Big Black and Bad Stereotyping

Kwame McKenzie, Times (London), Dec. 13. 2005

King Kong feeds into all the colonial hysteria about black hyper-sexuality—read Kwame McKenzie’s article and send your comments, below

Most black men I know will think twice about going to see King Kong. First because of the story, second because of Peter Jackson’s other recent blockbuster movies.

The story feeds into all the colonial hysteria about black hyper-sexuality. This imagery has a long history and is difficult to shift.

It was so pervasive and prevalent even in the 17th century that Shakespeare could write Othello knowing that his audience would understand the Moor stereotype. As Kristin Johnsen-Neshati, Associate Professor of Theatre at George Mason University notes in her writing on the subject: “Moors were commonly stereotyped as sexually overactive, prone to jealousy and generally wicked. The public associated ‘blackness’ with moral corruption, citing examples from Christian theology to support the view that whiteness was the sign of purity, just as blackness indicated sin.”

It is so pervasive that after fronting a pop psychology TV series a decade ago as a psychiatrist I was offered a 20 part series on sex.

The story also touches the raw nerve of the Darwin-based association between black men and apes. Though the monkey noises and the discussion about whether Africans are the missing link between apes and humans may be out of the classroom, it still has to be endured by black footballers when they travel to away games.

Peter Jackson used the same hackneyed stereotypes for the Lord of the Rings triology. The most fearsome baddies were big black and just a bit too Maori looking, the good guys—well white.

So when King Kong unfolded and the 1930s New York crowd scenes were almost devoid of black faces, rather than the 15 per cent you would have expected, and when the first black actors had small non-speaking parts—dancers and the only major black character was the strong caring second officer to the ship’s captain—the good and dutiful slave stereotype—I was squirming in my seat. If I had not been at a premier with my transfixed son I would have been out of the door soon after the wide eyed, homicidal, half dressed, blacker than black natives of Skull Island started cavorting one hour in.

I was lucky that my paternal instinct to stay and explain this to my son at the end got the better of me, because the next two hours were fabulous.

Though it was always impossible for the film not to endorse the black male stereotype, and one has to ask why Jackson so wanted to make King Kong as opposed to anything else, his attempt to shelve the lust angle and portray the relationship between Kong and Darrow (played by Naomi Watts) as owner and favourite pet—in that order—worked. The cinematography was excellent and my worst fears were not realised.

But I could not help but feel that if Jackson had put as much thought into the rest of the racial imagery as he did into the relationship between Kong and Darrow this could have gone down as a much less offensive film. As it is it leaves a bitter sweet taste in my mouth and a complex discussion on negative stereotypes that I have had to have with my son.

It left me thinking, that if censors look at violence, sex, and sexual violence when giving a certificate why do they not look at negative racial stereotypes?

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