Forget Runaway Slave (2012) or Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party (2016). Gorillas in the Mist (1988), starring Sigourney Weaver as mountain gorilla specialist Dian Fossey, is the ultimate liberals-are-the-real-racists experience on film.
Fossey is a sixties feminist freakazoid whose work with handicapped children fails to satisfy her attraction to the dysfunctional and the grotesque. Instead, she travels to the African jungle to subsist all alone on a mountain with wild gorillas and nobody but mostly unfriendly blacks for miles around. One of the zanier heroines in eighties cinema, she is something of a thematic cousin to the protagonists of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982).
Disregarding her mentor’s warnings, Fossey, after first being spooked by one of the rampaging apes, slowly gets close and personal with a particular group of gorillas. She crawls around on the ground with them, learns to imitate their grunts, and gets to know each one of them individually. In one of the movie’s breakthrough moments, she even holds hands with one of the things and practically swoons with schoolgirl languor.
Her interactions with the black natives are far less promising. A group of soldiers ransacks her belongings and scatters her scholarly papers. The local Batwa tribesmen offend her sensibilities with their traditional hunting techniques, prompting her to sabotage their traps. Fossey capitalizes on their superstitious conviction that she is a witch by encouraging them in this impression, making them afraid of her with devilish exhibitions of voodoo.
Eventually, after a party of poachers cuts off the head of one her apes, Fossey loses her mind and practically goes Col. Kurtz on the “wogs”, as she calls them, setting fire to grass huts and even staging a mock-lynching (!) for one of the culprits.
Gorillas in the Mist, on its surface, may only be the story of one woman, Dian Fossey. On the subtextual level, however, what is at stake is race relations. The overly optimistic idea is that, if this miracle worker, Dian Fossey, can even tame the savage heart of a wild mountain gorilla, then surely, too, there is hope that whites can live in peace with primitive blacks someday.
There is, too, an implicit imperialism of the heart about Fossey’s presumptuous shouldering of the white woman’s burden to teach the ignorant Africans how to conserve their wildlife. Maurice Jarre, most famous for composing the score to Lawrence of Arabia, was tapped to create the soundtrack to Gorillas in the Mist. Just call her Fossey of Afro-Apia!
The film’s depiction of Fossey as a woman of mingled passion and bigoted misanthropy seems to have been rather on the mark. The L.A. Times, in its notice of Fossey’s unsolved murder in 1985, noted:
“What is important is that she was the first to ‘habituate’ gorillas” to the presence of humans, said Belgian ecologist Alain Monfort, an adviser to the Rwandan Park Service. “Before that, people thought gorillas were highly dangerous,” Monfort said.
But the naturalist’s sometimes-eccentric behavior irritated both the Rwandan government and the international wildlife community. […]
In an interview at her camp in May, one of the last she gave, Fossey defended her policy of encouraging the apes to fear black Africans because nearly all poachers were black. She conceded that the policy could be branded as “racist.”
The Wall Street Journal also says this:
Fossey, who was hacked to death with a machete in her bed 16 years ago – by whom, we still do not know, though it could have been poachers, a disgruntled Rwandan servant, or even an American colleague – saw herself as a benign earth-mother to the highland gorillas she helped protect. There can be no denying her path-breaking achievements, and had it not been for her, and for the attention she attracted to the cause of the mountain gorillas, it is possible that we might, today, have been talking of those animals in the past tense.
But Fossey was also a racist alcoholic who regarded “her” gorillas as better than the African people who lived around them. Her anthropomorphization of the apes was matched by her unceasing belittlement of the area’s natives. Arguably the world’s first eco-colonialist, she habitually referred to Rwandans as “wogs,” never in all her time recruited a single black African as a researcher and even burned the crops of neighboring peasants whom she suspected let their cattle graze in the reserve.
As extreme as Gorillas in the Mist makes Fossey’s obsessiveness appear, the film constitutes a positive sanitization of her activities if her fellow primatologists Bill Weber and Amy Vedder are to be believed when they claim that Fossey “pistol-whipped a man suspected of poaching on her reserve, and then supervised his prolonged torture at her camp, including the rubbing of stinging nettles on his penis and testicles.”
The feminist conservationist icon might have missed her calling shoveling Shlomos into the ovens in a Spielberg epic, sounds like. At least Madison Grant never messed wit muh dik.