The later pages of the script mainly serve to afford Fawcett lots of grandstanding opportunities to, for instance, correct RGS members who call jungle inhabitants “savages.” I’ll admit I can’t delineate the precise parameters of savagery, but when I see a man clad only in a G-string who decorates his lair with human skulls and whose supper is a human body seen roasted on a spit, I feel fairly confident that we’re in the ballpark. Contra those white-privileged toffs back home, Fawcett becomes the cannibals’ most ardent cheerleader: They’re merely ingesting the spirit of the dead man, he argues. In a scene that is filmed with evocative, bordello-sensuous lighting and scored with soothing ambient music of the sort you’d hear in a spa, Gray makes it look as though it would be not a tragedy but an honor to close out one’s earthly existence as the plat du jour at the original Rainforest Café. So the lesson of the film is not “Man is cruel to man” or “A dangerous fever strikes men in the heart of darkness” or “Vanity has a price,” but the more defensive “Every culture is great, really.” Who are we to judge the snacking preferences of the average Amazonian tribesperson, Gray asks. People are people, he insists. Even people who eat other people.
This transfiguration is not novel. It is a return to form. The tightly intertwined stories of the white working class and black Americans go back to the prehistory of the United States—and the use of one as a cudgel to silence the claims of the other goes back nearly as far. Like the black working class, the white working class originated in bondage—the former in the lifelong bondage of slavery, the latter in the temporary bondage of indenture. In the early 17th century, these two classes were remarkably, though not totally, free of racist enmity. But by the 18th century, the country’s master class had begun etching race into law while phasing out indentured servitude in favor of a more enduring labor solution. From these and other changes of law and economy, a bargain emerged: The descendants of indenture would enjoy the full benefits of whiteness, the most definitional benefit being that they would never sink to the level of the slave. But if the bargain protected white workers from slavery, it did not protect them from near-slave wages or backbreaking labor to attain them, and always there lurked a fear of having their benefits revoked. This early white working class “expressed soaring desires to be rid of the age-old inequalities of Europe and of any hint of slavery,” according to David R. Roediger, a professor of American studies at the University of Kansas. “They also expressed the rather more pedestrian goal of simply not being mistaken for slaves, or ‘negers’ or ‘negurs.’ ”