Everyone thinks Samuel L Jackson is about 15 years younger than he really is. It’s the hair, probably, or the absence of it. I think we’ve all come to accept that Jackson keeps a rotating carousel of different movie wigs somewhere at home, and that none of his movie hair is ever real. No steady progression from dark to grey to white means the ageing process seems almost to have halted itself, and the man before me today, shaven-headed, tall, enviably lean and energetic, talkative and affable, could pass for a fit 45-year-old. Except he’s 67.
Jackson’s latest role, in The Legend of Tarzan, is a real-life figure inserted into a fictional universe, George Washington Williams, who achieved things in his lifetime that one is shocked and pleased to learn were achieved by any black American in the latter half of the 19th century. For a historically minded man such as Jackson, whose teenage years coincided with the optimistic height of the civil rights struggle, and who was a young Black Panther in the bleak and treacherous COINTELPRO years, the role probes some unfamiliar backwaters of the African-American experience.
“At 14 years old he enlists in the civil war,” he says, “then he enlists in the Mexican revolution against the Emperor Maximilian. I don’t know if he was an actual Buffalo Soldier, but I know he fought in the Indian wars too, and he killed a bunch of Indians! He was a Congressman, a preacher, a historian – he did a lot of things, he had a whole life, short as it was. I actually visited his memorial, his grave, last year in Blackpool.”
You heard that right: Blackpool. Lancashire. Williams died in Blackpool in 1891, of tuberculosis, on his way back to the US after making an important intervention in the Belgian-backed proto-holocaust against the people of the Congo. He documented the cruelties of the Belgian rubber-harvesting industry there – maimings, executions, atrocities without number, millions dead – and on his return pointed fingers at both King Leopold of Belgium (to his face, no less) and his local agent, the explorer/exploiter Henry Stanley, implicating them in what was not yet termed a “genocide”. It was an important milestone on the long road to ending the horrors of the rubber trade.
Thus is the nightmare of colonial Congo grafted on to the fantasy universe of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan series. The villain of the piece, played by Christoph Waltz, is another real-life figure, colonial administrator and mass killer Captain Léon Rom, likely one of the inspirations for Conrad’s Mr Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. This is something like the 200th Tarzan movie since 1918, but the first major reboot since the failure of Greystoke in 1984; The Legend of Tarzan seems prepared to situate itself amid some very dark and troubling history.
“Hopefully with this movie, we can persuade people to look into George Washington Williams’ story and, through him, find out about that first holocaust in the Congo,” says Jackson. “Williams is in the movie trying to convince Tarzan – who hasn’t been in Africa for 20 years – to go home and investigate King Leopold. He’s talked to some soldiers that were there doing bad things and he wants to find a way to stop these things. He wants to prevent the British and American governments from helping Leopold build his railroad. Because Leopold ran out of money – though how the **** he ran out of money I don’t know, because he was pulling diamonds and rubber out of there, and rubber was like liquid gold at the time. Anyway, he ran out of money and that’s when he enlisted that army to go there. And that’s where we come in.”
Source: Guardian | John Patterson