"An image of Africa": Representations of modern colonialism in Africa in peter jackson's king kong

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Looked at from the vantage point of historical context, it makes sense that Merian C. Cooper made his masterwork King Kong in 1933,1 given that its narrative portrays the intersecting histories of narrative cinema and colonialism in the Modern period (1885-1935). Cooper's Kong is a masterwork for two principal reasons, aside from its pioneering commercial use of stop-motion photography, rear-screen and miniature projection, the traveling matte, and the Williams Process. First, it incorporates filmmaking as a major theme; and, second, Cooper explicitly links the Modern colonial project in Africa to filmmaking and the cinematic experience. Cooper cowrote, codirected, and coproduced King Kong in the context of several key historical events and technological developments relevant to film history and the colonization of Africa: famous "explorers" and ethnographers with cameras, guns, and magazine/book contracts crisscrossed the remaining unmapped globe during the 1870s through the 1920s and '30s, making great names and fortunes for themselves; the Conference of Berlin (1885) and the "Scramble for Africa" were followed quickly by Maxim's invention of the fully automatic machine gun in 1889; the first films were screened for mass audiences by the Lumière brothers in 1895; the word "savage" retained scientific value among anthropologists, paleontologists, and others in the human sciences until 1930 (Stocking 1968); "Social Darwinism" popularized the use of evolution to explain class and racial differences and the evolutionary metaphor "survival of the fittest" was used by some public intellectuals to justify colonialism (Shohat and Stam 1994, 104-7); and black migration from the American South to major northern cities such as Chicago and New York intensified between 1920 and 1930 (Snead 1994, 20-21). These are but a few of the welldocumented influences setting the stage for Cooper's Kong that provide context for the themes of filmmaking and colonialism in the film. G iven these historical contexts, how can Peter Jackson's 2005 "remake" of King Kong be explained (apart from Jackson's well-documented interest in the film as a youth? [Vaz 2005, xiii]). What about American culture and history in the first decade of the twenty-first century is analogous to the 1930s that could produce a new Kong?2 What about the manner of Hollywood's representation of Africa in 2005 recalls 1933; or, is Jackson's version simply a "period" film? Jackson's choice to remake Kong raises the question of whether the practice of colonialism in Africa is merely a historical relic, something no longer with us in the twenty-first century in the same way that, say, the transatlantic slave trade appeared to be for the twentieth. It suggests a cultural and historical kinship between the worlds of 1933 and 2005. Likewise, "Skull Island" is more than some distant, exotic island, location and history unknown.3 I argue that Jackson uses Skull Island as a means to draw attention to Cooper's use of it to allegorize Africa's "unexplored jungles." In fact, it is Jackson who gives the island that name; it is unnamed in Cooper's version, reinforcing my argument. Kong's island is analogous to Africa in both versions of the film, raising the question of how, if at all, Hollywood representations of Africa have been revised during the last eighty years. At first blush, Jackson's choice to set his narrative in the 1930s makes his version appear to be merely a nostalgic homage to Hollywood and Cooper rather than a contemporary cultural critique. The persistence of colonialism decades after independence can easily be glossed over by Hollywood's stylized, "period film" representations of the formerly colonized. Hollywood accomplishes this using the silver screen, a space on which the audience can simultaneously focus their own fears and fantasies, under the guise of showing what has never been seen before (Rony 1996). Jackson's King Kong simultaneously embodies and challenges this effacement, particularly with respect to Africa. Ultimately, however, I will argue that the case Chinua Achebe makes for Heart of Darkness (1899) as a failed representation of Africa could also be applied to Jackson's Kong. This is especially ironic, given Jackson's decision to include Conrad's Heart in his new Kong narrative. All versions of King Kong use representations of Skull Island and New York City to portray the relationship between Africa and "Modernity," implicating narrative cinema, and Hollywood in particular, with the modern colonial project in Africa. Further, Jackson's version makes the case that Hollywood views Africa, and its position with respect to the northern world, in much the same way in 2005 as was the case in 1933. My essay analyzes three discursive debates in King Kong that illustrate these arguments. First, to what extent do Cooper's own biography and Africa's place in the American public imagination between 1880 and 1930 conspire to create Kong and Skull Island? Second, how does the prevalent thematic struggle between "savagery" and "civilization" in Cooper and Jackson's versions reflect not only the Africa/Modernity polarity, but the reflexive and transgressive perspectives on that relationship? Third, how are we to read Jackson's inclusion of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness? How does Heart color Kong? How do the two imaginative works parallel or speak to each other? In each case, Jackson enhances the reflexivity Cooper uses simply to draw our attention to the role of artifice in the creation of cinematic spectacle. What distinguishes spectacle from other forms of visual entertainment, Cooper argues in Kong, is that spectacle reaches out and touches the spectator from the Real. Jackson's version expands Cooper's focus on cinematic entertainment predicated on racial difference to include the role of cinema in Modern colonialism.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationHollywood's Africa after 1994
PublisherOhio University Press
Number of pages18
ISBN (Print)9780821420157
StatePublished - 2012

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Arts and Humanities


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