Study reveals that the film King Kong is loaded with racism

Sociologist Juan Antonio Roche, author of the study, reports that there is a racial, colonialist and patriarchal system behind the film.

King Kong

Racism is implicit in the film King Kong, a film in which xenophobia is also present, embodying the fear of the black race among white people. These are some of the conclusions reached by Juan Antonio Roche Cárcel, a researcher at the University of Alicante.

The American film industry produced the film in a historical moment dominated by the economic crash of 1929. It is this same crash that is behind the fear of the other, present in the 1933 version of King Kong. Roche Cárcel, an expert in Sociology of Culture and the Arts, sees the relationship between the crisis, fear and xenophobia of horror films in general and King Kong in particular, and how this film embodies the fear white poeple have of black people. The analysis and results have just been published in the scientific article «“King Kong, the Black Gorilla» in the Quarterly Review of Film and Video.

Five arguments for implicit racism

Four years after the economic crash of 1929, the film King Kong was released. It was year 1933. The scientific article proves the link between horror films and the crisis, the rise of fear among citizens and the increase of xenophobia. As Roche recalls, in times of crisis, fears increase, and among these fears is xenophobia, the fear of the other. The great economic crisis of the time led to mass unemployment and an exodus of the population, which moved from the southern states to the big cities, states populated by large numbers of black people. Fear of the crisis and fear of the black race fed each other.

Furthermore, in this context, there is the great migration, which concentrated in ghettos. Another factor is the legislation in big cities, which hinders the development of black businesses. All of this, according to the UA researcher, is what generates a breeding ground of fear of the other. This fear is compounded by the patriarchal, colonial and racial ideological system that further intensifies discrimination against the black race. This is taken to the imaginary level, in the myth of King Kong. In this imaginary, black people are turned into animals (gorillas and monkeys) and white people are afraid of their sexual potency, and of their women being raped. On the imaginary and ideological level, these people, who are monsters, live on Skull Island. Roche recalls that in the 1933 film, the island is perceived as a virgin, hostile, savage place, far from civilisation, where history has not arrived. A place that looks as if it were colonised by whites on arrival; and where monstrous, strange beings live.

The sociologist sees how all this economic, political, social and cinematographic context is objectified in the character of the gorilla King Kong. To clarify this metaphor, Roche adds that at the beginning of the film there are some scenes that show the catastrophic effects on the poorest and most marginalised neighbourhoods, scenes that he says were censored. But it gives an idea that the film was created under this conception.

Racism is implicit in several arguments. This is the thesis that the researcher defends. The first argument is who King Kong is: he is a black man. As an example of this position, Roche points to the phrase “we are sick of having gorillas in the city” that one of the characters, the white, middle-class lady, says when she is in the theatre and is going to present the show of King Kong in chains.

A second argument in which racism is implicit is that no black workers appear in the whole film. And when they do appear it is exclusively on Skull Island, and it is a savage and ancient tribe. Or how when King Kong dies and falls from the skyscraper, not a single journalist or citizen is black. Nor do we see a single one in the theatre scene: all the people are white. Even when the filming of the movie is finished, the film crew, directors, producers and artists take two photographs; in one of them there are only white people. In the other, there are whites, and behind them, represented and dressed like the tribe on the island, we see blacks. For Roche, the total absence of black characters in the entire recording is very surprising. As if the crisis did not affect black people, who are the ones most affected by it.

The third argument that supports his claim of implicit racism in the 1933 film is how black people are treated, and it is as primitive and with colonial, hunter-gatherer features. We see blacks dressed as gorillas, performing a ritual. The white people carry cameras and rifles, as if the camera is an element of colonisation of the territory. King Kong eats the black poeple and the latter sacrifice the youngest girl in the tribe to give to the gorilla. On the other hand, he does not eat the white woman because he falls in love with her, in a display of sexual bestiality. Nevertheless, the scientist affirms that the film is plagued by racism linked to a patriarchal system and colonialism.

The researcher also found a fourth argument to exemplify how racism is implicit. King Kong is an object of desire and fear. Roche explains how, in Western art, women have been considered objects of sex, desire and fear. White people come to the rescue of the white woman.

And finally, a fifth argument is supported by the world in which black people live. They have huts, they don’t know agriculture, they don’t use spears, they don’t know technology; it’s a lost and uncivilised world on Skull Island, in stark contrast to the civilisation of New York City.

         For the sociologist, there is a racial, colonialist and patriarchal system behind the film. The film intensifies racism, recreates these fears of the population and makes a spectacle of it. The cinematic imaginary dramatises, intensifies reality and increases emotionality. The underlying idea of the film is that of a society that will emerge from the crisis. The sequence of scenes shows this: the film starts with the crisis; a monster that kills; a girl who is rescued, and the possibility that society is going to get out of the crisis. For Roche it is clear that the fears of the time are embodied in a thirty-metre gorilla, as well as in the buildings of New York and the crisis of the time.

This same argument of racism is present in other films of the period such as «The Birth of a Nation» or «Tarzan of the Apes», as Juan Antonio Roche Cárcel said.


Bibliographical reference:

Juan A. Roche Cárcel (2021) “King Kong, the Black Gorilla”, Quarterly Review of Film and Video.

DOI: 10.1080/10509208.2021.1905473