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Tarzan's children

On cinematic savannahs, a cavalry of Caucasians always rides to the rescue.

January 14, 2007|Joe Queenan | JOE QUEENAN writes frequently for Barron's, the New York Times Book Review and the Guardian.

THE RELEASE OF Edward Zwick's majestic "Blood Diamond" is a bittersweet moment for film buffs, bringing to an end the stunning "Just Let Bwana Do It!" series that began with "The Interpreter" and "The Constant Gardener." In each of these movies, beleaguered black folks marooned in forlorn, blood-drenched African nations get to see justice done because of the heroic efforts of some truly fabulous white people.

"White Folks to the Rescue!" is a glorious tradition that stretches back at least as far as the Tarzan movies, in which a selfless Caucasian -- for mysterious self-actualization reasons -- has taken up residence in the bowels of the primeval forest and repeatedly ensures that truth and justice prevail in sub-Saharan Africa, something the local black community has been unable to effectuate.

In all these films, the underlying theme is the same: If you're black and you're poor, and your nation is torn by horrendous strife, and your neighbors are dropping like flies, there's no reason to get down in the dumps because sooner or later the Great White Hope will come through for you. Which, of course, is exactly the way things happen in real life.

For those unfamiliar with recent film history, a recap may be in order. In "The Interpreter," Nicole Kidman plays a perky United Nations translator who is one of the few white people on the planet who can speak the esoteric southwestern Africa tribal dialect of Koo. (Angelina Jolie and Madonna, not appearing in the movie, almost certainly speak Koo, as do Bono and Martin Sheen.) Overhearing a sinister plot against the evil but freely elected black president of her country, Kidman puts her nose to the grindstone and does a pretty classy job of bailing out the millions of hapless black people from her native land who also speak Koo but never land jobs at the United Nations. Message: White folks care.

In "The Constant Gardener," the fetching Rachel Weisz plays a selfless political activist who is butchered because of her opposition to drug companies that use hapless black Africans as guinea pigs. Things look really bad when she is murdered early in the film because "Just Let Bwana Do It!" movies usually only carry that one good white person on the roster, but luckily Ralph Fiennes, a truly swell British chap, has been held in reserve, and he gallantly steps in to fill the breach.

At the end of the motion picture, after Fiennes has laid down his own life for his fellow hapless black man, the rogue Big Pharma merchants of death are brought to justice, their nefarious henchmen in her majesty's government are disgraced and the black citizens of the country can once again tip their hat to the superb white fellow who has sacrificed everything for their well-being.

"Blood Diamond," the final entry in the series, offers up the most ingenious plot twist of all. This time, hapless black victims of genocidal warfare inflicted by their fellow, somewhat less hapless black men receive succor from a genuinely unexpected source: a murderous, racist Rhodesian mercenary and diamond smuggler (Leonardo DiCaprio) who spends most of the film acting like a murderous, racist Rhodesian mercenary and diamond smuggler.

Armed with an accent powerful enough to alter the course of the mighty Zambesi, DiCaprio finally realizes that diamonds are not forever, that there are some things more important in life than locating a precious stone worth eighty hundred million trillion billion dollars, and that you have to give back. Once again, good triumphs over evil, satanic diamond merchants are trundled off to the hoosegow and hapless black Africans can breathe a whole lot easier thanks to the ministrations of a "White Man Who Cares."

Film scholars and ethnic statisticians feverishly dispute the roots of the "Just Let Bwana Do It!" series. Some say that the "Pasty-Faced African Messiah" tradition is a subset of the American "Three Cheers for Whitey!" genre that has long thrived on these shores. Following their logic, there is a direct line from Gregory Peck's heroic Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird" to Gene Hackman's "Racist FBI Agent With a Heart of Gold" in "Mississippi Burning," and the tradition has continued in recent years with films as varied as "A Time to Kill" (white lawyer goes to bat for poor Southern blacks) "Finding Forrester" (curmudgeonly old white academic teaches the meaning of life to hapless black teen protege) and "Glory Road" (white coach with great hair leads all-black basketball squad to the NCAA championship over horrible white coach hamstrung by absurd facial prosthetic).

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