Samuel L. Jackson Plays 19th-Century Black Activist, But Why Do We Have to Learn About Him in White Savior ‘Tarzan’ Flick?

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Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

Samuel L. Jackson is opening up about a revolutionary historical figure he plays in the film Legend of Tarzan, opening today. The politically outspoken actor is hoping his role as George Washington Williams inspires movie-goers to look into the Black activist and politician, who devoted himself to exposing the atrocities of the Congo genocide.

“Hopefully with this movie, we can persuade people to look into George Washington Williams’ story and, through him, find out about that first holocaust in the Congo,” Jackson told The Guardian. “Williams is in the movie trying to convince Tarzan – who hasn’t been in Africa for 20 years – to go home and investigate King Leopold. He’s talked to some soldiers that were there doing bad things and he wants to find a way to stop these things.”

In real life, however, Williams did not look to a white savior to end the terrible treatment of Blacks in the Congo. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, Williams traveled to the Congo in 1890 looking to employ Black Americans in the Congo Free State, which was headed by King Leopold II of Belgium. Blacks there were forced to collect rubber, ivory and palm oil. If rubber quotas were not met, families of Congolese men were held hostage and beatings occurred.

Williams was horrified by the exploitation of Blacks and dedicated the last year of his life to publicizing the cruelty he saw. According to Black Past, the activist wrote Leopold a letter implicating him in the terrible treatment of those he forced to gather rubber in the rubber trade.

“These poor creatures are frequently beaten with a dried piece of hippopotamus skin, called a “chicote,” ” Williams wrote about the treatment of prisoners. “And usually the blood flows at every stroke when well laid on. But the cruelties visited upon soldiers and workmen are not to be compared with the sufferings of the poor natives who, upon the slightest pretext, are thrust into the wretched prisons here in the Upper River.”

The Guardian reports Williams died at age 41 in Blackpool, England, of tuberculosis. The historian  – who had enlisted in the Union Army in the Civil War at age 14 – was on his way back to the U.S. after making the intervention in the Congo genocide, which left millions dead.

“He did a lot of things. He had a whole life, short as it was,” Jackson told the website. “I actually visited his memorial, his grave, last year in Blackpool.”

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