Was George Washington Williams A Real Person? The 'Legend Of Tarzan' Character Has A Fascinating History
The Legend of Tarzan is more than just a movie about a shirtless hunk of man swinging from vines in the jungle. Hollywood's newest take on the Tarzan story actually features a clothed Tarzan (not for long, but still) and, most surprisingly, real historical events and characters. Based on the trailers, you'd think that Samuel L. Jackson, who plays American George Washington Williams in the film, is just there to say "Tar-ZAN" in his signature cadence and serve as comedic relief. In fact, George Washington Williams of The Legend of Tarzan was a real person, who did a lot more interesting things in real life than just getting a piggyback ride on a vine-swinging Tarzan.
According to OhioHistoryCentral.org, Williams was an American human rights advocate who fought for the Union in the Civil War when he was just 14 years old. After the war, he attended Howard University and became the first African-American to graduate from Newton Theological Institution in 1874. He was an ordained minister, a journalist and an author, publishing three books about African-American history in his lifetime. He later became a Ohio state legislator — the first African American elected to the position. Given Williams' impressive story, it's fair to ask: what is he doing popping up in The Legend of Tarzan?
Well, in 1890, Williams visited the Congo in Africa, which was then colonized by King Leopold II of Belgium, as seen in The Legend of Tarzan. Appalled by the exploitation of the African people by the Belgian colony, Williams is most remembered for his scathing letter, written directly to King Leopold II, in which he detailed Belgium's crime against the people of the Congo. "Your Majesty's Government has been, and is now, guilty of waging unjust and cruel wars against natives, with the hope of securing slaves and women, to minister to the behests of the officers of your government," reads one charge, as reported by BlackPast.org— there are 12 total. Williams died one year later in England.
The Williams found in The Legend of Tarzan is somewhat different than the real man. Obviously, when Williams visited the Congo for the first time, there was no Tarzan, no swinging from the vines, no fist fights with giant apes. Furthermore, Williams doesn't appear to have been particularly driven by money or greed, as is suggested in the clip above. However, The Legend of Tarzan marks the first time Williams has been represented on the big screen, and it's a responsibility Jackson did not take lightly.
"Tarzan has historic value in terms of exposing what King Leopold actually did to the Congo and the first real holocaust in African history transpired because of him. I was able to portray a real life character who actually went to the Congo and exposed King Leopold," Jackson said at the Hollywood premiere via Variety . At the premiere, director David Yates agreed that it was important for Williams' story to be told, noting that the character "deserves a movie in his own right."
Perhaps the next Legend of Tarzan movie will be called The Legend of George Washington Williams instead.
Images: Warner Bros. Pictures