Mille Collines, aka The Hotel Rwanda. I agree with you that, unlike many other Hollywood movies about black people, “Hotel” focused on us and not white characters. What you may be disappointed to know is that for as good as the movie was in purely cinematic terms, it fails horribly in journalistic terms. Specifically, Paul Rusesabagina did NOT “save thousands.” Everyone in the Hotel saved someone and, quite frankly, Rusesabagina probably saved less than any. What he did do was con some Hollywood writers into believing his completely tall tale of his “singular heroism.” They, in turn, corroborated nothing he said. In truth, he cut off our phones to the outside world and he profiteered outrageously by making us pay for rooms and food with money we did not have and threatening their lives if we did not comply. The Hotel was also a UN-protected site, which was not fully clear in the film and which, ironically, did make more a real life hero out of the white Nick Nolte character. Rusesabagina was NOT the reason we survived the siege of the Hotel – HE was what we were surviving! These statements can be backed up by testimonies I have collected from my fellow refugees — Tutsi, Hutu, young, old, rich, poor, and men and women alike. Even the UN peacekeepers have gone on record as saying that Rusesabagina impeded their efforts to protect us. Unfortunately, when Hollywood does a movie, it does not have the journalistic integrity of other forms of media. Hollywood is in the entertainment business and the concept of one man’s heroism was too enticing to be fact-checked. Not a single person in the Hotel supports Rusesabagina’s version of events. Today, because no one questions the movie, he makes millions off of his lies and cavorts with the same people and the same ideology that caused the 1994 genocide. He uses his fame to exhort others to overthrow the post-genocide government.
    So yes, while we need more historic movies about black people, movies that do not paint us as incapable of doing heroic things without the assistance of white people, we also need a Hollywood that rises to the same journalistic standards we expect from books, newspapers, and magazines

  • Effie Starr

    Hey, at least apes don’t take their seven year olds to R rated movies about genocide!