Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Shoedsack’s 1933 King Kong is widely considered to be one of the most iconic films of all time. Certainly, the image of Kong atop the empire state building is one that has permeated the public consciousness through a continuous stream of references in popular culture, and has become part of our cinematic lexicon of cultural and visual icons. It comes as no surprise that a film as recognizable as this has delivered an extensive field of Jungian criticism and analysis that examines the images of the 1933 King Kong as symbols. Carl Jung theorized in Psychology and Literature that any artist was a “collective man - a vehicle and molder of the unconscious psychic life of mankind.” (Jung, 1922, p 104) and that archetypal images are rearranged in the artists’ mind to create an artistic representation of the society in which they live. This theory has formed the basis for the majority of contemporary socio-literary analysis of King Kong as metaphor.
Scholars differ in their opinions of what the film’s narrative and individual symbols demonstrate about American society in 1933, but the most pervasive in terms of popular readings of King Kong is the one of racist allegory and commentary on the white man’s view of African Americans in the US during this time. The plot at its’ most basic certainly raises a few politically correct eyebrows. A heroic and entrepreneuring film crew sails to an unchartered island in Africa for a shoot. While there, their white leading lady (Ann Darrow) is kidnapped by the local ‘savages’ and offered to Kong who drags her literally kicking and screaming through the jungle of the island until she is rescued by her white knight in shining armor. Here, he is himself taken in chains back to New York to turn a profit for his captors, but breaks free, kidnaps Ann, and goes on a destructive tour of Manhattan before being shot down atop the Empire State building.
Carl Denham’s introductory speech here highlights the uncomfortable parallels this film draws with the US slave trade, and the ensuing years of civil tension between black and white Americans. Released 35 years before the end of segregation and the passing of the Civil Rights Act, the film offers up a disturbing portrait of the dominant white racial ideologies of the time, implying that the idea of America (as represented by Manhattan’s iconic topography) would be destroyed if the black man were given total freedom.
The 1976 King Kong, created once again by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Shoedsack, is ultimately a remake that revisits the original story by modernizing certain plot elements, symbols, and characters. For instance, a petrol company replaces the film crew, and the World Trade Centre eerily replaces the Empire State Building as the site of Kong’s final destruction.
The analysis of this film as racial metaphor does allow for a great deal of understanding of the way society had progressed since 1933, and 9 years after the passing of the Civil Rights Act. However, it is Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake that offers up the most interesting update of the iconic images of the 1933 film, and most compelling commentary on the ideological evolution of our society since 1933.
Here, Jackson returns to the original story. Instead of modernizing the story elements to today’s society, he instead remains loyal to the 1933 narrative and setting and appropriates only the style and characters to a 21st century audience. Jack Black, for instance, as the morally bankrupt movie producer Carl Denham, is more recognizable in the lexicon of today’s stereotypes of financially fixated businessmen than Robert Armstrong’s noble and heroic Denham would be today. Furthermore, it is in Jackson’s revision of those iconic symbols that the audience is ultimately potentially presented with the two most significant updates in the ideology of the “collective man” as represented by the remake – the identity of the black man and the relationship between black men and white women.
The character of Kong, according to the race reading, independently acts as a semiotic representation of the white man’s perception of black men. The film’s narrative takes us to Africa, asks the audience to embark on an adventure to a land so lost to the modern world that its inhabitants exist side by side with dinosaurs, which Brian McKay argues to be the most “obvious symbol for the perceived primitive nature of Africa and Blacks” (McKay, 2005) The gorilla that they bring back from that island may now be an icon of popular culture in himself, but before King Kong was released there was another image of popular social consciousness that he was associated with, which were the disturbingly dehumanizing cartoons of black people as monkeys popularized by Collins and Tinsley. Snead argues that these images were “a willed misreading of Linean classification and Darwinian evolution [that] helped buttress an older European conception […] that blacks and apes, kindred denizens of the ‘jungle’ are phylogenetically closer […] than blacks and whites.” (Snead, 1994: 20) Certainly, these images allowed the mainstream white audience to continue to psychologically distance themselves from black people, to perceive them as other. This is enhanced even further by Kong’s anthropomorphic behavior in the film. He walks on two legs, has basic emotions of lustand jealousy, and – as seen when he detaches the manacles from his feet – has basic human intelligence. It is this conduct that ultimately removes him from the identity of ape, and closer to black man/ape hybrid popularized by conservative cartoons.
These cartoons, however, were written as humor and were (in terms of content) non-violent. These cartoons fall into the same category as the popular black comedians of the 1920’s, in particular the character of Stepin Fetchit, a chronically lazy, stupid, cowardly, and good-natured slave who is on the receiving end of a ‘Punch and Judy’ -like dynamic with his master. The 1933 Kong, on the other hand, is intended to scare, to intimidate, and to thrill. The reading of Kong as the black man in the United States is indicative of the growing tensions between the white man and the black man in culture and society through the first 30 years of the 20th century. America was still in the midst of segregation - the Jim Crow laws that mandated this legal racism had been in place since 1876, and would only be abolished in 1965. D.W Griffiths’ The Birth of a Nation had become the most profitable film of all time when it was released in 1915, but its deeply racist message and support of the Ku Klux Klan had led to the KKK expanding their membership all the way through the 1920’s. The Black Tuesday stock market crash of 1929 had resulted in the Depression, and with black people being “traditionally last hired, first fired” (Rosen, 1975) hunger and racial tensions escalated dramatically in the early 1930’s. Kong, as the ape from Africa who acts like a man, therefore becomes something far more threatening. By removing the image of the ape from the ‘harmless’ context of cartoons and placing it in the far more sinister scene of Kong destroying the subway car, the film “demonstrates the very real fear of the destruction of White hegemony by the savage Black. [It] tells us that once the Black is integrated into White society, the order of things will crumble” (McKay, 2005) Kong, in this sense, becomes a product of the West’s discussion of that which was colonialised, which was foreign, and which was not white.
Peter Jackson’s Kong couldn’t be more physically different than the Coopers anthropomorphic antagonist. As the above featurette shows, extensive research was conducted to make sure that Kong’s appearance and behavior was consistent with that of a wild gorilla, rather than a gorilla with human behavioral qualities. Jackson revisits the special effects technology breakthrough that created Gollum in The Lord of The Rings: motion-capture technology. In having an actor (Andy Serkis) portray Kong, Jackson takes the unusual step of giving his primate title character a human actor’s range of physicalized emotion. O’Rourke claims that this is the greatest triumph of the 2005 remake: that “[the film’s] portrait of Kong as a sentient being with a distinct identity, a being who deserves […] our respect and affection as well as our pity. He is able to do something as seemingly human as see the sky and label it beautiful.” (O’Rourke, 2005) Effectively, what this succeeds in doing is something unusual for a non-speaking animal role, in as much that it emotionally humanizes him. It does the direct opposite of what Coopers King Kong did and keeps his physicalization to be one of an animal, but his emotional range is recognizably humanoid. By revising Kong as a symbol for the black man, Jackson’s remake recognizes the humanity of the African-America, something that the original film associates with the primitivism of a primate instead. The new symbol of the black man therefore becomes a character that the audience empathizes with rather than fears.
The transformation, however, isn’t perfect - there are issues to do with Kong’s nationality that are difficult to dispel. The savages that inhabit Kong’s island are of a terrifying, pagan like civilization, and are the human representation of the society Kong comes from. Much as issues to do with Cooper’s Kong are related to his association with Africa, the later King Kong introduces a barbaric and racially ambivalent people who, we are told, originate from somewhere in the South Seas. (Although, in an issue of continuity, the actors portraying the savages during Kong’s exposition on Broadway are undeniably black, and the dance they perform is easily recognizable as African tribal dance.) The implication remains the same - that wherever this new Kong came from, it isn’t the West but somewhere that is culturally and racially different, and that civilization is one of senseless violence and horror and therefore inferior to civilized Western ideas of democratic justice. Ralph Scott, director of the Black Hollywood Education and Resource Centre, questions this: “if the filmmakers of this film didn’t feel that anything they were doing was racist, then why did they feel the need to change it from […] the 1930’s? They were purely African people protecting an ape.” (Scott, 2005)
Nevertheless, unlike the 1933 King Kong where the African tribesmen and Kong are perceived under a similar gaze, here the film-makers go to lengths to distance Kong as an emotional character from the civilization he is a part of. He is given moments of great aestheticism filled with a melancholy and lonely tone that shows him to be separate from the horror of Skull Island, and therefore excluded from the way in which we perceive the culture of the island.
In correlation with the reading of the Kong as a metaphor for the black man, one of the most serious accusations leveled at Cooper’s King Kong is its commentary on the relationship between black men and white women. At its simplest and most grotesque, McKay argues that in representing the former as a primate, in King Kong “interracial sexuality is seen as literal bestiality” (McKay, 2005) Certainly, it is that aspect of the 1933 King Kong that has attracted the harshest criticism of the film as racist commentary. Cynthia Erb, in her examination of interpretations of the original film, states that “approaches to the film and story often contain critical impulses directed against notions of primitivism and racist constructions of black male sexuality as both excessive and predatory.”(Erb, 1998, p.29) Kong’s relationship with Ann, certainly, is not one of mutual love, lust, or even compassion, but one of great want opposed to great fear. He captures her, using his superior strength to force her to stay with him, and ignores her screaming cries of protest. With Kong representing the African-American man, this film certainly contains a loaded commentary on the way society at the time viewed that relationship, and was consistent with many other images that portrayed African-American and Caucasian relations. Possibly the most permeating in our cinematic culture is the one presented in Griffiths’ The Birth of a Nation which was, Dines claims the “blueprint for how contemporary mass media [depicted] black males” in terms of an “animalistic, brute violence inherent in African-American men” (Dines, 1998) The film involves two interracial relationships, both of which are of an intensely threatening and sexual nature towards the white woman involved. One woman kills herself as some sort of martyrdom instead of marrying the black character Gus, while the other has to be saved by the KKK in order to escape the advances of Lynch, the aptly named black antagonist.
This was, of course, during a period of strict segregation that extended to sexual and romantic relationships. ‘Miscegenation’ – interracial relationships - was illegal until as late as 1967. Phillips highlights the importance of this, stating that in “1933, the year King Kongg was made, the world was living easily with racial segregation and the violence which enforced it […] The purity of the race was everything, and it was those horrible black dicks, so potent and so fascinating, which caused the trouble.” (Phillips, 1992) As crude as this statement may be, Phillips taps into an important aspect of the white man’s racialized fear of African-American men, which was to do with a stereotyped concept of black male sexuality - something Dines calls “the image of the black male as the spoiler of white womanhood” (Dines 1998) Fay Wray as Ann Darrow sheds light on this - big breasted, willowy, and blonde, she was the archetypal Hollywood sex object, and her character a classic damsel in distress. In her own story she is convinced by Carl Denham to do the film, and seduced by John Driscoll. On the other hand, the polygamous village chief tries to trade her for six of his wives, indicating a fetishized and materialistic attitude towards white female sexuality. Kong simply snatches her away and won’t let her go no matter how much she resists. White men, the film tells us, appeal to the woman’s sensibilities and judgment, while to the black man she is a sexual possession. Sunnemark sees that construction of black male sexuality as indicative of “Kong himself [being] a subconscious representation of the fear of the white man and is connected with a long tradition of depicting African Americans as animalistic rapists, as for example can be seen in The Birth of a Nation” (Sunnemark, 2007) Certainly, the iconic image of Kong snatching Ann out of her bedroom supports this concept. The bedroom exists in our cultural lexicon of images as a symbol of the woman’s possession of her own sexuality, and her sense of ownership over her own body. With Kong stealing her out of that space, the film violently suggests the deprivation of that right by the black man.
Intriguingly, the 1933 Kong was also released during the greatest economic recession of the 20th century: the Depression. Before and during these years African-Americans, exhausted by years of extreme persecution and exploitation in the more radically racist South, had begun migrating to the North where they effectively set themselves up as fierce competitors to working class white men as they were willing to work more hours for less money. The image of Kong climbing the Empire State building therefore becomes something else altogether. Built in 1931, the iconic building was a symbol of economic force and optimism in a financially ravaged Manhattan, and Snead (1994) argues that Kong’s invasion of it with Ann clutched in his hand suggests the growing fiscal emasculation of white men during the Depression by the black migration . His final destruction and the rescue of Ann by white Air Force pilots becomes a symbol of the white man regaining his manhood by conquering the black threat and rescuing the white woman.
Jackson’s 2005 King Kong on the other hand, presents a relationship between Ann (Naomi Watts in this version) and Kong that is altogether different from the original film’s. O’Rourke comments that this is one of the primary challenges of the remake of King Kong stating that the film must “offer up a more plausible sexual politics – an update to Cooper’s archetypal damsel in distress menaced by a powerful, chest-beating simian.” (O’Rourke, 2005) The initial way in which this is done is by modernizing the gender role of the Ann Darrow character. While Fay Wray’s portrayal may have been the archetypal damsel in distress in early 20th century cinema, Watts’ Darrow is more faithful to the image the post- World War II, post- Women’s Liberation woman. Edelstein applauds this change, stating that the filmmakers “astutely […] de-bimboify Ann Darrow, who’s now a vaudeville performer with a tender regard for an old duffer on the edge of losing what livelihood she has. She’s tempted, but she won’t debase herself by doing striptease. She’s inspired by the work of Jack Driscoll, a social dramatist in the Clifford Odets mode.” (Edelstein, 2005) When she comes face to face with Kong she is obviously initially terrified, but in a later scene where he entertains himself by pushing her to the ground she angrily tells him to stop, which he reluctantly obeys. Watts’ Ann is a strong, independent, and intelligent character far more likely to generate empathy amongst a modern female audience than the helpless Fay Wray, but also one who commands more respect for her decisions and opinions. It is through her eyes that the audience sees Kong, as a beautiful giant as opposed to a big hairy monster. Instead of screaming whenever he’s on screen, for instance, she watches she sunset with him and sleeps in his hand. The creation of the deeply sentient Kong allows for a complex emotional relationship to form between both characters, one that is almost entirely wordless.
The pair are given the most aesthetically and emotionally touching scenes of the film, and it is that beauty, combined with Ann’s strength of character and Kong’s emotional vulnerability that offer a revolutionized perspective on the perceived relationship between black man and white woman. It offers up the image of that relationship as something natural and unproblematic, cruelly interrupted by the white man’s urge to destroy. By focusing the cinematic gaze on Kong through Ann’s eyes rather than the white man’s, we are given are more intimate portrait of the iconic primate. Instead of a constant thundering action-packed narrative, Ann and Kong interrupt the white man’s urge to capture, exploit, and destroy with images of tenderness and love. Sunnemark comments that the 2005 film “is not – as is the 1933 movie - a movie expressively about its own time. Instead it incorporates within itself a relationship with the historical time it depicts” (Sunnemark, 2007) In this sense, in our post- Civil Rights world, the film offers up a commentary on the racialized terror that stemmed from Ann and Kong’s relationship in the original, replacing Fay Wray’s superficial fear with a humanized bond that is deeper than any other relationship in the film. It is this, ultimately, that portrays the most significant appropriation of the 1933 story to the 2005 screen. By the end of the 1933 version, the audience wants Kong to be killed for destroying their city and stealing their woman. In the 2005 version, the audience watches in terrible anticipation as the inevitable iconic ending hurtles through the screen to kill the Kong that they have loved through Ann’s eyes. In as much, the 2005 King Kong criticizes the racist “common man” ideologies of the original film by effectively having the 1933 plot destroy the most human aspect of the modernized film: the loving relationship between Kong and Ann and therefore demonizing the relationship between black men and white women.
The reading of any film in terms of social and political allegory is a subjective and difficult area of film criticism, as it demands an objective view of the society that it was created in. The reading of the 1933 King Kong as a racist film is no exception, but it cannot be denied that the social conditions that surrounded its release in the United States indicate widespread and complex racial discrimination in the country. The implicit racism of Cooper’s King Kong, when analyzed according to the symbols it presents us with, offers a fascinating portrait of the “common” white man’s perception of segregated America and his perception of his African-American countrymen. In the seventy-two years that separated the release of both films, the world witnessed the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King’s dream coming true in the Civil Rights Act, the election of the first black President, and countless other milestones in creating racial equality in America. By revisiting Cooper’s iconic story and images, the 2005 King Kong appropriates the perceived racism of the original story to the modern world by humanizing Kong and his relationship with Ann Darrow. In doing so, it ultimately condemns the intolerant attitudes of the 1930’s by presenting the audience with the concept that the socially and politically equal black man is not just equal today in the 21st century. He has always been equal as he has always been human, and implies that ultimately it is our capacity for love and compassion that makes us feel as humans do. In as much, by dehumanizing and suppressing African-Americans as they were when the original King Kong was made, the remake suggests that the inhumanity was on the part of the white man who shot King Kong down more than it was on the big black gorilla who fell from the top of the Empire State building.
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