Zulu and the Racism We Bring to It

Zulu (1964)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.

15 thoughts on “Zulu and the Racism We Bring to It

  1. There’s how Rocky, in “Rocky III,” becomes jokey best friends with Apollo Creed, after fighting a bigger, scarier black guy. Then fights a huge Russian in “IV,” as xenophobia apparently trumps racism. (If I remember right, Creed is not in IV. Maybe he went to a farm upstate to jump and play with other boxers.)

    The wacky thing? We watched “Rocky III” in school! I didn’t get this, until, as an adult, I shared beverages with some teachers, and they admitted they had good & bad days. On the good days, you strive to inspire children. On the bad days, you just put on a dang movie. Who hasn’t had bad days? Makes sense to me.

    • Fun fact about Rocky IV: Stallone wanted lots of realism in the fights and told Dolph Lundgren they should use full contact punches filming a scene. Lundgren punched him so hard he was hospitalized. The film company had to show the scene to the medical insurance provider because they were refusing to pay. The insurance carrier insisted that the trauma to Stallone’s chest and heart was so severe it must have happened in a car accident (and therefore not their liability).

      • Realism in the Rocky fights? Seriously? Wow. I guess one of the things that always pushes the “Rocky” movies into the realm of cartoon/fantasy for me is the ridiculous punishment that Rock and his opponents always take in the ring. It’s Bugs Bunnyesque; guys taking repeated full-power roundhouse shots to the head…I still watched the fight game back in the Tyson era and, given the way that guy could hit, it would typically take two, maybe three or four solid headshots to put his opponents down. But round after round, fifteen, twenty, more full power hits? He’d have killed someone.

        Buster Douglas, who defeated Tyson, was knocked out in the third round of his first defense when Holyfield hit him a straight right to the chin. One punch, lights out.

        The Rocky flicks are kind of fun – I still think the first one is a genuine classic in the boxing movie genre – but I’m kind of amazed to hear that Stallone thought that they had “realism”. Yipe.

        • I liked the first movie, too. It had a honest-feeling working-class vibe to it. Of course, later Stallone monetized his Everyman persona. At least he never became a TV preacher.

      • That’s wild. And pretty typical of an insurance company. Insurance is so goofy in this country. It should be a useful tool for managing risk. In my experience, though, they’re just rent collectors, and will fight you tooth and nail before they’ll cough up a dime. It’s like having a prenup with Trump — sure, on paper he’s supposed to pay you. But he won’t.

  2. “Zulu” is basically “Blackhawk Down” only thirty years older and for Brits rather than Yanks; it’s “the heroic white folks fight off hordes of faceless brown savages”. “Viewed as a racist film”? It’s the pure, raw right-from-the-still racism that made the Empire (and now helps make OUR empire…). White people are people. Brown or black or yellow or red people are…well, kinda like the big bugs in “Starship Troopers”. They have no fear (probably because they’re not really human, not like us) and they just swarm over you in faceless masses. Scary!

    I wrote a whole post (http://firedirectioncenter.blogspot.com/2010/01/decisive-battles-isandlwana-1879.html) about the larger campaign of which the events of the defense of the mission station at Rorke’s Drift were a part, and I included a piece of this flick (the “final assault” sequence). Here’s what I said then:

    “Nothing makes an Englishman as happy – or used to – as a hearty tale of jingo heroism. Back in the Sixties, when the imperial sunset was still a lingering glow in the sky, Cy Enfield made a stolid little movie about Rorke’s Drift that gives you a hint of an idea of how inequal the engagement SHOULD have been. Now you should know straight up – this little clip is full of the most delightful bullshit.

    The 2nd Warwickshire was NOT the “South Wales Borderers” in 1879 – more than 2/3rd of the imperials were British or Irish, and, no, they didn’t sing “Men of Harlech” waiting for the final Zulu attack.

    There WAS no final climactic assault at dawn, either; Dabulmanzi’s men got a bellyful the preceding afternoon and that night. By dawn they were exhausted, and probably worried that their king would tear a strip off their backsides for disobeying his orders. They slipped away as Chelmsford’s men returned that morning.

    And Gonville Bromhead wasn’t Michael Caine, he was a stocky little middle-aged man with a beard like a quickset hedge, and hard of hearing, too.

    But any Zulu warrior or imperial soldier could tell you; there’s colonial war as it happens and colonial war as the great power tells it to you.”

    So fear not; your first instinct was entirely correct: “Zulu” is a perfectly distilled little piece of British imperial racist crap. Not in the main body of story it tells; that actually happened in the way it’s told and, make no mistake, regardless of the cause for which they fought the troops of Rorke’s Drift fought a hell of a fight.

    But so did the men of the uDloko, uThulwana, inDlondo, and the inDlu-yengwe…and you’d never know it from this nasty little piece of work.

  3. And I should note that I disagree that the film “does everything it can to humanize the Zulu”. If it DID you’d have a naughty Zulu bad boy to be the counterpart of Private Hook, and a stalwart and noble Zulu induna to be the “other side of the hill” version of Color-sergeant Bourne, and a couple of funny guys from the uThulwana joking about taking on the whiteys with only a spear and shield like the Private Joneses and…well, you get the picture.

    The bottom line is that a pretty good definition of “racist” is that the group in power has the authority and the willingness to give the group NOT in power pure living hell, to make the powerless group un-human. “Zulu” does that by giving us white people who are PEOPLE and black people who are…a faceless mass. “Un-human”. Brave? Yes. But only because they HAVE to be brave to draw out and highlight the bravery of the white people.

    And to be dead honest I loved this flick when I was younger. And it’s still a great MOVIE…in the dramatic and cinematographic sense. But now I can’t bear to watch it, simply because the brutality of the racial animus is SO violently in your face. Like I said above; it’s the 1960’s equivalent of “Starship Troopers” with black people as the Bugs.


  4. Last bit of military/historical trivia and the film “Zulu”.

    Gonville Bromhead, the officer commanding B Company, 2nd Battalion, 24th Foot present at the mission station (played by Michael Caine) was the fourth generation of his family commissioned in the Royal Army. His great-grandfather, Boardman Bromhead, fought in what we’d call the French and Indian War; his grandfather, Sir Gonville Bromhead, fought against us in the American Revolution; his father fought against Napoleon including Waterloo; and his three older brothers also had royal commissions.

    He was also hard-of-hearing, described by his battalion commander as “hopeless”, and clearly NOT the young exquisite as Caine plays him. You get the sense that although a nice enough guy (apparently his troops liked him) he wasn’t considered the sharpest bayonet in the scabbard; getting detailed off to pull line-of-communications security isn’t exactly where you send your fast movers.

    He seems to have been considered a bit of a “photo-op soldier” for the fame garnered from the fight. Tho he was decorated and promoted he never got past major (his partner John Chard, RE, made colonel) and seems to have been fine with that, so I’m not sure where Caine got the haughty young nobleman from. It’s a fun portrayal…but not who the guy really was.

  5. It seems odd that in discussions about just how racist a film like “Zulu” must be, nobody ever mentions that the Zulu themselves, like the British, were an imperial, militarist culture. Could it be that it’s actually more racist to insist on casting them only as victims of the White Man, rather than the aggressive and successful culture that they were? Just asking.

    • It’s not. But a balanced film would have done just that. “Zulu” simply reduces the Zulu troopers to a faceless force of nature. There’s no actual human element there, not even the fierce warlike humanity that was the imperial Zulu army. They’re just a mass of scary Bad Guys to threaten our heroes.

      It’s just that sort of instinctive racism that helped the British justify ruling the Savages; it’s not a question of “Why are we ruling them?” – it’s just assumed that they’re just Not Like Real People, so, whatev’…

  6. It seems odd to me that in discussions about just how racist a film like “Zulu” must be, nobody ever mentions that the Zulu themselves, like the British, were an imperial, militarist culture. Does it actually show any respect to insist on casting them only as victims of the White Man, rather than the aggressive and successful culture that they were? Just asking.

    You may also be interested in this brief review of “The Legend of Tarzan” (2016) –


    “And as for all of the concern about Tarzan being a white man’s fantasy of a Caucasian hero of colonialist values being out of step with more enlightened attitudes that have come to pass during the character’s 115-year existence and therefore an offensive figure to people of color, specifically black people, I loudly and adamantly call “bullshit.” Black people have enjoyed Tarzan as a hero since he first appeared on the big screen, not just because he’s fucking awesome but also because his attitude toward native Africans was astoundingly liberal for its era. It was as simple as “Don’t fuck with him, his woman, the jungle, or his friends — human or otherwise — and he only sees you as a person,” perhaps someone soon to be a new friend and possibly someone worthy of his respect as an equal. The Negroes Tarzan killed in films of yore were all cannibals, kidnappers, desecrators of nature, or miscreants of some vile stripe, and each and every one of them that he dispatched had it coming.”

    The review’s author, Steve Bunche, is a black guy and a Tarzan fan.

    • People can appropriate art in all sorts of ways. Over on the PR website there was a discussion of how Black Americans have sometimes seen King Kong — as a prince in his own country, brought here in chains, who goes down fighting. On this site there’s an article about the sci-fi Western “Firefly,” adopted by both liberals and libertarians. Westerns as a genre could appeal to various groups. Liberals can see justice conquering lawless exploitation. Conservatives can see the man on horseback as more effective than Big Government. Even Natives have enjoyed the fine rodeo stunt work, and the occasional use of Native performers (usually as extras). And think of how gay audiences embraced all kinds of straight romantic films!

      One of my favorite examples is The Clash. Defiantly anti-racist and anti-capitalist, their music was anthemic to skinheads in England and America. Now you hear it in the airport stores. That’s the thing about art; it can work on so many different levels.

    • As noted above; that’s not what the film does. The Zulu aren’t pictured as human enough to be victims. They’re just anonymous, massive, frightening.

      Admittedly, a film that really delved into the politics of the Zulu War would be boring as hell (somebody made one called “Zulu Dawn” and it’s pretty lame…) but this flick isn’t even that. It’s a monster movie with the Zulu as the monster.

  7. That isn’t a “black” interpretation of Kong, James. It’s straight out of the script:

    Carl Denham – “And now, ladies and gentlemen, before I tell you any more, I’m going to show you the greatest thing your eyes have ever beheld. He was a king and a god in the world he knew, but now he comes to civilization merely a captive–a show to gratify your curiosity. Ladies and gentlemen, look at Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World.”

    You don’t have to be black to feel sympathy for the big guy. As for the traditional anti-racist interpretation of the movie – that Kong represents fear of the black man molesting our white wimmen – that one would never have occurred to me unforced. And I grew up in the Segregated South back when books like “Mandingo” were popular. In my opinion, that take on the movie says more about the critic than the work.

    • Sure — everybody sees art from their own perspective. As for the “white wimmen” thing, I doubt that was intended; more likely Kong just had to threaten a pretty girl, and blondes were “sunshine and innocence” back then. Brunettes were world-wise and sexy; blondes were Pure. All the scarier to be threatened by a monster! (It’s like “Jurassic Park” having to include some damn kids to be in danger.)

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