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Can You Make A Movie With King Kong Without Perpetuating Racial Undertones?


"King Kong" has been around almost as long as Hollywood itself. The first "Kong" movie was in 1933, and from its inception, it's always been loaded with some ugly, racial subtext, ridiculous caricatures of natives, white men protecting a white woman from the savages and a giant, dangerous, black creature from the jungle.

Well, this month brings us the latest remake of the iconic story of the gigantic ape. It is called "Kong: Skull Island." Gene Demby of NPR's Code Switch team wonders if there's any way to tell the story without playing with these tropes.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character, screaming).

GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: Every one of the "King Kong" movies has the same basic setup. There's a ship of explorers in search of a mysterious, uncharted place called Skull Island.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) An island hidden by a perpetual fog bank never seen by human eye nor walked by human foot.

DEMBY: That clip was from the 1976 version of "Kong." as in the other four versions, Skull Island is usually located somewhere vaguely near Indonesia, even though it seems to be inhabited by savages who look suspiciously like black people decked out in full movie cannibal chic loincloths and spears and drums and they become entranced invariably by the absolutely irresistible woman traveling with the explorers.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) He says look at the golden woman.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Yeah. Blondes are scarce around here.

DEMBY: That blonde - Fay Wray in the 1933 original, Jessica Lange in the 1976 remake and later Naomi Watts in Peter Jackson's 2005 retelling - is kidnapped by the natives who sacrifice her to the titanic gorilla god.


DEMBY: Kong, the giant rampaging ape who somehow happens to have a deep cross-species preference for flaxen-haired, white ladies - and this is where the racial antenna goes up for people like Robin Means Coleman. She's a professor at the University of Michigan who has studied "King Kong" and racial representation over the years.

ROBIN MEANS COLEMAN: "King Kong" was clearly also a metaphor for race, for black masculinity. That's the low-hanging fruit of black metaphors.

DEMBY: Coleman says you can draw a direct line from "The Birth Of A Nation," that defining 1915 film about the black male threat to white woman - and coincidentally the movie that helped resurrect the Ku Klux Klan - and "King Kong" in 1933. "King Kong" premiered at a time when black men were regularly depicted as ape-like. It was during the beginning of the Great Migration when thousands and thousands of black people were leaving the South to move to the nation's biggest cities.

COLEMAN: This is, again, a big, black man - right? - a big, black ape who is absolutely obsessed with whiteness and particularly white women. That has to be cut down.

DEMBY: So can you make a movie about King Kong without perpetuating these creepy racial undertones? Let's look at the newest movie "Kong: Skull Island." The woman is now a strawberry blonde played by Brie Larson who is mostly besides the point. This time the natives in this movie don't talk in any unga-bunga (ph) speech because they actually don't speak at all. And the big, bad black guy is Sam Jackson, an American military commander who wants revenge against Kong. Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture critic at The Washington Post.

ALYSSA ROSENBERG: A literal African-American man versus a metaphorical stand-in for black American men - it's meant to steer clear of the idea that white men are protecting a white woman from the stand-in for black men.

DEMBY: Rosenberg said that "Kong" is kind of an anti-colonial figure in this latest film. He's protecting his island and its inhabitants from violent invaders. But still - it's "King Kong."

ROSENBERG: Right. And I think the movie is trying really hard to have the awesome big monster fights without stepping into any of those racial implications. But I think they're just unavoidable.

DEMBY: So yeah, King Kong, a hundred-foot tall gorilla who can go toe-to-toe with military choppers, Godzilla, Charles Grodin and Sam Jackson, but the ideas that spawned him have proven much harder to smack down. Gene Demby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.

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