How would I explain racist elements of movies to my son?

Noble savage: African-American actor Noble Johnson as the

Noble savage: African-American actor Noble Johnson as the “Native Chief” in the 1933 version of “King Kong.” (YouTube)

It was a coin toss on whether to bring along my son, Elijah, for a Sunday morning screening at the Prytania Theatre of the 1933 classic, “King Kong,” along with a good friend of mine. Eli, all 4 years of him, is a coin toss in general when it comes to watching movies in a theater; depending on the movie, its length and his mood, he can be transfixed or restless. I loved the idea of him tagging along — I’m hoping movie moments are among our best father-son moments — but as my friend noted, the movie’s run time, and the long wind-up to the King Kong scenes suggested this might not be the best decision.

When we arrived inside the theater to the sight of other sons with their dads, I cringed. Had I made a mistake? I hate missing opportunities to do fun stuff with Eli, who’s such a gamer it warms my heart. But I rationalized it by reminding myself the juicier parts of the movie would take too long for Eli’s patience.

It wasn’t until later I was reminded of the “other” parts of the movie that makes watching “King Kong” such a problematic endeavor. It’s the jungle scenes, complete with tens of African-American actors in full-on jungle attire, that made me cringe, and wonder: How the hell would I explain this to my African-American son? The natives are indeed restless in these scenes on Skull Island — hopping up and down like madmen, bug-eyed to an extreme, speaking in a foreign gibberish, and serving as the butt of several racist comments by the white characters.

Some critics have suggested that the racism in “King Kong” transcends mere black stereotypes, and that the movie itself has racist allegories — that the taking of a dark creature from the jungle to America is an allusion to the slave trade, and that the relationship between Kong and the Fay Wray character underscored fears of the black male as sexual predator that were rampant in the 1930s (and in some ways persist even today). Check out this description from the website Atlanta Blackstar, which named “King Kong” one of the 11 most racist films of all time:

In “King Kong” movies, especially the 1933 version, Blacks are depicted as subhuman, or primate. In this film, Blacks didn’t even have a distinct way of communicating, only grunting and growling. There are also underlying racist comparisons between King Kong and Black men. King Kong was forcibly taken from his land and brought to the United States in chains. He breaks free then meets his demise due to his insatiable desire for a white woman.

(Also, check out this blog post about all three versions.)

Eli is as curious as the next 4-year-old, maybe more so. The kid is ALWAYS asking questions. I wondered what he might have thought about those jungle sequences, and what he thought about those “savages.” And, how I would have explained those images to him. One thing I did do, after checking out the credits, was look up Noble Johnson, the African-American actor cast as the “Native Chief.” Johnson led an impressive double life in Hollywood as an actor and producer for the company he oversaw: the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, which made “race” films of the era. (Johnson must have had Hollywood in his blood; he knew future silent film star Lon Chaney while growing up in Colorado.)

We’re constantly having to explain some of the edgier stuff that Eli sees on the screen — stuff that’s a little violent, stuff that’s a little scary, etc. And we almost always end it with the explanation, “It’s only make-believe. It’s not real.” Maybe the best thing I could say to Eli was this racist imagery depicted in “King Kong” isn’t real, but that the actor who played the “Native Chief” had a real, commendable and impressive impact on other artists of color. But regardless, it would prove a tough conversation.

So what would you say? How would you explain racist imagery to your young child? I’m all ears.

2 thoughts on “How would I explain racist elements of movies to my son?

  1. Pingback: “PopSmart NOLA” on WHIV (102.3 FM): Let’s start a discussion together | PopSmart NOLA

  2. I think any old movie or cartoon just needs to be pre-screened. I loved introducing Harpo Marx to my kids and they truly appreciated both his sweetness and insouciance, but I wasn’t going to show them the full Day at the Races. Appreciating popular art with such imagery and themes is a complicated enough topic for adults. As far as King Kong (for adults), one thing that fascinates me is that the film is really about these issues of culture and entertainment, for better or worse. The (fictitious) filmmakers blundered into a native culture and destroyed it. And King Kong in chains and put on display for rich white folks is a pretty obvious symbol, one I didn’t fully appreciate until seeing the movie in a movie house, when I realized how the movie audience is reflected by the New York theater audience. Now how to explain all those rich stupid white folks to the kids …?

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