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Race Hustling: How Samuel L. Jackson Complicates Racial Issues in Genre Films

Kong: Skull Island burst its way into multiplexes to usher out this past winter, presenting tons of movie monster bombast and over-the-waterfall-and-through-the-rocks action thrills meant for 3D.

The movie, a prequel to the 2014 Godzilla set at the end of the Vietnam War, doesn’t waste time getting us to Kong, either.

A military-escorted group of scientists arrive at Skull Island in a company of helicopters. They then begin dropping depth charges during a survey, which unsuspectingly draws out Kong. Enraged, the giant gorilla smashes several copters, kills a dozen men in creatively shot, spectacular fashion.

The commanding officer’s helicopter is struck and goes down. That officer, Lt. Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), survives and wreck and stands in hateful awe of the raging beast.

The camera locks onto Kong’s eyes, then cuts to a close-up of Packard’s eyes. The film locks onto Kong and Packard’s eyes a second time, during the third act, when Packard tries to kill Kong and avenge the deaths of his men.

In these moments, Kong: Skull Island connects Kong and Packard, as combative beings whose intentions of protection through warfare are seen as atrocity.

Or, to put it bluntly, the camera work equates Jackson, a black man, with an ape.

Hand, meet forehead.

But hey, it wouldn’t be a King Kong movie without questionable racial stuff thrown in the mix, right? We also get a tribe of silent Pacific Islanders, a shipwrecked white soldier (John C. Reilly) using a katana blade presumably left to him by his deceased Japanese foe-turned-friend, and a pair of woke white protagonists (Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson) trying to save Kong from the bad black man.

And that black man? He’s as savage as the giant ape, but for evil.

At least Kong: Skull Island tries to balance this out by having a black man and Asian woman on the side of the good guys, as part of the group of monster-hunting scientists.

None of this casually racist stuff detracts from the movie, which is big and dumb and generally lazy in its use of archetypes. (The lead female character is an empathetic photographer? The lead male character is a tracker hardened by loss? Woof.)

It doesn’t really distract from Jackson’s performance, either. He’s good in the role. But then why wouldn’t be he? He’s Samuel L. Jackson.

At the very least, it’s another in a trend of genre films in which the white male protagonist saves the day against an army of foes made up of people of color and women (or both).

And Samuel L. Jackson has been in the middle of this trend.

Think of the 2014 film Kingsman: The Secret Service, based on the Mark Millar/Dave Gibbons comic book series The Secret Service. The big bad in the story is a billionaire cellphone entrepreneur who plans to save the planet from global warming by killing off most of humanity through satellite-assisted mind control. But not before he abducts his favorite sci-fi celebrities such as Mark Hammill and Patrick Stewart.

Add to this how insecure this technocrat is about impressing his model-hot girlfriend, Ambrosia Chase, who’s only with Arnold for his money.

In the comic book, Gibbons draws Arnold as a nerdy-looking white man, with bad haircut, glasses, a cable turtleneck sweater. In other words, exactly as you’d expect the character to look.

But when it’s time for the movie, Arnold is renamed Richmond Valentine. For the role, Jackson is dressed in sweatsuits, popped collars, ballcaps turned sideways, and apparently his own eyeglasses. And he’s got a lisp! It’s more Russell Simmons than Bill Gates.

None of it appears to inform the character. He’s a collection of costume pieces and swagger. But, really, who cares? Jackson is having a hell of a time because he knows this is a cartoon and is playing it as such.

However, because of the VIPs Valentine has decided to keep, including most world leaders, it feels like he’s not remaking the world into something else, but doing a smaller version of the same world. Why would he, a black man, mastermind such a thorough replication of the system? It just doesn’t feel genuine.

Then add to it how Eggsy goes from Eminem street youth to learning upper-crust, WASPy refinement, to take on a black man and a fatally handi-capable woman with razor-sharp prosthetic running blades. (Coincidentally, the woman is Algerian-French actress Sophia Boutella, who wore alien makeup in Star Trek Beyond and will threaten white good guy Tom Cruise in the relaunch of The Mummy coming this summer.)

Or, take Jackson in the remake of RoboCop. He plays right-wing talk show bloviator Pat Novak, who is used ot frame the film. But Jackson, in his peak-lapeled suits, straightened hair and rah-rah-America diatribes, basically is playing Bill O’Reilly.

The wig really sets it off. Jackson looks like he’s in some kind of racial drag. It may as well be Chappelle’s Show. (Which is ironic, in that Chappelle’s caricature of a white man’s speaking voice is as good as it gets.) Ultimately, it’s distracting that Jackson is playing this role, because it’s Bill O’Reilly.

And no matter what you say, I can’t buy Sam Jackson as Bill O’Reilly.

Jackson of late appears glad to step all over racially problematic and complicated roles in genre films, and that includes when it’s a role made for a black actor.

We have Jackson’s work with Quentin Tarantino – a man often accused of exploiting racial stuff though his liberal use of nigger and nigga in his screenplays – as proof.

In Tarantino’s 2012 blaxploitation Western Django Unchained, there’s a perverse thrill to seeing the unapologetically black Jackson play Stephen, a house slave of main villain Calvin Candie. Jackson plays Stephen with shifty-eyed, condescendingly vicious, self-abasing fervor while looking like Uncle Ben fresh off the box of rice.

Sure, Django Unchained is the same film in which a runaway slave shoots a master’s entire family and burns his plantation big house to the ground, all in the name of rescuing his wife. However, Django spends most of the film acting as sidekick to the slavery-hating Dr. King Schultz, who comes off as more heroic in the film. Even the black hero has a white hero.

Tarantino and Jackson teamed up again in The Hateful Eight, another Western mixed with a murder mystery. Jackson, who plays former Union soldier and current bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren, is centered in the film’s most talked-about scene. Warren gives a monologue toward General Sanford “Sandy” Smithers (Bruce Dern), an old, proud Confederate veteran, about how he killed Smithers’ son Chester for head hunting black folk after the war.

But first, Warren says, he forced a pleading Chester to strip completely naked at gun point in the cold Wyoming mountains and walk several miles in the snow before Warren forced him to perform oral sex. Warren lavishes over each graphic detail, making sure to note his “warm black dingus” while the scene is intercut with a flashback.

As transgressively bold as this monologue sets itself up to be, am I really supposed to be rooting for sexual violence as payback? This ends up being another episode in fear of a black penis. Sexualized violence, a frequent item in Tarantino films, again meets white America’s torturous, fearful relationship with black masculinity.

And even though Tarantino is turning upside down the great American rape myth, which launched The Birth of a Nation and countless lynchings, we’re still left with a threatening black penis.

Oh well.

Kong: Skull Island wasn’t Jackson’s only foray into the jungle this past year. He also played a supporting role in The Legend of Tarzan as the real-life historical figure George Washington Williams.

Williams was a former soldier and preacher who found his niche as a journalist and writer on African-American history. Born in Pennsylvania, Williams ventured to Africa and wrote on the atrocities associated with the enslavement of the Congolese people under Belgian King Leopold II’s orders to supply rubber.

It’s great that a big Hollywood movie decided to expose its audience to George Washington Williams’ bravery and Leopold’s atrocities – two things likely not well known these days. “I was able to portray a real life character who actually went to the Congo and exposed King Leopold,” Jackson said at the premiere. “I think that’s important for us as a people to understand.”

However, when you know Williams’ biography, the fact that he is wedged into a Tarzan movie, playing sidekick to a white man supposedly more African than the black man helping him, is sorta insulting, right? Shouldn’t George Washington Williams get his own movie?

Jackson is enjoying himself, getting paid to perform in the kinds of action-adventure fantasy films that would have captivated him as a child: spy thrillers, giant monsters, cowboys, ape-men and cyborgs.

“It’s like I say, sometimes I just do movies that I would’ve gone to see when I was a kid,” he told Vibe magazine when promoting Tarzan.

If anything, Jackson’s presence complicates much of the casual racism baked into these genres. Whether it’s enough, I don’t really know.

At least he is entertaining.

He is Samuel L. Jackson, after all.

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