From Savagery to Shark Week: Tracing The Lineage Of Black Humanity On Screen
Photo Credit: S & A
Film , Opinion , Television

From Savagery to Shark Week: Tracing The Lineage Of Black Humanity On Screen

Shark Week kicked off Sunday, July 22, for the 30th year in a row. While many people are excited to see their predator pals take over the Discovery Channel for the next few days, celebrities like Shaquille O’Neal and Daymond John seem especially poised for shark-related fun. Coincidentally, Shaq had a show called ‘Shaq-Tank’ where he listened to the 30-second pitches of a few lucky entrepreneurs.

While we celebrate the progress that has been made with black people and the animal world onscreen, we would like to remember how not so long ago, black people were themselves considered the animal, being cast in less-than-human situations, especially on the screen. In a time where black lives are violated and many times ended at a disproportionate rate at the hands of people who said ‘fear’ was the driving factor behind their use of force, it is vital to remember the long history of media weaponized to fuel such ‘fears’ in the first place. 

Over the past century, in particular, there has been a noticeable difference in the way the media characterizes black people. From films like Dumbo where black people were depicted as crows and voiced by white actors, to more modern depictions like Samuel L. Jackson playing an expert, though he is abruptly eaten alive, in Deep Blue Sea, or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as a primatologist in Rampage. Outside the big screens, a change has occurred, as well, with real-life animal specialists creating content like Mike Holston aka The Real Tarzann and Kelvin Pena and his beloved deer.  

Regarding the offensive side of things, one of the most noteworthy portrayals of black people relegated to the animal kingdom on film is in the imagery and plot of King Kong. Though the creator, Merian C. Cooper, says that he had no racist intentions in the original storytelling, the essence of the film closely reflects the Transatlantic Slave Trade and xenophobia–the fear or dislike of the customs of people who are culturally different than oneself. In the original 1933 film, a crew of white men and an attractive white woman come to a distant island where black “savage” residents/jungle people worshipped a large black ape. The colonizers, I mean white film crew, steal the beast in chains, bring it back to the United States and put it on display for amusement. The gorilla breaks free, pursues and captures the white woman and is killed by warplanes.

These implications seem too close to the way West Africans were enslaved and brought to the Americas for profit, let alone the depiction of the native peoples as savage and wayward ‘jungle people.’ Further, King Kong’s coveting of the white woman is too close to how black men were seen as having a strong desire for white women and being killed for it anytime someone thought they did. Though some may say the similarities are far-fetched and the film is fantasy, this is not a singular incident. And it mirrored a recent reality in the 1900s. In 1906, the Bronx Zoo put Ota Benga, a 23-year-old Mbuti man, on display in the Monkey House. This is just a footnote in the long history of people of African descent being compared to apes.

Another infamous example of black people being portrayed as animals is in the original Dumbo, where the ‘crows,’ evoke minstrel show stereotypes. They all talked in an affected vernacular of Southern black people, smoked cigars, and the head crow was named ‘Jim Crow.’ Of course, they were all voiced by white actors.

Other examples of these kinds of offenses include ‘‘King Louie,” the orangutan from the 1967 cartoon The Jungle Book, and some scholars even argue Black Panther. “King Louie’s” character is said to be a poor reflection of famed jazz musician Louis Armstrong and is also played by a white actor. Further, doctorate candidate Alease A. Brown of The Conversation says that while original superheroes like Thor, The Hulk and Iron Man were ‘superhuman’ or related to “an insect-like Ant-Man or The Wasp,” Marvel’s first black character was also the first to be related to an animal. This parallel is tenuous, but it does seem to be in line with a clear obsession by white media makers to link those from the continent with the beastly or ‘animal-like’ natures. 

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Source: Disney

Scientific studies have shown that prejudice is significantly affected by what individuals see on television. It’s essential then that black people are not seen as beasts that need to be controlled or policed in their everyday lives. Continuing to highlight black veterinarians like Dr. Diarra Blue, Dr. Aubrey Ross and Dr. Michael Lavigne of The Vet Life on Animal Planet and the up and coming YouTube ‘animal loving’ stars we mentioned earlier, helps to normalize the perception of black people as ordinary human beings.

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We celebrate those taking action to change the narrative of animalization of people of color forever.

Shadow and Act is a website dedicated to cinema, television and web content of Africa and its global Diaspora. With daily news, interviews, in-depth investigations into the audiovisual industry, and more, Shadow and Act promotes content created by and about people of African descent throughout the world.

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