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Social Studies

Monkey Business

By Vincent Williams | Posted 2/22/2006

Well, I finally got around to seeing King Kong a couple of weeks ago. I had been hesitant to check it out because, frankly, King Kong is like the Gone With the Wind of monster movies—everybody gets all rah-rah over it, but, at its core, there’s some troubling racist subtext. Still, I heard about the over-the-top giant ape vs. four tyrannosaurs fight and, frankly, I had to see that on the big screen, because that spoke to me, though I still had a bit of trepidation when I went into the theater.

I was pleasantly surprised. I thought director Peter Jackson did the best he could considering the source material. The film really downplayed the whole blond beauty thing and played up the fact that Kong was attracted to the girl for reasons that went beyond her looks. The racial undercutting presence of the Positive, Articulate, Sensitive African-American first mate was a little heavy-handed, but it was nice to see him there regardless.

If I’ve had my coffee and I’m feeling pretty good about humanity, I would say that Jackson understood how problematic some of the imagery in the original film was, and he went out his way to excise that so the focus could be on the rest of the story. If I haven’t had my coffee, I would say that some focus group said he had to pull back on some of that big-black-beast-gets-tamed-by-lily-white-blond-woman stuff or, y’know, Al Sharpton will be protesting or something. Honestly, I could care less why the script went the way it did. I’m just glad I was able to enjoy a science-fiction/fantasy movie without having to think about all that stuff.

So, as I’m leaving the theater and feeling pretty good about both my nachos and the way things worked out with King Kong, I run smack dab into not one but two cardboard cutouts of black men dressed up like women. Sitting in the lobby outside of the film, parallel to each other, are promotional stand-ups for Big Momma’s House 2 and Medea’s Family Reunion. And I just stood there for, like, five minutes looking at these two clown-ass Negroes. And, like I always do when I see black men dressed up as women, I thought about my father.

Not because my father has a penchant for cross-dressing—although there is a period in the early ’60s he’s noticeably quiet about—but because of something he said to me once. When I was about 4, one of my aunts gave me a two-sided Flip Wilson pull toy/doll. On one side was Wilson as Wilson and, on the other, was Wilson dressed as his famous ’70s character Jeraldine. When you pulled the string, it uttered Jeraldine’s catch phrase: “What you see is what you get!” My dad hated that thing and would say, “Why do they always want to put a black man in a dress?” My father understood that it was demeaning, insulting, and, most importantly, emasculating to parade black men around in women’s clothing for the sake of comedy. And he knew they knew it, too.

Even at a young age, I understood enough black-people shorthand to know “they” were white people, but I also knew that “they” didn’t have anything to do with the white people we knew. “They” weren’t Matt Carhart, the first kid I met in the first grade, who I stayed friends with until we went to different colleges, nor were “they” Mr. Maranto, my Cub, Webelo, and Boy Scout leader. No, the “they” my dad was talking about were shady, shadowy, powerful white men who we would never meet. Of course, now we all know he was talking about Dick Cheney.

The thing is, Cheney has a really full schedule. Between finishing work on the Death Star, facilitating the search for the One Ring to Rule Them All, and, uh, shooting people in the face with shotguns, I don’t know if he had time to send memos to Martin Lawrence and Tyler Perry instructing them to dress in drag. No, no, no—in 2006, this has nothing to do with The Man. Martin Lawrence is established enough that he certainly doesn’t have to put on a damn dress if he doesn’t want to, and I don’t think white people even knew who Tyler Perry was before a year ago, and he’s been wearing a dress for more than a decade, making googobs of money off of other black folks who enjoy seeing him in that dress. This ain’t Dick Cheney—this is all us.

And that’s where I am in my life. I went to see a remake of King fucking Kong, written and directed by a white man, and I have no real complaints, but I run smack dab into foolishness brought on by two black men. It left me so disillusioned and confused that I couldn’t help but think that, hopefully, it was all an elaborate plot by The Man. Hopefully.

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