The classic story about a boy raised by gorillas who ends becoming a hero for the Congo received one of its most anticipated reboots this year. The David Yates-directed The Legend of Tarzan stars Alexander Skarsgard as Tarzan, Margot Robbie as Jane, Christoph Waltz as villain Leon Rom, Djimon Hounsou as Chief Mbonga and Samuel L. Jackson as George Washington Williams.
Although, Tarzan is the driving force in the movie, Williams is by far, one of the most interesting and complex stars of this adaptation. As a former a soldier who also served stints as a minister, politician and lawyer, he really found his niche as a journalist and writer on African-American history. He studied at Howard University for a brief period of time, but then finished his degree at the nation’s oldest graduate seminary college, Newton Theological Institution.
Born in Pennsylvania, Williams was a complete stranger to Africa when he first ventured to the continent to see what was happening under the orders of King Léopold II of the then Congo Free State. It was there where he witnessed the atrocities associated with the enslavement of the local people by Leopold’s armies. As the British ruler greedily ravished the land to produce “rubber” for sale all over the world, over 10 million Congolese died under his regime.
Based on his experiences, Jackson’s character penned the now famous “An Open Letter to His Serene Majesty Leopold II” in 1889 — which circulated around the globe spreading news of the brutal genocide that shocked the world. During a press run for the newly released film, Samuel L. Jackson talked to VIBE about his experience with the powerful role.
Your character is based on a real historical figure named George Washington Williams. Were you familiar with him before you took on the role?
Samuel L. Jackson: I actually didn’t know about George Washington Williams before I got the script. They sent me all this resource material about him and sent me his book, though. And the letter that he wrote to King Leopold and all this other stuff. So I did some research on him.
He’s almost like he’s a crusader or a freedom fighter I would say.
Well, he’s finding his way in the world, and understanding that the world is a global community and the things that go on in Africa affect what happens in other parts of the world. King Leopold was not only having a huge effect on the continent of Africa but a devastating effect on the Congo itself.
As a journalist, I can relate to him because he’s trying to get this information out to the world.
Well, if you read the book, King Leopold’s Ghost, [it says] a lot of reporters went over there to find out stuff and King Leopold blocked them, or tried to get them killed. There were all kinds of stuff going on.
And the way you portrayed Williams, fans really get to see how shocked he is when he sees Tarzan interact with the animals — just like the audience.
Yeah, you can hear about somebody being able to do certain things. But all of a sudden when you’re there, watching it, it’s a whole other kind of experience. I think this is one of the clearest explanations of what his relationship to those gorillas and that tribe is. In terms of what his relationship is to the other male gorillas, what his relationship was to the gorilla who adopted him — and took care of him.
For a whole new generation this will also be their first introduction to Tarzan.
Well, see, even my perception of Tarzan growing up is different from yours because I’m so much older. Tarzan was one of the movie staples when I was a kid. So there were all these different people that had been Tarzan. I’ve seen maybe 6 different Tarzans throughout my lifetime. From Lex Barker to Johnny Weissmuller to Gordon Scott…
But did you ever dream about actually starring in a Tarzan film?
It’s like I say, sometimes I just do movies that I would’ve gone to see when I was a kid. And when this came up, it was like ‘hell yeah!’ [laughs]
I guess it did, but I would always think of myself as one of the Africans ‘cuz they didn’t have black heroes then. The Africans were either the guys who Tarzan was fighting because they were doing some bad shit in the jungle, or the guys who were dressing up like tigers.