Hollywood's Ill-Timed Woke White Men
They're dreamy and they fight oppression, but the heroes of The Legend of Tarzan and Free State of Jones are selling bleak history from the most comfortable point of view.
Mischa Barton was lit up by the internet on Thursday for a woefully ill-conceived (and since deleted) Instagram post in which she expressed her anger and grief about the shooting of Alton Sterling next to a photo in which she lounged on a boat in a bikini holding a glass of wine. The gap between words and image was ridiculous, and the ire it generated understandable — it felt like a self-serving display of wokeness, meant to call attention to the person talking instead of the people she was talking about.
Barton apologized, and the country has since been shaken by the killing of Philando Castile by police in Minnesota and the deaths of five Dallas police and rapid transit officers during a protest, making the social media miscalculations of a former O.C. star seem less than incidental. But Barton's misstep is also one that Hollywood’s been committing this summer, when very little of what the studios have been offering up has connected with audiences.
In theaters right now, both Alexander Skarsgård and Matthew McConaughey are playing historical heroes who are dreamy-eyed and hard-bodied in soiled period-appropriate clothing — Instagram-ready a century or two too early — as they battle on behalf of black people in the Congo and Mississippi respectively. In The Legend of Tarzan, Skarsgård's Tarzan beats up a train car full of Belgian soldiers to free the tribesmen they’ve chained and carted off as labor, while in Free State of Jones, McConaughey's Newton Knight pries off the spiked iron punishment collar from the escaped slave he’s befriended. These movies are fueled by jolts of righteousness regarding black oppression while still, compulsively, being about the good intentions of their dashing white protagonists. They are feature-length versions of Barton's Instagram photo, with a sepia tone filter.
Tarzan, for instance, lives in the 19th century, but he’s a 21st-century man (whether the 21st century was in need of a new Tarzan or not). His outlines are the same, but the details have been tweaked for contemporary appeal. He’s still king of the jungle and reluctant lord of a gloomy-looking British estate, and while he opts for pants now instead of a loincloth, Skarsgård flaunts a torso so intensely grooved that, with some charcoal and paper, you could make a keepsake rubbing of his abs. But in addition to swinging from vines, new Tarzan also battles imperialism, freeing enslaved natives and exposing King Leopold II’s tyrannies and atrocities in the Congo Free State. He’s a fond friend to local tribes, respectfully versed in their customs, working against old wrongs and his own source material.
The transformation of Tarzan into someone who battles on behalf of exploited people against the machinations of a preening, linen-suited Rom isn’t just an attempt to make him relevant — it’s an attempt to save him. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan was always a proto-superhero, but in other ways he’s aging poorly, this hunky means of exploring an outdated Darkest Africa fantasy without channeling the story through its natives, who are consigned to being brutal antagonists or underdeveloped allies. The original, 1912 Tarzan was an unspoken argument for the superiority of whiteness, a paragon who was better at being African than the Africans, and who, raised in the wild, grew up spiritually (and literally) noble without needing to be taught the quality, in contrast to the “savages” who represent his first encounters with humanity. The new film, written by Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer and directed by Harry Potter alum David Yates, is trying to steer into the skid by having its hero be an antidote to colonialism in addition to being a product of it.
The Legend of Tarzan enjoys the luxury of fiction; Free State of Jones — which was written and directed by The Hunger Games’ Gary Ross, who is, like Yates, a YA vet — is based on fact. McConaughey’s Newton Knight really existed, though the film expands and fills in the gaps in the historical record of how the Mississippi farmer defected from the Confederate Army during the Civil War and ended up leading a ragtag group of fellow former soldiers and escaped slaves against it, briefly setting up their own nation. Whatever the real Knight was like, it’s hard to believe he was quite the effortlessly exemplary figure he is in the movie, a man who, even in the beginning, seems untouched by the racism that’s such a part of the lives of the community to which he returns.
Free State of Jones ticks all sort of aspirational awards boxes — it has a period setting furnished with convincing trappings; it features a grandstanding performance by McConaughey; and, by awkwardly cutting between two different time frames, it even manages to cover subject matter related to the two early Academy Awards favorites, The Birth of a Nation and Loving, before either reaches theaters. It's in no danger of stealing either film’s thunder, but Free State of Jones does have some promising stretches, particularly when, instead of fading out — happy ending, problems solved! — as the Civil War ends, it trudges onward into Reconstruction, through the Black Codes that recreated slavery in everything but name, through the rise of the KKK, and lynchings, and voter intimidation and fraud, portraying a continuum of ingrained racism, institutional and otherwise, that informs life in America today.
But it is still, unwaveringly, about Knight’s experiences, his convictions, his pain when a friend is brutally murdered for his activism, his place at the front of an armed march of the black men risking their lives to vote. There are times when it feels like the equivalent of a selfie taken during a protest. Knight enters into a relationship with a freed slave named Rachel, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, but the film does so little to develop a sense of the romance from her side. The fact that he's willing to give attention to her is seemingly explanation enough for the pairing, turning her into just more evidence of how forward-thinking he is. Knight is both the center and the least interesting part of a movie about a fascinating moment in which a group of poor white people were convinced, for a time, that they had more in common with slaves than with the wealthy, at least until the war ended, and, with it, most of their motivations to act. Knight himself never wavers, doesn’t learn, doesn’t need to, even though that would make him a more tangible character. He is, from an early kindness that shocks Rachel in how unexpected it is, accepting and fervent in his treatment of and defense of black people, even though he’s always the one who ends up in the spotlight giving a speech.
The trouble with Tarzan or Knight isn’t one of good intentions — blockbuster or Oscar bait, these two movies overflow with those. It’s the way they use black oppression as a backdrop for a story about someone else. The Legend of Tarzan and Free State of Jones have each gotten hit with the “white savior” label, and while not inaccurate, what they’re selling is more specific. It’s the promise that racial equality can shine like a beacon back through time, so fixed as to be self-evident to the heroes of these stories, no matter what their background, no matter how long it’d take the rest of the world to come around (or, these days, fail to). These movies offer the past as seen through characters free of the entrenched attitudes that enabled the colonial atrocities and slavery they war against. It’s an awfully comfy point of view, especially for a white audience, for whom it can be a way to look at old horrors while feeling assured that they, too, would have been on the right side of history instead of part of the larger crowd — and if that’s the case, how can there ever been consideration of new horrors like this week’s? The historical hero of bat-signaled wokeness ends up acting as a palliative, a way to keep the past at a distance instead of better understanding it. And it's that understanding that we really need right now.