Africans in Western Popular Films Reading Analysis Using Kevin Dunn’s “Lights…Camera…Africa: Images of Africa and Africans in Western Popular Films of

Africans in Western Popular Films Reading Analysis Using Kevin Dunn’s “Lights…Camera…Africa: Images of Africa and Africans in Western Popular Films of the 1930s” and the films “King Solomon’s Mines” and “Mr. Bones” , discuss the roles that film played in furthering the goals and objectives of colonialism in Africa. In you analysis, focus on how Africans (as subjects/victims of colonialism) and Europeans (as perpetrators/beneficiaries of colonialism) are portrayed in the 2 films, and frame your paper on the basis of the arguments advanced by Kevin Dunn in the reading cited above. Lights…Camera…Africa: Images of Africa
and Africans in Western Popular Films of
the 1930s
Kevin Dunn
The steady beating of the war-drums grows stronger. An
exotically painted black face peers out behind a bush. The African
porters drop their packs and cower in fear, but the tall, courageous
white hunter forces them on. Suddenly a spear flies out of the bush and
hits a porter in the chest. The rest of the porters, screaming, disperse
into the jungle, only to be cut down by the savages. With his trusty gun,
the white man fends off the brutes and retreats to a nearby cliff. As the
tension mounts, the audience sits spellbound.
Such images became the staple for “jungle” movies in the early
part of this century. During the Depression era, the economic
importance of the West’s African colonies greatly increased. What
these celluloid images suggest is that, consciously or not, the
filmmakers were acting as cultural colonialists by reinforcing and
legitimizing Western political practices in Africa. These images
contributed to the viewing audiences’ misperception of Africa and
Africans and helped to perpetuate and strengthen racist and colonialist
modes of thinking.
For this study, I have chosen nine films from the United States
and Great Britain that can be considered “popular” films based on their
box office success and wide distribution: Trader Horn (1931), Tarzan the
Ape Man (1932), Sanders of the River (1935), Tarzan and his Mate
(1934), King Solomon’s Mines (1937), Tarzan Escapes (1936), Tarzan
Finds a Son! (1939), Four Feathers (1939) and Stanley and Livingstone
(1939).1 In order to establish a sufficient framework to analyze these
films, a review of recent theoretical writings relating to this topic is
necessary. This will be followed by a discussion of the historical
context in which these movies were produced. Such a discussion will
provide an understanding of the social, political, economic and cultural
climate of the thirties and will help explain why certain images were
used and what effect they would have upon the viewing audience.
Finally, I will analyze each film and the images presented within,
drawing several conclusions which I hope will be highly illuminating
African Studies Review, Volume 39, Number 1 (April, 1996), pp. 149-175.
and useful in the continued studies of Africa, popular culture and
cultural anthropology.
The Image of The “Other”
An examination of how Africa and Africans have been
represented in Western films is, at heart, an examination of the
relationship between ‘otherness’ and the dynamics of power.2 To fully
understand this, some review of recent theory and scholarship is
necessary. A number of recent academic works examine the
representations of Africans and Africa in Western literature: White on
Black: Contemporary Literature about Africa, John Cullen Gruesser
(1992); Blank Darkness: Africanist Discourse in French, Christopher
Miller (1985); and The Africa That Never Was: Four Centuries of
British Writing about Africa, Dorothy Hammond and Alta Jablow
(1970, reprinted 1992). Each work seeks to answer how and why various
representations of Africans and Africa emerged. These works draw
heavily upon other cultural/literary critics such as Roland Barthes,
Michel Foucault and Edward Said. These works, however, are focused
almost exclusively on representations in literature. In his recent work,
White On Black: Images of Africans and Blacks in Western Popular
Culture (1992), Jan Pieterse argues that popular ideologies take shape
in images as well as in words: “Every picture tells a story: visual
imagery too has a narrative character and structure” (226).
Like literary representations, cinematic representations are
constructions of an other by a self.3 For the purpose of this paper, I
would like to stress a few key points with regard to theories of
“otherness.” First, images of the “other” are projections from the “self”
and do not represent actuality. Related to that, such imagery tells us
more about the “self” than the “other.” In Pieterse’s words, “ideology
of alter involves an ideology of ego. Representations of otherness are
therefore also indirectly representations of self” (1992, 232). Therefore,
one can actually learn more about the makers of the films in this study
than the subject of their films, i.e. Africa.
It is important to realize that images of “otherness” are
constantly in flux. The images of Africa and Africans in the 1990s, for
instance, are different from the images presented in the 1930s. Such
changes in imagery have more to do with changes of the “self” than of
the “other.” What is in flux is 1) the dynamics within the labeling
group [self] as well as 2) the relationship between the labeling group
[self] and the group being labeled [other].4There are many and varying
images of the African “other” constructed in the films of the 1930s. This
study attempts not only to identify the similarities of these images but
more importantly to examine and explain the differences. In order to
understand the images that were produced in the thirties, one must
high ts… Camera… Africa
examine the dynamics within the labeling groups (the United States
and Great Britain). In addition, there should be an examination of the
relationship between these labeling groups and the group being
labeled—Africa and Africans.5
The “Selves” and “Others” of the 1930s
The overriding event of the 1930s for both the United States and
Great Britain was the Great Depression. This economic disaster brought
about major social changes that had a direct impact on imagery in the
movies of the time, especially when portraying issues of gender, class
and race.
For the white, middle class Americans and British most affected
by the Depression, these times frequently meant that the male
breadwinner was out of work, which was a severe blow to the masculine
self-image. Therefore, films of this era frequently seek to reaffirm this
injured masculinity. Characters such as Alan Quartermain (King
Solomon’s Mines), “Lord Sandy” {Sanders of the River) and especially
Tarzan did much to restore and strengthen the white, middle class male
viewer’s ego. However, different characters projected different societal
ideals of manhood. America’s Tarzan, for instance, represented brute
strength, perseverance and individuality while the British hero
Sanders stressed the virtues of efficiency, leadership and strong
parental guidance.
Because of the unequal distribution of wealth, class divisions
were especially visible in the 1930s. Many negative images of the
upper class surface to reflect this class tension, even in films set in
Africa. The fact that Tarzan’s aristocratic blood (the primary intent
for Edgar Rice Burrough’s books) is never even mentioned in the 1930s
films is very telling. Rather than being of nobility, the celluloid
Tarzan is a champion of the average white man, which connects to the
populism flourishing in the thirties.6Closely related to this populism
is the emphasis placed on the individual work ethic in many
Hollywood films of the time, 42nd Street (1933), Mr. Smith Goes to
Washington (1939), including those set in Africa (Stanley and
Livingstone (1939).
The thirties were also a time of conflicting racial attitudes. On
the one hand, governmental actions of the decade sought to increase
equality among the races (such as Roosevelt’s civil rights programs).
However, there were growing racial tensions as jobs became scarce. As
white males lost their jobs, they would frequently seek to force blacks
and other ethnic groups out of what had traditionally been non-white
sectors of employment. Many working women suffered a similar fate.
Therefore, constructed images of inept Africans (and women) dependent
upon the survival skills of white men can be seen as reflecting and
reinforcing the white, middle class male viewer’s attitudes in this
regard. Such examples can be readily found in all nine of the films in
this study, particularly Stanley and Livingstone and the Tarzan series.
The harsh economic and social conditions of the day also explain
the escapist elements of the films. People flocked to theaters, leaving
their troubles for awhile, to sit inside a movie theater and travel to a
world where white men still dominated and were in control.
Attendance grew at a phenomenal rate: in the United States attendance
averaged 60 million per week and in Great Britain the annual
attendance in 1939 reached 990 million (Adams 1994, 11; Richards 1984,
After the advent of sound in the late 1920s, the film industry
sought to achieve a more realistic, documentary style. Camera crews
were often sent overseas to bring back footage of authentic African
scenery to increase the realism of the films. For example, the
production of Stanley and Livingstone was postponed to give Osa
Johnson time to film the necessary footage of Africa for backdrops,
while Trader Horn was filmed almost entirely on location in Africa.7
Because of these “realistic” effects and the way in which the studios
presented these images in an “educational” fashion, the audience was
often led to believe that these images accurately represented African
reality (Richards 1984, 23-4; 67-85).R
In Britain, the domestic film industry was never able to achieve
the prominence that Hollywood enjoyed. In her book British Genres,
Marcia Landy refers to the economic and cultural dependency of the
British cinema on Hollywood. Despite this cultural imperialism,
British cinema did establish its own unique styles and genres (1991, 24).
For example, all three of the 1930s British popular films set in Africa
(Sanders, King Solomon, Four Feathers) belong to the “empire film”
genre, in which Britain and its culture are glorified.9 As their African
empire covered “the Cape to Cairo,” relations with Africa were very
important for Britain d urine this time.10 After the First World War,
Britain and the rest of Europe had to depend on the raw materials and
resources provided by their colonies to rebuild. Due primarily to
domestic economic woes, there was an increase in British emigration to
Africa during the 1930s which was encouraged by the government.
Therefore, inviting images of Africa, ripe for settlement with promises
of riches, can be found in the British films about Africa. As will be seen,
images relating to Britain’s unique policy of “indirect rule” will also be
prevalent in the African empire films. During the latter half of the
decade, constructed images of the empire were further affected by
Britain’s slow but inevitable drift towards war.
Lights…Caw era… Africa
Trader Horn (1931-MGM)
In 1931, Trader Horn became the first non-documentary film to be
shot almost entirely in Africa. Based rather loosely on the 1927
biography of the white hunter Aloysius Horn, the film was a stunning
success both domestically and abroad, receiving an Academy Award
nomination for Best Picture. The book itself is a selection of
reminiscences and tall-tales. The film, directed by W.S. Van Dyke,
focuses almost entirely on one of the latter.
While short on plot, the film is full of adventure and excitement,
establishing the precedent for subsequent “jungle” films such as Tarzan
the Ape Man and its sequels. The film opens with the veteran trader
Horn (Harry Carey) and his rookie side-kick Peru (Duncan Renaldo).
Together they travel into the interior of Africa where “no white man
has gone before.” They are accompanied by Horn’s faithful African gunbearer, Renchero (Mutia Omoolu). In the interior, they rescue Nina, the
“white goddess” (Edwina Booth), a young white girl who has been
captured and raised by natives. After rescuing Nina, the group treks
back to the coast. Along the way Nina and Peru fall in love and
Renchero dies.
At the center of the story is Horn, who provides Peru (and the
viewer) with an endless stream of wisdom and knowledge. As Horn
proudly asserts in the opening scene: “No white man knows more of
Africa than I.” His favorite expression is “That’s Africa for you…,”
followed by an experienced insight provided for the audience’s
education (i.e. “when you’re not eating somebody, you’re trying to keep
somebody from eating you”). Horn is an excellent example of the
experienced, wizen, masculine hero found in many Hollywood
adventure films. In fact, his character (and the movie’s premise) is
quite similar to John Wayne’s character in The Seekers, even down to
his strong distaste for miscegenation.
The audience identifies with the naive Peru and he becomes the
cinematic go-between for the viewer. When Horn is lecturing Peru on
Africa, he is indirectly lecturing the audience. The film acquires a
definite documentary feel as Horn identifies African wildlife and
discourses on the ways of Africa and Africans. Peru’s education is the
audience’s education.
The images of Africa in Trader Horn fall into two basic
1) Africa as an untamed wilderness; and
2) Africa as a dream/nightmare.
The image of Africa as an untamed wilderness, an “open zoo”
teaming with wildlife and undisturbed by man, is central to the film.
At times the film becomes similar to a travelogue with extensive
footage of African scenery and wildlife. As Horn educates and
“explodes myths” about African wildlife, viewers may well wonder if
they are watching a documentary. The film’s Africa is completely
untamed without any cities, towns or any other symbols of
“civilization” which would infringe on the purity of the image.
With the untamed wilderness for a backdrop, the film also
portrays Africa as a dream/nightmare. This convention is found in
almost every 1930s feature film that is set in Africa. Often, in the eyes
of the naive, Africa is a dream: beautiful, peaceful and beckoning. To
the experienced eye or to the naive eye after education, Africa exists as
a nightmare: terrifying, horrific and frequently fatal. At the beginning
of Trader Horn, Peru rejects Horn’s hardened view of Africa and
Africans. For Peru, Africa is a dreamscape, a paradise. He is quickly
rebuked by the brutal “reality” that he encounters: murder and native
savagery. Later, the wildlife paradise of the interior turns into a
nightmare, first by the brutality of the wildlife, then by the savagery
of the natives. The fatality of Africa is constantly stressed throughout
the film. The early death of a female missionary (the mother of Nina)
serves as a warning to Peru and the audience that Africa is
inhospitable to white people.
The film constructs three images of Africans:
1) Africans as savages;
2) Africans as lazy, untrustworthy porters; and
3) Renchero, the loyal servant.
Throughout the movie, the experienced Horn repeatedly refers to
Africans as black devils, black apes, monkeys and children. His loyal
gun-bearer Renchero is not exempt from such names. Introducing the
film’s first Africans, Horn comments that “they’d trade their mothers”
for a fistful of salt. Peru argues that Horn is mistaken and that the
Africans “are just happy, ignorant children.” However, Peru soon
discovers the savagery of the Africans when he sees a skeleton hanging
upside down. “Just a little childish prank,” chides Horn. During the
trade transaction, drums are suddenly heard (“juju” states Horn) and
the Africans begin to work themselves into a frenzy. When Horn and
Peru retreat to their boat, they find two of their native attendants
murdered. Thus, the first Africans are shown as savage, simplistic and
murderous. This image of the savage native is continued and reinforced
throughout the film.
In the interior, the African tribe led by Nina tortures and kills
all of Horn’s remaining porters in a bloodthirsty frenzy. They are about
to kill Horn, Peru and Renchero when Nina releases them, despite the
protests of the natives. The lesson of this scene, and the entire film, is
Lights…Camera… Africa
encapsulated in Peru’s statement to Nina: “Don’t you understand, white
people must help each other.” Despite having “gone native,” Nina
somehow comprehends her inherent white superiority and morality
and escapes with Peru and Horn.
The second image of Africans in this film is that of the lazy
porters. This convention of the “colonized” African became a staple
throughout the 1930s Africanist films. The porters frequently hesitate
out of laziness or fear and cower behind the group’s white leaders. The
porters must be forced on by whippings and beatings, usually
administered by the African supervisor, in this case Renchero. The
porter’s eventual (and imminent) deaths help to convince the audience
of the hazardousness of Africa (i.e. being trampled by a rhino) or the
savagery of the natives (i.e. being burned alive). Furthermore, Horn
and Peru, like the white men in other jungle films, rarely comment on
the demise of these Africans; they are expendable.
Trader Horn also contains the image of the loyal African servant,
Renchero. This is the “good” African who cleans underneath Horn’s
toenails, translates for Horn and eventually dies for Horn. Despite
being kicked, pushed and verbally abused by Horn, he follows his
“master” like an obedient dog. He is completely subservient and
submissive to Horn. His loyalty is repaid only after his death when
Horn lovingly imagines Renchero’s face floating above the horizon at
the film’s conclusion. As I will show, the image of the loyal African
servant will be modified and continued in other films throughout the
Tarzan, the Ape Man (1932-MGM), Tarzan and His Mate (1934-MGM),
Tarzan Escapes (1936-MGM) and Tarzan Finds a Son! (1939-MGM)
During the 1930s, the American Africanist film genre was
dominated by the Tarzan series. There have been roughly forty Tarzan
movies, from the 1918 Elmo Lincoln silent feature Tarzan of the Apes to
the 1989 made-for-television feature Tarzan in Manhattan starring Joe
Lara, all rather loosely based on the books by Edgar Rice Burroughs. In
the history of cinema, the Tarzan movies are perhaps the most
enduring and prolific of all movie serials. Moreover, they are arguably
the largest shaper of the West’s perception of Africa. Because of their
original box office success and the continued production and distribution
of the series through television and video, Tarzan movies have helped
to influence and shape Western perceptions of Africa more than any
other cinematic force.”
In the minds of millions, the name, the face and, perhaps more
importantly, the infamous yell of Olympic swimmer Johnny
Weissmuller springs to mind at the mention of “Tarzan.” No other
Tarzan reigned for as long or through as many movies as Weismuller,
originally for MGM and then for RKO. It was Weismuller’s Tarzan,
accompanied by Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane, who established Tarzan
as part of every childhood in America. Though there were earlier
versions, many spin-offs and rival Tarzans from other studios, they all
failed to have the impact or popularity which the Weissmuller and
O’Sullivan features enjoyed. For most, the original WeismullerO’Sullivan’s Tarzan, the Ape Man remains THE Tarzan movie.
Conceived originally by MGM as a sequel to Trader Horn, it was
released in 1932 and was immensely popular among the Depression-era
audiences. During the 1930s, Weismuller and O’Sullivan returned for
the racy Tarzan and His Mate in 1934, the graphically violent Tarzan
Escapes in 1936 and the “jungle family values” entry, Tarzan Finds a
Son! in 1939.12For our work here, the original in the series, Tarzan, the
Ape Man, created African images which were to be repeated and
reinforced in the three sequels. While focusing primarily on this
particular film, reference will be made to the three sequels as they
relate, reinforce or alter certain images.
The images of Africa in the Tarzan movies fall into five
1) Africa
2) Africa
3) Africa
4) Africa
5) Africa
as inhospitable to the white man;
as the keeper of a great t…
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