Warner Bros and Legendary Pictures just released the first trailer to the latest reboot featuring the King Kong character, Kong: Skull Island. Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, the picture stars Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson (Sactown!), Samuel L. Jackson, and even Jason Mitchell and Corey Hawkins of the Straight Outta Compton fame. Since Hollywood is currently enamored with franchises crossing multiple films (thank you Marvel Cinematic Universe), this movie is intended to be the second within the larger Godzilla-King Kong cinematic universe. The two will later clash in 2020 for the King of the Monsters crown with Godzilla vs. King Kong (my money is on Godzilla). As long as Kong doesn’t say, “SAVE MOTHRA!” I’m definitely looking forward to them squaring off.
I wouldn’t mind if they included this from their first fight though.
The original RKO’s 1933 King Kong is a fascinating and iconic movie for both the right and wrong reasons. Kong is the classic story of “beauty and the beast,” if the beast were a 25 foot tall gorilla with a penchant for screaming blonde haired white women. Guided by the special effects wizard Willis O’Brien, King Kong is one of the first giant monster movies to be a box office smash hit. It paved the way for other creature features such as The Beast from 20000 Fathoms (1951), Pacific Rim (2013), and the Jurassic Park/World series. It’s also been listed as a profound influence on the Japanese Kaiju films, including Gamera, Mothra, and Kong’s eventual rival Godzilla.
To this day, the original film and even its subsequent re-adaptations in 1976 and 2005, inspire mixed feelings within me. I admit that seeing a giant gorilla in his wondrous realm of Skull Island and all the domain’s terrors, including an upright T-Rex, a carnivorous Apatosaurus, and a Pterodactyl, still act as a sort of guilty pleasure. As both a writer and fan of science fiction and fantasy, I loved the imagination going into Skull Island and its creatures. Both Kong and Godzilla inspired my love for giant monster flicks and creature features alike.
Yet, I also see how limited their imagination was due to the racist subtext of the film.
I always tell this joke to folks about the gorilla: “Kong was a brotha with a god complex who went crazy over a White woman, got kidnapped by White men, dragged across the ocean in chains where he was forced to entertain White people, and got shot by the White law. They did the homie wrong.”
While the joke is meant to make folks laugh (or not), it’s easy to see how Kong was basically a nigger in the absolute worst sense of the word. That is, he was the embodiment of every negative thing associated with both blackness and black male identity: powerful, mysterious, and lascivious. You either put him in chains or you destroy him.
While folks are becoming more increasingly aware of the context of King Kong as it pertained to racism and the 1930s (especially with its stereotypical Chinese cook), the racial politics that led to the films creation were outrageous by any era’s standards. In 1930, Congo Pictures released an exploitation film called Ingagi, one of the most racist films of all time. It was also one of the most financially successful, as it raked in over $4 million. Ingagi was about “civilized” western explorers who “discover,” in a sort of Christopher Columbus way, an African tribe (played by white actors in blackface) that worships gorillas and sends their women to be their sex slaves. Because it predated the Hayes Code, it was a salacious film even by today’s standards as it portrays extremely taboo subjects such as bestiality. Furthermore, the film falsely advertised itself as a real ethnographic documentary about an “actual” African tribe. Of course, the blackface revealed the deception, forcing an independent release from the MPAA that still made millions!
Yet, Ingagi’s success inspired RKO studios to finance Merian C. Cooper’s similarly themed movie about a predatory gorilla worshiped by an “undiscovered” tribe of overly superstitious black people. Prior to the aptly named Ann’s arrival, the Black Skull Island natives sent select women to be Kong’s sex slaves. This trope is particularly alarming given the prevailing belief amongst White slave owners that raping Black women was inconsequential, thus justifying them perpetrating abhorrent and rampant sexual abuse. Women were chattel. They weren’t objects to be loved, but they were made to be fornicated with. Unfortunately, the hypersexualization of black women is only more disconcerting considering the disproportionate rates of sexual violence they face throughout the diaspora.
The only difference between Ingagi and King Kong is that the audience is supposed to be even more horrified in the latter because now a White woman was now the object of the animal’s lust. The audience wasn’t necessarily supposed to sympathize with the Black women, as their bodies were supposed to be chattel. However, once the natives saw a blond haired white woman, they were even willing to trade a dozen Black women for her, thus situating her as the object of everyone’s desire and protection. Soon enough, they kidnapped her for their god and placed her in the same predicament as the Black women before. Her previous class status was made irrelevant; she was a beautiful white woman with whose plight both the audiences and the film’s characters could empathize with. As such, it is incumbent upon the White male heroes, both Jack Driscoll and the plane pilots to destroy this mad brute.
In short, Black people, their culture and gods alike, are an inherent threat to the safety and purity of White women. Thus, the White man must use the threat of violence to retrieve what is rightfully theirs.
Since the 19th Century, White women have always been imagined as pure and sanctified objects both admired and desired. White supremacist politics frequently preyed upon the fear that men of color were going to rape white women if immigration continued and/or law and order weren’t brutal to entire communities. This attitude translated into literature and film, where men of color (Blacks, Native Americans, Latinos, Eastern Asians, and Arabs) were portrayed as uniquely sexually predatory towards White women. Such early films to offer this imagery were The Birth of a Nation (1915), The Sheik (1921), and The Mystery of Fu-Machu (1923). It was up to the White heroes to prevent non-White men from violating the honor of their virtuous and pure White women.
The effects of this imagery was, and still is, disastrous for communities of color as it demonizes its peoples and cultures as inherently predatory. For example, Black men were lynched in Jim Crow South if they even looked at a White woman. An accusation of rape, even unfounded, meant certain death by vigilante groups like the KKK. Today, Presidential Candidates like Donald Trump play on fears that undocumented Latino immigrants are going to cross the border rape “our women.” Even Governor Paul LePage lamented that so-called drug dealers like “D-Money, Shifty, and Smoothie” were dangerous because “they impregnate a young, white girl before they leave” which he said would be “another issue that we’ve got to deal with down the road.” This thought has been especially dangerous given the fact that it fails to deal with actual sexual violence within communities of color. Instead they utilize blanket generalizations that further demonize and alienate entire groups.
Understanding the film’s racist underpinnings makes it difficult for anyone to view King Kong uncritically. Now the question remains, how does Kong: Skull Island grapple with its predecessors racial politics and aesthetics?
From the looks of the movie’s trailer and the related development commentary, it looks as if Kong: Skull Island is trying to go a different direction from the others. Outside of being much larger than the other incarnations (over 100 ft tall), there seems to be no indication that Kong is a sexual beast like his predecessors or even a tragic human-like gorilla like Peter Jackson’s interpretation. Instead he behaves more like an embodiment of nature as an all powerful and destructive force, akin to kaiju such as Godzilla, Rodan, and Mothra. This works better with a more progressive gender politic and aesthetic, which do not require female main characters (such as Brie Larson’s Weaver) to be damsels in distress. It also eliminates any interpretation that would situate Kong as a “bad nigger” trope.
I’m still cautious about the usage of superstitious natives in a film marketed to diverse audiences. Utilizing Black American actors as explorers and military personnel is a remarkable improvement from its predecessors. But the filmmakers will have an opportunity to stretch their imaginations regarding the natives. Will they humanize and provide them with the multidimensionality that ALL people and cultures possess? Or will they be the usual cardboard cutout cliches that Hollywood can’t seem to get rid of? I would hope for the former route.
It remains to be seen if Jordan Vogt-Roberts can reinterpret Kong without the racist politics of the 30’s. If he could, then he would accomplish what the makers of The Legend of Tarzan failed to do, which is to redefine a character born from racist imagery into something new that will neither affirm nor perpetrate dated stereotypes.
But until the film’s release…