The adventure-fantasy film King Kong, directed by Merion C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack in 1933, has deserved its place in classical Hollywood cinema for its spectacular special effects, which were completely new at the time and its introduction of the female scream to the horror picture. After more than 70 years, the movie has lost little of its fascination and film scholars have not grown tired of examing the metaphorical meaning of the ape-monster and the representation of blackness and whiteness in this Beauty and the Beast fable. In his article “Humanizing the Beast”, Thomas E. Wartenberg focusses on King Kong’s transgression from the stereotypical racist representation of the Black male sexual monster of Skull Island to the romantic hero in the New York sequence. He argues that the film reverts the racism constructed in its first half and uses the second half to propagate that “it is a mistake to see Black men as sexual monsters because they are human beings like all of us” (Wartenberg 175). Rather than rating the ape’s personality in the New York sequence as a positive depiction of Black masculinity, I would argue that the stereotypical representation of the sexually aggressiized noble negro; the lattve black male was merely transformed into another stereotype, namely the non-threatening, desexualer no longer possesses any evil character traits but is nonetheless destructed in his inferior weakness in order to restore white womanhood to its pedestal and reinforce white capitalist male power structures.
Starting in the Reconstruction era, white Southern men had placed white women on a pedestal. Despite being considered intellectually inferior to the white man in terms of gender, they had been racially empowered. White womanhood was equated with purity, chastity, innocence, domesticity and angelic features. Earlier phrenological discourse had already equated whiteness with beauty and placed the Caucasian race at the tip of the Chain of Being.
The film begins with the title card from an Old Arabian Proverb:
And the Prophet said, 'And lo, the beast looked upon the face of beauty. And it stayed its hand from killing. And from that day, it was as one dead.'
The saying already indicates beauty’s superiority over the beast in terms of a fatal, destructive power. Ann Darrow, the female heroine that the spectator is introduced to fits the beauty ideals of American mainstream society: She is a fair skinned blond, blue eyed stunner with a perfect figure and a pretty face. The camera casts her in star lighting, thus giving her appearance an angelic glow.
In his article “White”, Richard Dyer argues that cinematic lighting codes were developed in relation to white actresses’ whiteness. This illumination technique correspondes with lighting practices in Western Christian art, where figures of divinity, e.g. Virgin Mary or Jesus Christ, were traditionally depicted in a lighter shade than other figures, thus emphasizing their holiness and spiritual power and turning them into the glowing point of focus. As a classical Hollywood filmer, Cooper employs this very technique on his female star Fay Wray to direct the heterosexual male gaze towards the white female body and turn her into a sexualized spectacle. She is “constructed as the apotheosis of desirability, all that a man could want” (Dyer 1988: 64). The camera repeatedly catches her image from the point of view of King Kong, e.g. in the scene in which the ape partially undresses his captive. By looking through the eyes of the ape, the spectator is not only turned into a voyeur but also a ravager of the white woman. Her pale skin, the white dress and cinematic lighting enhence her whiteness, which stands in stark contrast to the pitch blackness of the ape model. Since Ann is dwarfed in many scenes in comparison to the ape’s height, her white color also serves as a means of seeing her at all, e.g. on top of the Empire State building.
In the clutch of Kong’s giant palm, Fay Wray becomes the first “Queen of Scream”, a later female stock character of the horror flick. Her terrified facial expression, fainting and screaming express the white woman’s fear of being raped by the black man. Thus, King Kong is placed in the tradition of D. W. Griffith’s silent picture Birth of a Nation (1915) . Based on the racist fiction of Thomas Dixon, the film positively sanctions Klan vigilantism towards black men. It presented blackface images of African American men attacking virginal white southern women and attempting to rape them in traumatic violation of imaginary race identities. Like the female figures in Birth of a Nation, Ann is a passive victim, who remains speechless except for her screams. Through this parallel, Ann becomes the embodiment of white womanhood, which is associalted with innocence, chastity, domesticity, purity and other virtues. In Victorian as well as in white southern culture of the Reconstruction era, the white woman was placed on a metaphorical pedestal above the black woman and the black man. The suggestion of Kong being the black rapist and Ann the white victim leads the spectator easily towards associating the airplane raid with the ride of the Klansmen who come to lynch the black man and the rescue the white woman. As the man pulling the strings of public relations in the showdown on the Empire State building by inventing the “beauty and the beast” myth, Denham becomes can be equated with the Southern racist entrepreneur who turns a lynching into a public spectacle of “deadly amusement”, as described in Hale’s work on the culture of segregation in the south. The death of the ape implies that the casting of the black male gaze onto the white female body is a deadly sin connected with rape and miscegenation.