I watched part of the 1964 classic Zulu last night. I recommend reading an article I wrote about the film a few years ago, Zulu and the Politics of Power. But something struck me while watching it this time: how much it is like the Iliad.
What I mean by that is that the poem is Greek, written for Greeks to make them feel good about themselves. But it doesn’t vilify the Trojans. Certainly the Trojans are considered in the wrong. They supposedly started the war by kidnapping Helen. And so the Greek reader can be happy that the “good guys” win the battle. But mostly, it’s kind of like a sporting event: there’s our side and their side. And reasons don’t much matter. (Indeed, in the Iliad, it isn’t clear whether Helen was kidnapped by Paris, simply ran away with him, or something in the middle.)
Zulu Isn’t Objectively Racist
This is the case in Zulu, the movie. (For information on the actual battle, check out my article.) The Zulu aren’t really bad. In fact, it isn’t clear why they are attacking at all. There is no discussion of the Anglo-Zulu War, which really was an act of imperialist aggression by the British. But it hardly matters: the Zulu are attacking and, in this case, the British are defending. And other than the very beginning, it is told entirely from the perspective the British military.
It is because of this that the film isn’t racist. However, it is ethnocentric — shockingly so. The film does everything it can to humanize the Zulu. But it is a film for the British by the British. And that’s fine. A South African filmmaker who wanted to do the same thing would doubtless tell the story of the Battle of Isandlwana (the one right before the events shown in the film).
It’s also interesting that the film is anti-war. At the end of the film, Lieutenant Chard admits that this had been his first experience of combat and says, “You think I could stand this butcher’s yard more than once?” There’s no doubt that he’s not talking about his own troops. But even if war is hell, that doesn’t mean you can’t feel good about winning.
The Racism We Bring to Zulu
What’s troubling about the film, however, is that while it may not be racist objectively, it is easy to see a racist film while watching it. And that’s especially true of Americans. All of the “good guys” are white and all of the “bad guys” are black. What’s more, King Cetshwayo is the only black character who has a name. The white characters have superior technology. And in the context of the film, they are completely innocent. The leader of the whites is only there because he wants to build a bridge.
The story of the pure, advanced white man defeating the immoral, primitive black man dates to at least to D W Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation in 1916. And with our history of chattel slavery still very much with us in continued inequality and everything that goes along with that (eg, over-represented black criminals on the nightly news), there’s little doubt that Zulu is viewed as a racist film by many.
Rocky Is Similar to Zulu
I’ve long felt much the same way about Rocky. The film itself isn’t racist, but it is hard for white Americans to not watch it in that way. In fact, I think if Apollo Creed had been a white character, the film probably wouldn’t have been the blockbuster that it was. I’m not sure the same can be said of Zulu, although it probably was a lot more popular in the US because of the easy racist reading of the film.
The Power of the Reader
This is all very disturbing to me. I have written a lot about how the reader (listener, viewer) of a work of art is the ultimate arbiter of its meaning. And in this way, our social problems soil our art. But it also gives us hope. Recognizing racism in Zulu or Rocky is recognizing racism in our society. And as we (slowly) move beyond racism, the art works will be healed automatically.
On the other hand, how much of the power of these films comes from our own latent racism? I really don’t know. But I do know that racism and other social dysfunctions soil everything we do.