King Kong is Racist
In its darkness, 'Kong' shows the human heart
James P. Pinkerton
December 15, 2005
Is "King Kong" racist?
Lots of people say it is. And, if it is, why does the film keep getting remade? What does it say about us if the new "Kong" is a huge hit?
Any movie that features white people sailing off to the Third World to capture a giant ape and carry it back to the West for exploitation is going to be seen as a metaphor for colonialism and racism. That was true for the original in 1933 and for the two remakes: the campy one in 1976, and the latest, directed by Peter Jackson. (In addition, a "Kong" wannabe, "Mighty Joe Young," has been made twice.)
Movie reviewer David Edelstein, writing in Slate.com, notes the "implicit racism of 'King Kong' - the implication that Kong stands for the black man brought in chains from a dark island (full of murderous primitive pagans) and with a penchant for skinny white blondes." Indeed, a Google search using the words "King Kong racism" yielded 490,000 hits.
Comparing the new film with the original, The Washington Post's Stephen Hunter observed, "It remains a parable of exploitation, cultural self-importance, the arrogance of the West, all issues that were obvious in the original but unexamined; they remain unexamined here, if more vivid."
And by more vivid, Hunter might be referring to the natives of mythical Skull Island, where Kong is discovered. Director Jackson took people of Melanesian stock - the dark-skinned peoples who are indigenous to much of the South Pacific, including Jackson's own country of New Zealand - and made them up to look and act like monsters, more zombie-ish than human. Indeed, one is moved to compare these human devils to the ogre-ish Orcs from Jackson's mega-Oscar "Lord of the Rings" films. The bad guys are dark, hideous and undifferentiatedly evil.
One might note that the original source material for both films dates from the same period: "Kong" in '33, J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" four years later. Both works are ultimately meditations on the West and Western uniqueness. Which is to say, what's the role for white Europe - and for its ethnic offshoot, North America - in a world that is mostly non-white?
Some would label such sentiments as racist, but others would note that every ethnicity naturally feels a special affection for its own kind. Yet, in the West, outright invocations of white nationalism, such as the 1915 film "Birth of a Nation," were politically unacceptable, even in the '30s, and so the same race-conscious sentiments were encrypted into allegory - in print or on celluloid.
The new "Kong" drills home its race consciousness by making repeated references to Joseph Conrad's 1899 novel, "Heart of Darkness," which denigrates both the colonizing whites and colonized blacks. In the novel's climax, the once-idealistic character Kurtz writes of Africans, "Exterminate all the brutes!" Conrad presents Kurtz as crazy, but Africa is presented as a crazy-making place.
The new Kong is, as always, a noble beast with a tender side. But, at the same time, his killing is presented as a cruel necessity. And at the end of the film, the white people - love interests Naomi Watts and Adrien Brody - are brought closer together, thanks to their brush with the big ape.
But if the movie is so loaded with race-charged imagery, why isn't it being protested? Why aren't we seeing pickets and boycotts? Perhaps it's because today, as people look around the world, they see that most political strife is, in fact, ethnic strife. Folks like to say that "diversity is our strength," and they resolve to fight racism, but every day's news reminds us that ethnic conflict lurks in the human heart.
That's a gloomy reality that "Kong" captures, in its crypto fashion, and so there's no point in getting worked up over it. Indeed, since the film is entertaining - like the similarly themed, much honored and extremely popular "Rings" movies of a few years back - one might as well go see this one, too.
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