Disclaimer: this article contains spoilers for Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle.
Just two years after Disney’s live action remake of The Jungle Book, directed by Jon Favreau, Netflix has expanded its tendrils into the story with Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle, directed by Andy Serkis. Serkis’s Mowgli is a much darker take on Rudyard Kipling’s original narrative, and an even farther departure from the animated 1967 film.
Mowgli demonstrates the fundamental flaw with identity politics and the importance of value-based identity over holding to your identity. The fundamental question in this version of the Jungle Book story, more so than other versions, is whether Mowgli is a man or a wolf. Though born a human, he was raised as a wolf, and has fought to hold his own place as a true wolf.
The climax of the movie begins when Mowgli is expelled from the jungle and sent to the village. He doesn’t understand the language (unsurprising as he’s never heard it before) but still tries, after some resistance, to fit in with the men. He bonds with the white hunter as a result of their shared history with Shere Khan, but remains cautious.
Mowgli is explicit in acknowledging that he isn’t all man or all wolf, but something in between. This is the kind of nuance with which conservatives are comfortable. Mowgli is able to embrace what progressives might call his “identity” as a man, not shying away from all that entails—namely, running on two legs, and using a knife to fight Shere Khan, rather than his teeth and “claws” like might be expected of him if he really were a wolf.
Mowgli tries for a time to be all man, befriending the hunter. But ultimately, his values are incompatible with the man village. This is clearest when Mowgli discovers that the hunter killed his best friend, the albino wolf Bhoot. Having been practicing with the knife, and becoming more immersed in human culture, it is not until he sees his dead friend that he realizes fitting in with his so-called “identity” would mean rejecting his values.
Mowgli chooses to give his allegiance to the Jungle, not to the Village of Man, yet acknowledges his past, embracing it and determining how it fits with his values. He uses the knife to fight Shere Khan but does not embrace the message of the Hunter who gave him the knife. In short, he embraces what Russell Kirk would call “affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence,” or, one might say, “wolf existence.”
Acknowledging that one comes from a particular ethnic or religious background or that one’s gender affects one’s life is not an embrace of identity politics. We should instead determine what values will guide us, and hold fast to those, rather than allowing ourselves to be buffeted by whatever our culture says we should believe based on our gender or the color of our skin.