I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
It’s a problem lately with lots of Hollywood movies… and some not-Hollywood movies, too. The same sorts of stories — often literally the same stories, as with reboots and remakes — are getting told over and over again, and with little apparent notion that what is required is a good reason to tell those same stories again. And here we go again.
To say that tales of Tarzan have been told before is an almost absurd understatement: he has been a mainstay of cinema since the silent era. And while The Legend of Tarzan is only very loosely based on the books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, screenwriters Adam Cozad (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) and Craig Brewer (Footloose, Black Snake Moan) have managed to come up with a version of his story that is even more retrograde than anything the author invented. It’s as if they went out of their way to avoid any pretense of relevance or significance to modern audiences, and then took a longer detour to be as offensive as possible.
Clearly, Cozad and Brewer have some idea that retelling an already oft-told tale is not acceptable on its own: they skip right over Tarzan’s origins to, as the film opens, introduce us to a John Clayton, Lord Greystoke (Alexander Skarsgård: Zoolander 2, The Diary of a Teenage Girl), who has already settled back into his ancestral home in England with American wife Jane (Margot Robbie: The Big Short, Focus); a few flashbacks fill in the details of his childhood among apes, but it’s not a significant part of the story here. Instead, the movie has to work hard to get Clayton back to Congo on a mission for the British government to investigate some nefarious doings there that the king of Belgium seems to be behind. Clayton doesn’t want to go, and the convincing that American agent George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson: The Hateful Eight, Barely Lethal) does to get him onboard — the US government is also worried about the Congo situation — is never actually, you know, convincing. Not to Clayton — he just sort of gives in, because there’d be no movie if he didn’t — and certainly not to us. We have no idea why Clayton agrees to go back to Africa, nor any idea what he hopes to get out of the trip. The man we are supposed to be identifying with is a bland nonentity, the fault of both the script, which doesn’t bother to give him much in the way of motivation, and of Skarsgård, who gives him no personality. The actor exerts no presence at all; he may be very pretty, but that’s no substitute for the sort of charisma we expect from the hero of would-be escapist fantasy action adventure.
Once in Africa, some very tedious procedural stuff uncovers Christoph Waltz (Spectre, Big Eyes) as a baddie who is after Congo’s diamonds on behalf of the Belgians. It’s all very solemn and very dull, including the often incoherent action sequences. (Director David Yates, whose previous credits include the final four Harry Potter films, cannot seem to figure out why he’s here either.) Jane’s insistence that she is no damsel in distress is entirely undercut by the script’s casting of her as nothing else; Waltz kidnaps her to lure Tarzan into a trap he’s set. Yawn.
But the worst thing is the movie’s unironic — indeed, seemingly utterly oblivious — treatment of the local people and the local landscapes as a battleground for warring white men. The only explanation for setting this movie a generation before Burroughs’s Tarzan stories — it’s around 1890 here, but the Tarzan of the novels wasn’t even born until 1889 — is to exploit the theme of colonial Europeans stealing the region’s natural resources, a motif that could, theoretically, certainly still have relevance for today (and, indeed, could have also worked had the movie adhered to the novels’ chronology and was set during or just after World War I). But it’s handled in such a desultory manner that it barely even registers as anything other than an excuse to have Tarzan come to the rescue of generic Africans; even the members of the one tribe that Clayton (and Jane) have past and apparently loving relationships with are barely characters. The finale, in which hordes of nameless African tribal warriors stand around and cheer as Clayton singlehandedly thwarts Waltz’s scheme, and hence the Belgians’, is insulting. It isn’t just the epitome of the embarrassing white-savior narrative that no filmmaker should have dared to deploy in the 21st century, but it also lacks even the iota of historical hindsight required to realize that the troubles of an Africa bedeviled by Europeans were very, very far from being defeated.
but how do white men feel about racism?
So much worse, however, is Free State of Jones. You would think that all the stories there are to be told about black Americans during the Civil War — they had some small involvement, after all — had already been told; I guess that thrilling action drama about Harriet Tubman, Union spy and military leader, has been remade too many times to count, right? And so, desperate Hollywood — as embodied by screenwriter and director Gary Ross (The Hunger Games, Seabiscuit) — had no other choice but to finally get around to the true(ish) tale of Newton Knight, a deserting Confederate soldier who turned Robin Hood and guerrilla warrior against the rebels and set up his own self-proclaimed independent, Union-loyal (this may not have been true) state in Jones County, Mississippi.
Ross is so keen to be seen as historically accurate that he has created an entire web site of footnotes — FreeStateOfJones.info — to meticulously document the research that backs up his movie. As a resource on the time, it is superb. As justification for his film, it’s nothing of the sort. One major issue with Jones is not its historicity but the way it frames the story it wants to tell. Footnotes cannot excuse Ross’s depiction of Knight — portrayed physically ably, if not with any particular psychological insight, by Matthew McConaughey (Interstellar, The Wolf of Wall Street) — as the man who unites a group of runaway slaves who’ve been hiding out in a swamp; they’ve apparently just been hangin’ around doin’ nothing until the white man gives them a purpose. And there’s really no excuse for most of them to be undifferentiated furniture hovering in the background for most of the movie; their characters and personalities are meant to be wrapped up in one wholly fictional character, Moses (Mahershala Ali: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, The Place Beyond the Pines), a guessed-at composite of former slaves that Knight may have allied himself with.
Historical accuracy does not excuse Jones’s portrait of slave Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw [Concussion, Jupiter Ascending], wasted here), who would later become Knight’s second wife, though he never quite divorced his first one, Serena (Keri Russell: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Austenland). Rachel’s most dramatic scene entails her telling Knight about how she is continually raped by her owner, which then descends into her comforting Knight, he’s that upset to hear this. That’s right: the institutionalized rape of a woman by a man who is legally her owner matters most here for how it makes a man feel. That is absolutely disgusting, and absolutely emblematic of what happens when even stories about nonwhite and/or nonmale people get filtered through white men’s eyes.
Though Jones may have an even better — and by that, I mean, an even worse — example of the problems inherent in white men’s stories dominating pop culture. Among Jones’s many problems as a movie, on the basic level of engaging storytelling, is that it crams way too much into even its overlong two hours and 19 minutes runtime; after the war ends, it begins scanning the horrors of Reconstruction and the ways into which slavery was reintroduced in all but name (as with “apprenticeship” schemes); this is when the film really starts to feel like a lecture, or a bad parody of a Ken Burns documentary, rather than what is supposed to be primarily a narrative story. Jones tries to cover so much ground that it would be better served as a 10- or 20-episode miniseries (which would also give all the neglected, ie, non-Knight, characters room to breath and be people). The most bizarre tangent the movie goes off on is the occasional flashes forward to the 1948 trial, also in Mississippi, of a descendant of Knight, Davis Knight (Brian Lee Franklin), who is accused of miscegenation, or race mixing, after marrying a white woman. Davis Knight looks — and had heretofore been treated — as a white man, but Mississippi law held that someone with even “one drop” of black blood, or even one black ancestor, no matter how far removed, was considered black. So Davis Knight’s trial is meant to determine whether he was the descendent of Newton and Serena or Newton and Rachel, and hence whether he should be considered “legally” white or “legally” black.
The Mississippi laws involved with this trial are utterly abhorrent, as are the attitudes about race on display, but once again, Jones puts all the focus on a man who is, for all intents and purposes, white, and who had, as far as we can determine, never been impacted by racism at all previously. If there’s one underlying unifying theme of Free State of Jones, it’s this: “How do white men feel about racism, and how does it affect them?” This is very low down on the list of concerns about racism, and quite possibly the least interesting sort of story to be told about racism. The only thing it’s “good” for is fueling and justifying white-savior narratives. And we’ve had more than enough of those already.