In a scene from Tarzan the Ape Man, Mr. Parker introduces his daughter Jane, who has recently arrived in Africa, to the natives. Parker walks his daughter past a line of Africans, naming the tribe to which each belongs and defining them by their functions. He distinguishes hunters from traders while Jane squeals with delight and surprise. The actors pass in front of the natives, who seem to be nothing more than strange and wonderful objects on display for Jane, and the American audience. Ironically, the Africans pictured in this scene are, quite literally, a landscape through which the white actors pass. The actors move in front a series of images; they do not in fact interact with `real' Africans, but move among projections of the `other.'
Sixty years later, a similar scene in Out of Africa captures Karen Blixen's arrival at her farm in Kenya. She and her husband Bror reach the farm at night and are greeted by the Kikuyu who live there. Karen and Bror, like Jane and her father, walk through a line of Africans while Bror names and defines the natives for his wife. He explains to her, "And here's your cook: name's Esa .... And this one's Juma. Houseboy, but he'll do all work" (Luedtke 1985 21). This comparison demonstrates that Tarzan the Ape Man and Out of Africa construct Africa similarly. Certainly, Tarzan the Ape Man is a more openly racist film, but the point of this comparison is to illustrate that as discourses which construct Africa for western audiences, the films function in much the same way.
In Tarzan Africa is the land of ivory and wild game. Parker and Holt search for the elephant graveyard and the treasures it contains. They fight off dangerous lions and hippopotamuses and maneuver through a magnificent, yet terrifying, terrain. Denys and Delamere, in Out of Africa, also trade in ivory and kill animals for sport and profit. Africa is the land of safari, a place for adventure where profit waits for white men with resources to reap it. Africa is a landscape, open and pristine. It represents the freedom through which Denys defines himself. It is a still-life, removed from history and culture, an unpopulated and untamed emptiness open for European colonization.
Colonization in both films takes innocuous forms. Jane's heavy trunks and high leather boots signify the civilization she flees. The mistreatment the whites inflict on the blacks is justified, the film explains, because, as the capture of the Parkers and Holt by the Pygmy's proves, Africans are not quite human anyway. Denys carries Mozart on safari and Karen sets her table with China and crystal. Karen Blixen teaches the African children to read and heals the sick. When she convinces the governor's wife to give the Kikuyu a sliver of land, the ugly side of empire, within the life of the film, is erased. It is Denys's death and Karen's departure we mourn, not the dispossession and relocation of the Kikuyu.
In these two films, Africa and Africans are nearly incidental to the storylines. Any exotic locale would have sufficed as a backdrop over which each director might have orchestrated his romance. African characters do not play a vital part in either film. In Tarzan, no African is allowed a name or an identity apart from that of native. Perhaps this is best illustrated in the scene where while scaling the edge of a steep mountain while in the jungle searching for the elephant graveyard, an African slips and falls to his death. Harry Holt immediately asks what the African was carrying. His first concern is for the lost supplies because the dead native is insignificant. In Out of Africa, admittedly the Kikuyu fair a great deal better than do the Africans of Tarzan. Several Africans in Pollack's film have names and both Blixen and Finch-Hatton reveal a certain amount of compassion toward the Kikuyu and Masaai. Jane pledges, at the conclusion of Tarzan, to welcome Harry's return to Africa when she and Tarzan will oversee his hunt for ivory. She and he maintain their rule over the dark land of the savages, and no one in the film comes to an understanding of the Africans as people.
At the end of Out of Africa, on the other hand, Blixen goes as far as to kneel before the new district commissioner and beg that "her Kikuyu" be given a piece of land on which to remain, and she fights for their rights to remain on the land because "it's theirs" (Luedtke 137). None-the-less, the Africans are not central to either film, and as J.R. Nesteby contends, the stereotype of the "faceless black image," a black African image "given in part, not in whole," is in itself a negative portrayal (144). The absence of complete or complex black characters in both films suggests "that Afro-Americans and black Africans exist, but that their existence is not worthy of a deeper probe that might put human faces in place of a scantily perceived image" (144).
The construction of Africa and Africans in both films serves, at the very most, to justify imperialism, and at the very least, to give colonization a nod of approval. As Chris Tiffin and Alan Lawson note, "Imperial relations may have been established initially by guns, guile, and disease, but they were maintained in their interpellative phase largely by textuality" (3). The imaging of Africa `is' Africa for most viewers. Film tells a story, lures us into its reality and conceals the politics and values which underwrite it. In Tarzan and Out of Africa, Africans are on the periphery of each story, Africa is little more than a backdrop, and colonialism is represented as romance.
Luedtke, Kurt. (1985). Out of Africa: The Shooting Script. New York: Newmarket Press.
Nesteby, J.R. (nd). Black Images in American Films, 1896-1954. The Interplay between Civil Rights and Film Culture. University of America Press.
Out of Africa. (1985). Directed by Sydney Pollack. Produced by Sydney Pollack.
Tarzan the Ape Man. (1932). Directed by W.S. Van Dyke. Produced by Metro Goldwyn Mayer.
Tiffin, Chris and Alan Lawson, eds. (1994). De-Scribing Empire: Post-Colonialism and Textuality. Routledge: London and New York.