King Kong, Part 1
Originally published on The Solute
Content note: This article contains references to sexual assault and to racist exploitation and imagery
By all accounts, King Kong should not be a good movie, let alone one of the all-time greats. It’s a showcase for special effects technology that’s nearly a century out of date and that doesn’t even show up until we’ve sat through almost 45 minutes of bad acting and worse dialogue. Just as much as that, it’s a showcase for racist and sexist attitudes that most of us wish we could leave in the last century.
And yet, Kong endures. Just last year, its antihero returned to the big screen and defied the odds to become a blockbuster in a time without blockbusters. I know I can’t let it go — I’ve watched it many more times than many films I can praise without any of these reservations, ever since I first caught a late-night showing on Turner Classic Movies back in high school, and I’ve already written about it — twice. This trashy, kitschy masterpiece haunts me in ways that films that strive more artfully for the same effect never could.
But I don’t think I, or the world at large, will ever run out of things to say about it. As much as we cringe at their ideas of the “primitive,” the filmmakers — director Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack, writers Ruth Rose and James Creelman, effects artist Willis O’Brien — have tapped into something primal. I couldn’t help bringing it up in my last two attempts to tackle Kong, but it bears repeating: superheroes are often held up as the modern-day equivalent of mythology, but Kong comes closer than any of them. Not just in its flexibility to be retold and reimagined, but in the wealth of meaning packed into it. Is it about the anxieties of empire? Untamed masculinity fatally tamed by a changing world? The wrath of an ancient god on the modern city? The deadly hubris of the colonizer faced with an environment he doesn’t understand, or the smallness of all humanity in the face of nature? All of the above, and there’s probably plenty more.
The one thing it isn’t, no matter how many times the script insists on it, is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, and it’s frankly disturbing how many people have interpreted a film about a monster abducting a woman who not only doesn’t reciprocate his feelings but famously doesn’t stop screaming and trying to escape, as a love story. It’s no secret Cooper and Shoedshack were tapping into racist anxieties about “race mixing” and Black virility — one of the many ways Kong has entered the realm of myth is as shorthand for Black masculinity. But it’s still striking to see Kong transform from a gorilla into a minstrel caricature when he first transitions from Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion model to animatronic head, all wide nose and wider mouth full of huge, white teeth, and tiny white eys, wiggling his eyebrows like Groucho Marx and leering like a man in nothing but a stained trenchcoat.
King Kong didn’t invent that iconography. It’s been steeped in the popular consciousness since the first encounters between gorillas and Europeans. It’d be more accurate to take our stock images of gorillas as bloodthirsty monsters and chimps as sweet, playful little people and flip them — I’m still haunted by the episode of the original Planet Earth where two troops of chimpanzees cannibalize each other.
But the more humanlike gorilla was a better vector for colonial anxieties about the humans of Africa — and it’s possible the Great White Hunters’ pride wouldn’t let them admit they were scared of the child-sized chimps. Kong wasn’t even the first movie that year to use this gorilla symbolism, but it’s a lot subtler than Ingagi, a “documentary” that purported to show the “savagery” of African tribes by faking footage of gorillas abducting and raping their women.
The racism of Cooper and Shoedshack’s portrayal of the natives of Skull Island (never actually named in the movie, though Kong does live on Skull Mountain) is even more obvious, at least to everyone but my late Grandpa, who said, “It’s hard to believe people really live like this!” (He was right, it’s so unbelievable I can’t believe anyone would believe it.)
But it’s still worth digging beyond the obvious. First of all, the dialogue clearly places Skull Island somewhere off Sumatra, and yet the Islanders are a haphazard mishmush of South Pacific and African stereotypes, and there are even Aztec designs on the wall that protects them from Kong. In other words, a classic example of the Western tendency to flatten the rest of the world into a single “elsewhere.”
Just to complicate things further, the chief is played by a Black actor, Noble Johnson, in blackface — Johnson was light-skinned enough to frequently play white characters. He also founded one of the first Black-owned studios, even before Oscar Micheaux and Within Our Gates, and he manages to keep the dignity implied by his name intact despite the costumers’ best efforts. And if that wasn’t confusing enough, his “witch doctor” is played by Steve Clemente, a Yaqui Indian. And the heroes sure seem unbothered by using the Islanders as cannon fodder to slow Kong down as he gruesomely destroys their village and eats them alive while they sit tight on the beach with their gas bombs, don’t they?
If anyone should have known better, it was Cooper and Shoedshack, who’d traveled the world making films much like their hero Carl Denham’s. In fact, the part of this movie about giant apes and living dinosaurs I’d always thought was the most unbelievable, that critics and exhibitors would demand a documentary have a love interest, comes directly from the reviews of their past films.
Maybe that explains why they were too close to Denham to realize what a shit he is. Kongnapping to one side, he refuses to tell any of his crew where they’re going until it’s too late to back out, getting most of them killed. He exploits Ann Darrow when she’s on the edge of starvation and can’t say no to her deadly new job.