Western culture, and cinema is no exception, has shamelessly used cannibalism as an unexamined accusation against “others” – mainly the black and brown people of lands coveted by imperial powers: Africa, the Pacific, South America and others. The Greeks used it to dehumanise any barbarians who happened to become bothersome, and of course Columbus made some very nice profits when he “discovered” that the Caribs, a tribe he hadn’t met, were man-eaters and needed to be converted, enslaved or exterminated (and the Spanish then did all three, very successfully, to most of South America).
Very early cannibal movies showed stereotyped cannibals, bones in their noses, dancing around a cauldron containing a sorry looking white man, often a man of God.
Doctor X (Curtiz, 1932) saw the villain going to Africa to learn the secrets of the cannibals.
Even Bing Crosby and Bob Hope headed off to the “Dark Continent” and almost got eaten.
The cannibals’ nationality changed, but the victim, the civilised white man (or sometimes even woman) stayed pretty pale, just being in the wrong (savage) place at the wrong (then) time. Think of Robinson Crusoe (Bunuel 1954)
Robinson Crusoe is one of the classic stories of the savage being tamed by the civilised white man. Crusoe has been shipwrecked on an island. Friday is a cannibal whom Crusoe saves from a rival tribe as he is about to become lunch. Friday is taught to serve the master, and has to promise never again to eat humans.
The civilised Crusoe, incidentally, is described as having been shipwrecked on his way to the area to capture slaves.
Think of the “Cannibal Boom” of the 1970s:
The cannibal story likes to pretend that civilisation has eliminated such savagery, but it still fascinates and repels us at the same time. In 2013, the “savages” were at it again in Eli Roth’s Green Inferno (this time white people, just trying to save the jungle, being eaten by crazy Peruvian cannibals).
So this is the image of the intersection of empire and indigenous culture: civilisation and savagism. Uncivilised cannibals are shown as inexplicable antagonists, as amoral as sharks or predatory aliens. Their cannibalism is usually seen as acculturated and therefore distinguishes those cultures as uncivilised and morally inferior to the white (usually male) hero’s culture.
That’s why I was interested to see the take on cannibalism in Black Panther, which is set in the mythical African kingdom of Wakanda, but involves a lot of cultural interchange with an increasingly violent America. Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), a U.S. State Department employee stationed in Wakanda, becomes an ally to T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the King of Wakanda. When Ross attempts to speak to the leader of the Jabari tribe — M’Baku (Winston Duke) — he’s told:
“One more word, and I will feed you to my children.”
There it is. There’s the colonialist trope. And here is how Black Panther handles it:
“I am kidding – we are vegetarians.”
So, not a cannibal movie, but a worthwhile flipping of the tired imperialist stereotypes.
It sneaks into this blog because of the cool cannibal joke.
And they’re not really vegetarians, because they are wearing furs and catching fish. Sigh.
Good movie though.