On Friday, the latest onscreen version of the King Kong legend will hit theaters, and with it comes a long legacy of racially-charged undertones.
“Kong: Skull Island,” which stars Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson, will be a reboot of the original 1933 blockbuster "King Kong." The original was a movie phenomenon in its day, and has spawned several remakes over the years, most recently “King Kong” in 2005.
The classic "King Kong" story is about a film crew, accompanied by damsel actress Ann Darrow (played by Fay Wray in 1933), who discovers an island inhabited by “savage” natives. Eventually, the men capture a gigantic ape, King Kong, and bring him back to New York City to display him as the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” But Kong falls in love with Darrow, so he escapes and takes her with him to the top of the Empire State Building, where he’s eventually shot down by war planes.
It’s a straightforward enough adventure story, but historically “King Kong” has been viewed by some film critics as a kind of racist allegory, symbolically depicting white America’s view of black people at the time. Critics have drawn connections between the capture of Kong and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, with Kong’s disastrous escape in New York symbolic of the perceived “disaster” of granting black people in the U.S. true freedom.
Of course, with each remake and reboot comes a chance to confront the racial themes in the King Kong legend. “Kong: Skull Island” director Jordan Vogt-Roberts has reportedly taken steps to distance the film from its predecessors. It will be set in 1973 and take place entirely on the uncharted island, rather than bringing Kong to the New York setting, which means there’s potential for Kong to finally shed its racially-fraught past.
Watch the video above to see the evolution of racial themes in "King Kong" since 1933.