The release of the Peter Jackson-directed remake of King Kong opens the door for an examination of an interesting subtextual reading of the original. Like all great art, the original King Kong is open to a multitude of interpretations; there is no single appropriate reading of the text. (You should hear my Marxist version of the tale; that Carl Denham is one disgusting capitalist pig!)
I haven’t seen the remake as I write this, but I saw-and appreciate-the Jessica Lange version made in the 70s and it fits the bill of goods I’m selling, so I have little doubt that Jackson’s remake will probably be able to fit into this interpretation as well.
What is King Kong? Not the movie, but the character. He’s an ape on an island inhabited by black savages. It’s an island that, according to the map used in the movie, doesn’t appear to be in close promixity to Africa. I’m not sure where Skull Island is, but it’s prehistoric. There are dinosaurs and other denizens of our preliterate past. Stuck in this time warp are dark-skinned human beings. And Kong himself is dark. He is their god. He is their Michael Jordan, if you will.
Into this land before time comes a ship filled with far more intelligent-or at least more worldly and educated-white people. They have come with knowledge of modernity. They have cameras! They also have the smarts to outwit the gigantic ape-god after he arrives at his annual-or thereabouts-sacrificial festival.
You see, these people that time forgot, these prehistoric, preliterate black savages toss up one of their womenfolk as a sacrifice to Kong. It’s never really made certain what Kong would have done with these sacrifices, but the assumption is that, well, he ate them. I mean it’s not like they’re around whenever the great white hunter tracks down Ann Darrow to save her. Where are they? Just bones stuck in Kong’s teeth, probably.
Anyhoo, this time around, Kong has a new, different kind of sacrifice waiting for him. A blonde, white woman. Not preliterate, not prehistoric, not black. White. Blonde. It’s pretty darn apparent that Kong isn’t exactly in a hurry to eat the lovely Miss Darrow.
Oh, sure, he may have gotten around to it sooner or later, but in the meantime, it’s quite clear Kong has other things on his mind as he strips Fay Wray of her clothing. I’m not exactly sure how this works from a mechanical, size-related point of view of things, but there you are.
Well, the white saviors can’t abide this. They have to save the beautiful blonde from the clutches of this giant black ape-god. And save her, they do, though admittedly she’s lost a good amount of clothing by the time she comes running back with the great white hunter.
And Kong isn’t going to let a good thing get away. Clearly, once he’s gone white he’s not turning back. He chases them down, only to allow these nimrods to get the better of him. Well, after all, he’s big and strong, but Kong’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer, if you get my point.
So what do you do when you’ve got a giant ape captive? Well, like Mr. Burns says, once he’s dead you sell monkey stew to the military, but as long as he’s alive what else would you do?
Show business. After all, Kong has far too big a strike zone to turn him into a ballplayer and, besides, baseball was restricted to black players back then. And basketball wasn’t nearly the big biz sport it is now. So there’s only thing left to do with a big black guy.
The business. By which I mean the industry.
Take him back to New York and put him on stage. He doesn’t have to do anything. I mean, dear lord man, he’s a naked fifty foot tall ape, isn’t that enough to bring in crowds! Only he breaks loose! And he goes hunting for Miss Darrow, who’s still screaming, but is maybe screaming a little less now. Maybe she’s getting used to the big, lovable lug. Maybe he’s not so bad.
He shows her a good time; does to a subway car what every person who has ever miss a subway has always wanted to do; gives her a view of New York that no woman has ever seen before. He’s even tender with her. Maybe he’s not so bad, after all.
Therefore he must die! He must be killed by tiny bullets shot from aircraft flying past him at a great distance. There’s Kong, proudly and defiantly waving him arms atop the very symbol of American empire, the Empire State Building. Forget Leonardo, Kong was the true king (kong) of the world! And that just wouldn’t do, now would it?
You can see where I’m going with this, can’t you? What is Kong? He is the symbol of the white man’s fear that big black men will take our women and show them too good a time and we’ll lose them forever.
No, seriously, think about it. Everybody knows famous black men only want to date beautiful blondes, right? (All men want to date beautiful blondes, for that matter). Heck, entire movies have been made about how black women have to compete with white women for the best black men.
And deep down inside, every white man knows that a black man can take our women away at a moment’s notice. (I’m being facetious, here, but both these points are valid arguments that have been made time and time again). The point is that at the time this was made, black men could still be strung up just for looking at a white woman crossing the street and the white men who committed this heinous act had no fear of punishment.
Irrational racism was rampant at the time the original King Kong was made. It’s rampant now. It will always be rampant. And the movie reflects the fear. It’s both racist and sexist and racially sexist.
On the one hand, you’ve got this white fear that black men have such powerful sexual potency that no white woman could ever resist them. On the other hand, you’ve got the fact that no black woman could ever compete with a white woman for a black man’s affections.
Next time you watch the original King Kong, notice a strange little fact. He gets bigger once they take him to New York. On the island, he’s really not all that much bigger than the humans. I mean, he’s big, yes, but not enormous. Once they get to New York, Kong becomes ridiculously large. It’s almost as if he got….
Don’t get me wrong. I love King Kong. I think it’s a terrific movie and I never get tired of watching it. And I don’t believe the racist and sexist undertones of the movie were necessarily intentional. Most critical readings of a work of art usually aren’t intentional. But nonetheless it’s a valid reading.