"Dark Continent", Africa, Animals, Blackface, Bruce Cabot, colonialism, Elsa Martinelli, Film, film review, Giraffe, Hatari, history, Howard Hawks, imperialism, John Wayne, racism, Red Buttons, Rhino, wild animals
I mean they just let the black guys handle the ostriches while they watched and laughed. I’m not saying it’s openly racist, it’s just kinda messed up. Those birds are huge, scary, and they bite and it’s kinda-super-fucked how Kurt just gave up halfway through.
I’ve written before that growing up John Wayne was something of a personal hero of mine, and that relationship became complicated as I got older and realized that John Wayne was…complex.
Racist, I mean racist. The dude was just racist.
It’s for this reason I no longer idolize the man, but I do recognize that, since I spent most of my childhood watching his movies, I can’t ignore that a fair amount of my consciousness is built around his films. Mom and Dad always had his movies playing at night when they went to bed. I’ve never been a good sleeper, and in fact I usually wound up making a palette and sleeping on the floor of their bedroom instead, and while they would snore or rumble the way parents tend to, I would watch those movies over and over again until sleep would eventually take me. There were usually three I could rely on dependably: Rio Bravo, El Dorado, and Hatari. The last one always had a special significance for me, largely because it was set, not in the old West like the other two, but in a far more magical and mythical place to my young mind: Africa.
I’ve been wanting to write about Hatari for some time, largely because growing up Africa was always a bit of a mystery to me. Being part of the generation that was brought up on VHS Disney collections of original animated films I remember The Lion King and how it created this perception that Africa was a continent largely of incredible beauty and wild animals, and Hatari only added to this sense of wonder. Watching the film as I usually do once a year I’m still pretty spellbound as there are shots of John Wayne riding the front of an old beat-up truck lassoing zebras and giraffes and the camera shows these creatures reacting honestly to their capture. Whether it was rhinos, monkeys, water buffaloes, leopards, or even baby elephants Howard Hawks last major motion picture inspired me to learn more about the wild animals that populated the continent of Africa because they were foreign and wonderful. It also didn’t hurt that I lived twenty minutes from a zoo which was not only free to the public, it also had most of the animals I watched in the film.
Reflecting on it though, I’ve begun to reassess my love of the film. I’m not saying that I’ve abandoned it completely. Hatari is still a beautiful movie that I watch every year. The cinematography is breathtaking, the characters are fun, the music is a sumptuous collection of jazz, and more often than not there are actual scenes in the film which make me laugh. What I can’t get past though, is the implied racism of the film.
Hatari is about a group of American and European contract workers and adventurers who literally capture animals for zoos. As the film was made, and is set in the early 60s, there is no tranquilizer guns and so Sean Mercer (John Wayne Himself) and his crew have to wrangle and capture animals using only ropes and battered second-hand automobiles. The film begins with their attempt to capture a Rhino, and during this attempt Little Wolf “The Indian” (long-time Wayne co-star Bruce Cabot) is gored in the leg. The crew manage to rush him to the hospital where he’s saved with a blood-transfusion by a frenchman named Charles Maurey who eventually becomes part of the crew. Not long thereafter an Italian photographer named Anna Maria D’Allesandro (played by the rapturous Elsa Martinelli) joins the crew to take photographs of the crew capturing the animals. From this point onward Hatari becomes, like many Howard Hawkes movies, more of an exploration of the characters and their relationships than an actual plot. Sean and D’Allsesandro, who eventually goes by Dallas, fall in love and the reader is also entertained with a love triangle between Pockets (Red Buttons), Charles, Kurt, and a young woman of the crew named Brandy de la Court. And along with these character arcs the reader is given scene after scene of the crew capturing wild animals with nothing but ropes, crates, and willpower.
From afar this summary doesn’t appear to give much in the way of revealing the problems in the film, and in fact if one watches the characters themselves they’re entirely likable people. As a viewer I love these characters and I love watching them work towards their goal, and I love watching them fall in love. But the problems begin to appear when one looks at some of the small moments in the films that can go unnoticed.
As I noted at the start, at one point in the film the ostriches they have captured get out and so the crew has to capture them again, however in the film the only people doing any of the work are the local Africans who are often chased and attacked by the birds while the host of the crew, again all of them white Europeans or Americans, are laughing and enjoying themselves. In fact at one point Kurt, who began helping them stops, and Louis asks him why he he gasps laughing saying: “I better let the boys do it.”
THe use of the word “boy” to describe the Africans is problematic. Even if the reader is not American they’re sure to at least catch this moment and will probably have the same reaction I do now, which is usually a small “twist” followed by a small repressed gurgle.
Another moment, earlier in the film, is when Kurt arrives to take Brandy to the hospital. On the compound there are many native African people who cook and clean for the crew, one of them is named Argo. He is, for the record, the only black man in the film who receives any sort of meaningful line. Kurt is shuffling through the main hall telling Argo about the attack, looking at the floor. When Argo asks how bad Little Wolf is hurt Kurt says plainly, “I don’t know. Make me some coffee would you?”
No please. No eye contact. Just an order.
These are small moments, but they contribute to a larger whole. Perhaps a more obvious moment is the scene of actual blackface. Dallas, during the film adopts several baby elephants whose parents have either died or abandoned them and a local tribe decides to honor her by welcoming her as a member. They take her back to their village and the reader eventually discovers that they’ve covered her face and arms with clay to make her appear black. Sean and the crew laughs and the following exchange is offered:
Dallas: [Dressed as a Warusha] I don’t think it’s very funny. They want to shave my hair! They want to take my clothes off and there was a man in there.
Pockets: Why, he doesn’t speak any English.
Kurt Muller: You are now a member of the Warusha Tribe.
Sean Mercer: And they’ve given you name. Mother of Elephants. Mama Tembo! Well you’re supposed to dance with them.
Watching this scene today, I honestly cringe. It was probably funny at the time, but today I just can’t not see that we’re supposed to be entertained by the blackface which is the punchline of the scene.
At this point then my contester emerges. Well then so what? This sounds like a racist old movie about white people being dicks to Africans. How could there possibly be any relevant entertainment or art in such a movie? Why should I watch an arguably racist film.
To this I would argue, because it is an arguably racist film. But also an interesting one, largely because it has an element of colonialism that could be explored.
The Africa in Hatari is a not a “Dark Continent,” but that doesn’t mean that colonialism has been completely abandoned either. The white Europeans and Americans that the reader watches and follows aren’t plundering the land of its diamonds, gold, or ivory the way the Europeans and Americans had done in the past, but that doesn’t mean Africa still doesn’t possess wonder and wealth. Instead it’s the natural wonders, the animals which still inspire Western imagination that are being captured and sold to zoos.
Watching Hatari I’m struck by the fact that the native Africans help Sean Mercer and his crew capture giraffes and water buffaloes, the implication being that they’re somehow profiting from this venture, though probably not in the same level as the crew. There’s an implied idea that in this continent of wild and exotic beasts, white people can still find adventure and exoticism that they can’t necessarily find in their own homelands. They can also find, in their own way, a sort of wealth and domestic comfort. Africa, its animals, and in some ways even its people, become a backdrop for the Europeans and Americans who are looking to these native creatures and seeing personal opportunity, rather than a chance to help native Africans.
It could be that I’m looking too deeply in this film for some kind of troublesome narrative, but I don’t think I am. The implication of the narrative, and the small moments scattered throughout the film, contribute to a conclusion that Hatari is yet another in a long line of colonial narratives that paint Africa as a continent where fortune can be had, and adventure is to be gained by those willing and/or able to pursue it. And that, unfortunately, is a racist narrative. Africa is a complex continent with a rich history and a developing sense of itself in the aftermath of European colonialism, and as the peoples of that continent begin to rebuild their cultures and histories, narratives like “The Dark Continent” can hold the culture back.
I’m not saying that a film like Hatari should be wholly condemned. It’s still a beautiful film, with shots that can leave a modern audience who are tired of bloated CGI effects stunned and amazed. But the realities of contemporary existence, and the complexities of the actors who starred in such films, demand that the reader take a moment and ask themselves, is this movie a healthy presentation? Or is it plagued by the biases and unintended prejudices of its makers.
I’ll leave the reader to make up their own mind.
As for myself I still love watching John Wayne lasso a giraffe while hitched to the front of an old truck and yelling at Pockets when they drive through a river getting him soaking wet. Though I will say that I agree with my little sister who pointed out the problems of the last quotes directed at Dallas when she first arrives:
Luis Francisco Garcia Lopez: My name is Luis Francisco Garcia Lopez, and I don’t wear pajamas.
I don’t think Luis would have survived long in the #MeToo era, but then again he’s a Mexican man so I suppose it’s a wonder he was able to get any actual dialogue in this movie.
All quotes from Hatari were provided by IMDB.com. Though for the record I’m bothered by how few quotes there actually were. I think I used all of them actually.
Having taken an African History course in college I have a basic understanding of the complexities inherit of that particular field. A traditional approach to history, or at least a more Western approach is the reliance of written records to substantiate claims. This is one of the reasons why African History has become a controversial topic in historical dialogues largely because the traditions and histories were oral traditional and the few people who had those histories memorized were, well, killed, or else enslaved. Because of this historians working in Africa today are steadily trying to rewrite the history of their continent and regions.
In the interest then in giving a more nuanced view of the history of Africa I would point you towards this video by Blue of Overly Sarcastic Productions who provides a nice overview the topic while explaining some of the pitfalls of the subject:
I’m also going to post a link to his review of Egypt, because, don’t forget, Egypt is in Africa. Yeah. Too many people forget that shit.
I’m also going to leave a link to Extra history’s video on the Zulu Empire. I haven’t disappeared into Extra History as much as OSP, but I have watched their reviews on Genghis Kahn and it’s amazing. Definitely check these guys out:
Finally, I thought I would share this, it’s the soundtrack to Hatari. Regardless of your opinion of the film what should never be denied is the fact that this film has a beautiful soundtrack. And I’m not just saying that, the AFI says so too. Check it out.