February 18, 2009

Cannibals in Crusoe

In an episode of Crusoe titled Long Pig (airdate: 11/14/08), Crusoe learns that the cannibals who brought Friday have returned to his island.

For the first time we get an extended look at the cannibals. Their bodies are painted garish colors. On top of this they're wearing headpieces, masks, chestplates, and ornaments made of bone. They also have bones painted on their limbs. They look like skeletal monsters. None of them is recognizably human.

Friday tells us about them. He says they sacrifice their victims in what looks like a gruesome fire pit. They terrorize the islands; they fear no one and everyone fears them. Eating flesh has driven them mad. They have no tribe; they're more of a gang of killers than anything else.

A scene shows how demonic these cannibals are. Their leader snarls like an animal. Their camp has cages decorated with skulls and poles bristling with spikes. As the tom-toms throb, the savages throw powder into a fire to create flames. They engage in dancing...rattling...wailing...beating on drums with bones...and brandishing spiked clubs.

Friday is no cannibal

Friday also talks about his own people. They're "cannibals" too...but not really. All they do is grind their dead relatives' bones into powder, then mix it with their food. This symbolic consumption gives them the strength of their ancestors.

It also absolves Friday of any moral crimes. He hasn't done anything that Crusoe--or people watching him on TV--would consider repugnant. Nothing here challenges the notion of Friday as a noble savage.

So this version of Friday hasn't eaten human flesh after all. The whole point of the original Robinson Crusoe--rescuing Friday from his barbaric ways, educating and lifting him up into civilization--is missing. Apparently this Friday was already civilized when Crusoe met him.

In short, Friday is more saintly than other types of cannibals. And the flesh-eaters are more devilish. No one here belongs to an authentic indigenous culture. It's like presenting Batman and the Joker and trying to deduce something about the society they came from. Since you have two extremes and nothing in-between, you can't do it.

What this gimmick tells us

By making the cannibals criminals and Friday an innocent victim, the producers are trying to have it both ways. "We're not saying all blacks are flesh-eating savages," they might explain. "Only a few rotten one are." But these few rotten cannibals are the only blacks we see. The text may say they're the exception, but the pictures say they're the rule. Nine of every ten black men on screen is an inhuman, nightmarish monster.

Not coincidentally, this is the same approach the producers and directors of Westerns took. The first wave of Westerns painted every Indian as a screaming, murderous savage. Perhaps realizing how racist this was, filmmakers eventually labeled their screaming, murderous savages "criminals" or "rogues." The movies claimed these desperadoes had violated their treaties and left their reservations illegally. With all the good Indians at peace and at home, the cowboys could freely kill the "bad" Indians.

The effect was to send the same message as before. "If there are any decent Indians, they're out of sight and out of mind. As far as the Indians on-screen are concerned, the only 'good Indian' is a dead Indian."

A few plot problems

The Long Pig episode also introduces plot points it can't answer. Crusoe and Friday are excited to see the cannibals' boat and try to steal it for themselves. But why don't they build their own boat? Maybe they addressed this in an episode I missed, but somehow I doubt it.

The original Robinson Crusoe did hollow out a log to create a boat. He was swept out to sea by a strong current and feared never seeing land again. He managed to run his ship aground on the other side of his island and return to his settlement. Rather than risk being lost at sea, he gave up the idea of trying to escape by boat.

Also, Friday seems to kill the cannibals' leader by holding him face down in the sand. Later, in the treehouse, Crusoe asks Friday if he's "taken care" of all the cannibals. Friday says yes. What does that mean, exactly...that Friday has executed the cannibals whom they incapacitated earlier? The show doesn't say.

For more on the subject, see Indians as Cannibals and Robinson Crusoe and Friday.

You can see the cannibals in the image below and in the last third of this video. The producers take pride in the English costumes--"Crusoe's authentic look is all in the details"--but they have no excuse for their barbaric black cannibals.

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