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King Kong: Is racism irrelevant?

Review by Joe Allen | January 6, 2006 | Page 9

King Kong, directed by Peter Jackson, starring Naomi Watts and Adrian Brody.

PETER JACKSON'S lavish remake of King Kong hit the screens in mid-December to overwhelmingly positive reviews, some even calling it a "masterpiece." Starring Naomi Watts, Adrian Brody and Jack Black, the 2005 version of the 1933 classic is undoubtedly a well-made film and, in many parts, very entertaining.

Jackson's recreation of 1930s New York and the computer-generated Kong demonstrate enormous steps forward in the technical aspects of filmmaking. And, in sharp contrast to the original 1933 film and the embarrassing 1976 remake, Jackson begins the film with a collage of Depression-era America, replete with Hoovervilles, soup lines and demonstrations against evictions.

He even includes among the crew of the ill- fated ship a sailor reading Joseph Conrad's anti-colonial classic Heart of Darkness. But it's here that Jackson's innovations end. His attempt to put a liberal veneer on a deeply reactionary film ultimately fails as he falls back on the old script that can only be described as racist and a portrayal of island "natives" that is just as revolting.

The 1933 film was directed by Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack, with a screenplay by Cooper and British author Edgar Wallace--all of whom held deeply reactionary political views.

Cooper and Shoesdsack met in 1920 when both of them were fighting the Bolsheviks as part of Polish Army Marshal Jozef Pilsudski's counterrevolutionary forces. They spent time together in a Soviet prisoner of war camp. Cooper would later be decorated by the Polish dictator for his exploits in the war.

Wallace was one of the most prolific authors of his time and an enthusiastic supporter of the British empire--something of a minor league Rudyard Kipling. In 1907, Wallace wrote, "I do not regard the native as my brother or my sister, nor even as my first cousin; nor as a poor relation. I do not love the native--nor do I hate him. To me he is just a part of the scenery, a picturesque object with uses."

This attitude is transported lock, stock and barrel to Jackson's film. The island natives are savage, incomprehensible beasts who gleefully sacrifice the white, blond Ann Darrow to the very human, great ape Kong. An ape is capable of love and self-sacrifice, but not the Black natives of Skull Island.

In a world where there is greater awareness about the horrors of Western colonialism and the genocide against native peoples, it seems that for Jackson, racism is irrelevant. It is a shame that 80 years after the original King Kong, native people are still "picturesque objects with uses."

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