Whenever people ask me to name my top ten films, I can’t do it. How do you narrow down hundreds of exceptional motion pictures to a measly top ten? I’m sure if I thought long and hard enough about it, I could make it work – but I just don’t have that kind of time.
I am, however, always able to answer the question: “What’s you favorite movie?”
King Kong – the original 1933 stop-motion special effects film starring Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, and Bruce Cabot; directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack. I don’t know how young I was when I first saw it but I have watched it countless times since. It, more than any film, impacted my sense of creativity and my desire to tell stories.
But, even being a huge fan – and even with a heavy dose of nostalgia – I’m not going to sit here and write a storied defense about how King Kong is in no way racist – or, at the very least, does not deal with issues of race.
Recently, a friend of mine showed me an excerpt from Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X Kendi. It’s a work of nonfiction detailing a series of racist ideas that helped shape American culture and identity. In it, Kendi equates King Kong to Birth of a Nation, saying the former is merely a subtler version of racism that allowed white movie goers to cheer as the human protagonists did battle with a big black ape who kidnapped a white woman. Kendi points to the film’s success as an example of American racism in action, saying that – despite coming out during the Great Depression – King Kong was a blockbuster.
When I read this excerpt, I felt a mix of feelings. While I do not fully disagree with Kendi’s claims, I do find them exaggerated and reductive. As problematic as King Kong might be, I take issue with comparing it to the racist propaganda that is the original Birth of a Nation. I think Kendi misses a couple key points in his argument (an argument that is, in fairness, far from his alone).
Kong as Escapism
First off – let’s talk about King Kong‘s box office success. In 1933, America was a bleak country. Many people were unemployed and the prospect of another horrible war was already on the horizon (Hitler was rapidly rising to power in Germany). In short – things were bad and looking like they were going to get worse. I know, tough to relate to in 2020.
Enter King Kong – a fantasy adventure film about a group of sailors discovering an unknown island, battling dinosaurs and a mythical giant ape. Now I ask you, if you were dirt poor with no future prospects and unable to see the light at the end of the tunnel, doesn’t the movie sound like a good two-hour diversion?
Many historians have credited Kong’s success not with Americans wanting to cheer the death of the black Kong, but with everyone wanting to escape from – if only briefly – the humdrum of their normal lives. It also helped that movie theaters, knowing this desire, lowered prices to entice more viewers into the seats.
The Natives, Charlie, and a Clear Racial Metaphor
That said, many critics and viewers had no problem overlooking the blatant racist and sexist stereotypes on display in the film. For example – the natives, rather than based on any real culture, are comical and primitive – dressed in feathers and dancing around grass huts. They openly lust after the first white woman they see – not for themselves but for their island god.
Then there’s Charlie, the Chinese sailor who serves as a cook aboard the Venture (often the butt of other sailors’ jokes). Charlie speaks in broken English and refers to the natives as “crazy black men!” Of course, Charlie is one of the few crew members not killed by dinosaurs or Kong – since he never goes into the jungle of Skull Island.
But finally, to Kendi’s point – the clear comparisons between Kong and the then common stereotype of the primitive, bestial, and overly sexual black male. King Kong can definitely be interpreted in this fashion, with Kong as a black man trying to conquer a white woman while he is pursued and ultimately destroyed by white society. It’s there, I won’t deny it, but does its applicability make it allegory?
To use a quote from J.R.R. Tolkien (we’ll talk about the problematic nature of his work another day): “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history – true or feigned– with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”
So, for Tolkien, it’s not allegory unless it’s clear and intentional on the part of the creator. In this definition – no, King Kong is not (to my knowledge) a racial allegory because neither of its creators ever specifically said so. Given what I know of the two men – I don’t believe they made Kong to deliver an actively racist story. Does that mean they weren’t racist themselves…eh, I would not go that far.
Cooper and Schoedsack: Kong’s Creators
I’ve watched an read a lot about King Kong‘s development over the years. For those curious as to where the information I’m about to discuss is coming from – I recommend The Girl in the Hairy Paw, John LeMay’s Kong Unmade: The Lost Films of Skull Island (which I wrote a section of), and the bonus features of the King Kong blu-ray. I don’t pretend to be an expert on the two men, but I’ve heard enough to have a rough idea of who they were.
So, who were Cooper and Schoedsack? Well, the romantic might call them explorers and adventurers – and they wouldn’t be completely wrong. I imagine Kendi would describe them as imperialists very comfortable with exploitation. He would not be wrong either.
Cooper in particular had a reckless pursuit of entertainment. Originally, the plan for King Kong’s special effects was to capture a Komodo dragon and a gorilla and force them to fight. Yeah, so he was fine with animal cruelty. He also traveled the world – documenting the “primitive” cultures he encountered. So if Cooper saw a native being torn apart by a tiger, he’d likely try to just catch the event on camera.
The character of Carl Denham is based on Merian C. Cooper – and the story in the movie about the charging rhino seems to have a real-live counterpart. I’ve seen footage of a tiger snarling and charging a tree. Cooper was evidently in the tree with a rifle and a camera – just trying to get that perfect shot.
So yeah, they were men of their time and all that means. But I’m always struck by the fact that Cooper inspired Denham and how, in subsequent remakes, the character of Denham has transformed from overly-optimistic fortune seeker to a greedy, unfeeling villain.
Remakes and the Evolution of Carl Denham
While racist undertones can and should be discussed when talking about the original 1933 King Kong, they essentially go out the window when applied to the 2005 version. Director Peter Jackson seemed to have been very aware of Kong’s complicated past. The almost all-white crew of the Venture now has more than one person of color (a mighty two now!), the natives are seen as threatening – with a real history as opposed to whatever primitive flair could be found around set, and there is a heavy emphasis on exploitation and destruction, which is personified in the film’s villain, Carl Denham.
Denham is seen as reckless, a man who unemotionally endangers other people with no thought to their safety. He’s an alcoholic, living with a chip on his shoulder that other people just can’t understand his genius. When we finally see his genius in Act III (the New York segment), we see it is nothing more than the same racist caricatures used in the 1933 version. He has taken truth and ground it into easily digestible entertainment. As is pointed out in the film’s most impactful line:
“He was right about there being some mystery left in this world. And we can all have a piece of it for the price of an admission ticket.”
“That’s the thing you come to learn about Carl, his unfailing ability to destroy the things he loves.”
Jackson may have brought back the “beauty killed the beast” line for a closer, but this exchange does a much better job capturing the theme of his remake.
I think the existence of people like Peter Jackson and his remake shows the other side of King Kong. Many people have reported that the 1933 original was Adolf Hitler’s favorite movie – but there seems to be little evidence of this.
It is however, my favorite movie – and Peter Jackson’s. Do you know what else we share in common: We, like many people, root for King Kong. I think this is the biggest hit against Kendi’s argument. Yes, Kong can be seen as the white man destroying a black man, but whose side is the audience on? Most people I know of root for the big guy, knowing that he is sympathetic, that he is misunderstood.
Now, in the original Kong, there is the sense that he is just a big dumb animal and he has to be put down once he’s in New York. He’s too dangerous to live in “civilized” society. It certainly helps prove a more racist bent to the metaphor. This is tossed out in Jackson’s version, as he goes out of his way to show Kong as peaceful and even playful once he has found his friend Anne Darrow. I think this may be why Jackson added his central park sequence – to further dent the racist interpretation of Kong as a black brute.
The truth of King Kong is not simple. Perhaps that is one of the reasons it has endured for so long. It’s a film that says a lot, some intentionally and some unintentionally. While I think Kendi is right to point out the racism of the film, I think it is too simplistic to just dismiss everything as two white guys being actively racist to an actively racist America. That idea just ignores too much else.
The 1933 King Kong film has racist and sexist elements in it but I think it is the power of art that it is able to move past those parts to become a compelling and timeless whole. If it was the most racist thing in America, we’d live in a much more tolerant society.