Race and 'King Kong'

Film critics and others have long noted the racist overtones of the 1933 and 1976 versions of King Kong. As director Peter Jackson's most recent take on the great ape wraps up its first week in movie theaters, Karen Grigsby Bates examines the racial overtones common to all of the Kong films.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

In a few minutes, we'll hear glorious music from the `King Kong of organs,' a 22-foot-high Baroque masterpiece.

But first to "King Kong" the movie. It was released last week, and it's generating questions the filmmakers may not have anticipated. Is "King Kong" perpetuating racial stereotypes? NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reports.

(Soundbite of 2005 version of "King Kong")

Unidentified Man: So you are ready for this voyage, Ms. Darrow?

Ms. NAOMI WATTS: (As Ann Darrow) Sure.

Unidentified Man: Nervous?

Ms. WATTS: (As Ann Darrow) Nervous? No. Should I be?

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES reporting:

Well, that depends on how you feel about being scooped up by a 25-foot-tall gorilla. All three "King Kongs"--the classic 1933 version starring Fay Wray, the campy 1976 version starring Jessica Lange and the current epic by "Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson--feature a big, black ape who falls in love with a willowy white woman. The unspoken fear about black-white sexual relations has been remarked on by film historians and cultural critics ever since. The 1933 original stoked anxieties about black male hypersexuality. Kong snatches Ann Darrow up and makes off with her as she screams in horror.

(Soundbite of 1933 version of "King Kong")

Ms. FAY WRAY: (As Ann Darrow) (Screaming)

BATES: And the film's supposedly African natives--who offer the heroine up to the giant ape--came from what some critics called the ooga-booga(ph) school of thespian arts. Newsday columnist Jim Pinkerton says the 2005 "Kong," starring a dewy, blond Naomi Watts, shows the story line hasn't evolved all that much.

Mr. JIM PINKERTON (Newsday): And for this movie to have been made in 1933 about white people going over to the Third World to capture a large, black being with a flat nose and bring him back in chains was sort of powerful then. And I was sort of surprised to see it getting remade, if anything, more politically incorrectly, in 2005.

BATES: Pinkerton is referring to the current film's depiction of the residents of Skull Island, the creepy place where the on-screen director Carl Denham, played by "School of Rock's" Jack Black, goes to shoot his movie. But filming plans are disrupted by multipierced, dark-skinned aboriginal people who are depicted as violent, eyeball-rolling, foaming-at-the-mouth attackers.

(Soundbite of 2005 version of "King Kong")

Ms. WATTS: (As Ann Darrow) (Screaming)

Mr. ADRIEN BRODY: (As Jack Driscoll) Ms. Darrow!

Ms. WATTS: (As Ann Darrow) (Screaming)

BATES: Pinkerton says he was flabbergasted at the contemporary treatment of the natives.

Mr. PINKERTON: They made this movie, which just doesn't give them names, doesn't give them any kind of identity, any kind of personality, just treats them as people who are just trouble and in the way.

BATES: Ralph Scott is executive director of the Black Hollywood Education and Resource Center, a non-profit organization that is a clearinghouse of information on films by and for African-Americans. He believes the reason that the 2005 movie features south seas natives instead of black ones is because the filmmakers were trying to avoid charges of racism from black audiences.

Mr. RALPH SCOTT (Director, Black Hollywood Education and Resource Center): If the filmmakers of this film didn't feel that anything that they were doing was racist, then why did they feel the need to change it from, you know, the '30s? There were purely African people protecting this ape.

BATES: Moving the film's location from Africa to the south sea islands doesn't remove the stigma visited upon the native people depicted in it, says Newsday's Jim Pinkerton. He says even subliminal messages in movies are important.

Mr. PINKERTON: As the famous psychologist Carl Jung explained, it is in the popular culture that we most see the stereotypes and archetypes of our society.

BATES: In other words, sometimes a movie isn't just a movie. But, says Ralph Scott, you have to pick your battles. Many of the black people who posted to his Web site about "Kong" say they saw definite racial overtones in this new "Kong," but have decided to let it pass.

Mr. SCOTT: We can certainly make a lot of hullabaloo about the implications of this new "King Kong," but then there's other things in the world that we have to worry about.

BATES: Including, perhaps, another version of "King Kong" 30 years from now that might provoke the same concerns.

(Soundbite of 2005 version of "King Kong")

Ms. WATTS: (As Ann Darrow) (Screaming)

BATES: Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, Los Angeles.

(Soundbite of 2005 version of "King Kong"; grunting; Kong growling)

BRAND: More coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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