Sunday, February 12, 2006
King Kong (Or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Blonde Bombshell)
When I first caught the trailers for the latest version of the 1930's classic “King Kong” all I could do is roll my eyes. 'Not this again,' I said to myself. While I have yet to see the latest version of the movie, from what I saw from the trailer and heard from those who saw the latest edition of the movie, except for the special effects, the basic plot has not changed much from earlier incarnations of the movie. In all its editions, whether the 1933, 1978 or the new 2005 version, the movie remains a story about an over sized ape living on a isolated island with all kinds of pre-historic creatures who falls for a blonde bombshell that had arrived as part of an expedition to the island. While the big ape has love on his mind, others in the in the expedition see a business opportunity and use the Blondie bombshell (Fay Wray) to lure the ape onto a ship that transports him to NYC where he ultimately meets his star-crossed end. Interestingly, the original “King Kong” appeared in 1933 the same year Hitler rose to power in Germany. I make the connection because while Hitler rose to power in part by demonizing Jews, a major part of the allure of “King Kong” to the largely white American audiences of the time was the coded messages appealing to the racist sexual taboos prevailing in American society, then and now, against inter-racial romances.
The movie's plot can be seen as warning to both whites and blacks of the consequences, mostly borne by blacks, of crossing the racial boundaries etched onto the map of American society. In his review of the 1933 classic Tim Dirk writes:
The major themes of the film include the struggle for survival on the primitive, fog-enshrouded, tropical Skull Island between the ardent and energetic filmmakers (led by Robert Armstrong), the hero (Bruce Cabot in a part originally offered to Joel McCrea), the voodoo natives, and the forces of nature (the unique Beast creature); unrequited love and the frustration and repression of violent sexual desires. However, the primitive, giant ape must also struggle against the forces of urban civilization and technology when it is exploited for profit and returned for display in New York City during a time of economic oppression.
While the movie can certainly be seen in this light, it is conspicuous by its absence that Mr. Dirk does not pick up on the racial undertones emanating from the movie. Historically, black people from the time of slavery in this country have been presented as less than human and more akin to apes. Black men in particular seem to act as a lightning rod for white male sexual fears and insecurities while at the same time, paradoxically, the black body, in the mind of many whites, is exoticized and desired. I remember well how during the protest marches following the murder of Yusef Hawkins in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn by a group of white teens who mistakenly thought he was the same guy having a relationship with a neighborhood girl, white residents lined the streets holding aloft water melons and yelling “monkeys go home.” Out of all the lines a black man dare not cross, to have relations or even think about having relations with a white woman remains one of the strongest taboos in American society. Allegedly violating this taboo was the reason Emmit Till, accused of raping a white woman, lost his life and the case of the Scottboro Boys, who were also accused, wrongly, of raping a white woman, became a cause celebré and one of the most important cases in trial law in American Jurisprudence.
Some of the major themes Mr. Dirk misses are first, that Kong has always been shown in all three pictures without genitals. This may be simply a nod to the MPAA (to avoid an X rating) and an effort to avoid controversy in light of the hypocritical American squeamishness about dealing forthrightly with human sexuality. However, it could also be the case that if Kong is symbolically standing in for all Black men, then what better way to convey black male impotence than by emasculation? Also, to hammer the point home, Kong's demise will come about by way of his toppling off the largest (at the time, The Empire State Building) phallus symbol for whites. Second, much like Africans who were ripped from their ancestral homes and brought to the “new world” to exploit their labor, Kong was lured from his island abode to serve as a freak attraction, as Dirk correctly notes, and make his handlers boatloads of money. Third, the strongest undertone in the movie is Kong's (read black man) heavy infatuation with blonde haired, blue eyed Fay Wray. In the original he battles giant snakes, spiders and even a pterodactyl in keeping her from harm. Strangely, there is no female Kong, Queen Kong if you will, nowhere to be seen in the film which bespeaks of the historic invisibility of black women and the deification of white women in American society. The object of Kong's desires then is not a female of his own species, much like black men's desire not for their own, as imagined by many white people, but for white women. Finally, all does not end well for Kong, once in NYC he finds himself in a world completely alien to him and lashes out. That and cavorting with a white woman is too much for the powers that be and so, much like the bestial black man he likely symbolized in the minds of most white audiences of the film, Kong needed to be made an example of. As the PBS “Lynching in America” website notes:
Although rape is often cited as a rationale, statistics now show that only about one-fourth of lynchings from 1880 to 1930 were prompted by an accusation of rape. In fact, most victims of lynching were political activists, labor organizers or black men and women who violated white expectations of black deference, and were deemed "uppity" or "insolent." Though most victims were black men, women were by no means exempt.
Sadly but not unpredictably, for his transgressions Kong is run up the highest pole in town and brought down hard. What Mr. Dirk failed to realize was that as the chart found here shows, especially in the American South, lynching after Reconstruction became the preferred method of dealing with black people who committed transgressions, real or perceived, against white folks.
Audiences, whatever their race, of the original film (and even of the most recent edition if they're historically conscious), would likely not have failed to notice the parallels between Kong's violent demise and the practice of lynching. The handwriting on the wall would be clear even if not openly spoken of; if you are a black man and you mess with a white woman, you may wind up like Kong! No doubt that “King Kong” as a film, no matter what version, does encompass the contrast between modernity and primitiveness, “unrequited love and the frustration and repression of violent sexual desires,” as well as the dangers of commodification. However, next to all of that, there is also an undercurrent in the Kong films of white racial superiority and its concomitant stake in maintaining racial purity which, in turn, leads to strong policing of racially defined sexual boundaries. This film, to my mind, represents just one more of those instances where a work embodies a number of messages. However, a few of these messages do their work sublimely rather than explicitly. My new title for the film would thus be (with all due respect to Stanley Kubrick) “King Kong (Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Blonde Bombshell).” Kong, though I grant a simple minded creature, threw caution to the wind and for that he paid with his life.