Ok, so you are probably wondering what Tarzan has to do with Eddie Green and Jester Hairston. Well, keep reading and be amazed.
Recently, I saw an article in the news about the current Tarzan movie, The Legend of Tarzan. The article spoke of this new Hollywood movie depicting a lingering racist mentality, because it shows a White man having to step in and help the African people out of trouble. The article mentions that the movie does make a limited attempt to show a sophisticated view of African society. Looking back now I can see that in the old Tarzan movies the African natives were depicted in a less than civilized manner. Of course the original book was written back in 1912 and unfortunately that was how some White people saw Africans. But instead of zeroing in on a racist element in this new movie, why not just enjoy the movie.
As a kid, what I saw when I watched Tarzan movies was Johnny Weismuller swinging from a tree with a monkey friend and a girlfriend named Jane. Yelling Ahahaahaha!
As a youngster I thought he was cool. He was on television and I could watch and enjoy the show and learn the call. I don’t know if Edgar Rice Burroughs was a racist or a cook, if he was simply a writer of a story or if he was trying to make a point. Even after I grew I really didn’t care. Of course, I grew out of those old Tarzan and Jane movies but then I found George of the Jungle.George, George, George of the Jungle, watch out for that…..Treee!! As an adult I actually watched the cartoons because they were fun.
Jester Hairston and my father Eddie were friends, who worked on some of the same programs in the 1940s. Eddie started out in Vaudeville wearing Blackface because you could not get on stage with a White person if you did not wear Blackface, and went on to become a filmmaker, movie and Broadway star and a composer.
Jester Hairston who was born in 1901 and who lived to be 98 years old had a long career in show business. In his early career Jester got bit parts as a native in the old Tarzan movies. He said he ran naked yelling ‘Bwana, bwana!” through more Tarzan movies than he cared to remember. According to Wikipedia, Jester said “We had a hard time then fighting for dignity,” he once said of his early roles. ” . . . We had no power. We had to take it, and because we took it the young people today have opportunities.
I like to focus on those actors (in this case Black actors) who helped the careers of today’s Black actors. Jester Hairston was the grandson of a slave, born in Belews Creek, N.C. Through his long career he appeared in movies like Lady Sings the Blues, To Kill A Mockingbird, and he appeared in television on the show That’s My Mama, and Amen with Sherman Hemsley.
Jester Hairston also had a career as a music conductor. He collaborated with Dimitri Tiomkin for 30 years and he wrote and arranged spirituals for Hollywood films. Continuing to conduct choirs in his 90s, he crisscrossed the world as a goodwill ambassador for the State Department.
These oldtimers that were relegated to playing what seemed at the time to some to be demeaning parts, paved the way. They were men and women trying to make a living doing what they liked to do, living out their dreams. Taking their audience on adventures. They did not spend a lot of their time feeling sorry for themselves.
Eddie and Jester were two Black men who persevered and became successful.
Times have changed. Even so, it may seem like a difficult task to make a Tarzan movie today without it seeming racist. But, if we can just see it as what it is, a movie about a fictional character in the Congo fighting computer made lions, while also managing to have a love interest, then why not do that. Get some popcorn and some malted milk balls and a large soda and have some fun.
Thanks, for stopping by.