Reel Time

Donkey Kongs

Your film critic defends himself from charges of knee-jerk liberalism and racism.

So, here I am, scribbling away on reviews of The Producers (excruciating) and The Family Stone (not bad) and then comes this avalanche of e-mail: I have apparently been cited by Matt Drudge for mentioning  that King Kong has always had problematic racial overtones. My mail divides evenly between the wing nuts (“It just feels so darn good to battle racism—as long as its[sic] not anti-white racism, which is automatically translated into justice served—that you liberal types tend to see it everywhere”) and the indignant African Americans (“You see a monkey? And the next thing you think of is a black man?”).

Sorry to disappoint you, folks, but this didn’t originate with me. Yes, King Kong is a piece of entertainment, a fantasy, a movie (as some readers feel compelled to remind me), but it has often been viewed as an imperialist American parable: the arrival at an island of black “savages” who seize the white blonde; the capture of the gorilla who is brought in chains to America … Reviewing the remake in 1976 in TheNew Yorker, Pauline Kael acknowledged the racism charge while taking a somewhat anti-liberal contrarian line: “Whites have sometimes spoken of King Kong as a racial slur, but the black men that I’ve known have always loved it. It was their own special urban gorilla-guerrilla fantasy: to be a king in your own country, to be brought here in chains, to be so strong that you could roar your defiance at the top of the big city and go down in a burst of glory.”

In any case, stop with the abusive e-mails. It’s not my liberal or racist projection; it’s out there. And I can think of no other possible reason that Peter Jackson added an original and clunky subplot in which an African-American officer on the ship adopts and effectively tames a wild white boy. It’s his way of defusing the racial issue. And if that makes Jackson a knee-jerk liberal, well: E-mail him … 1:53 p.m. PT

Do some artists need to destroy themselves to create? It’s a dangerous myth—dangerous because it has an element of truth (alas). It’s certainly possible that Richard Pryor, who died on Saturday at the age of 65, would have overcome his self-doubts and self-loathing and flown as gloriously high without being, well, high. He would certainly have flown for longer distances and with fewer horrific collisions. But would he have burned (I use the term advisedly) as brightly?

I never saw Pryor live, but I saw Live in Concert (1979), his first stand-up feature, about 300 times. Today’s comedians are quipsters whose jokes have little in the way of a connecting thread and whose patter has been honed and rubbed and buffed to a mechanical perfection. Pryor certainly worked up his routines—his timing was gorgeous. But there was an element of menace, of live-wire-ness, that made you think of Lenny Bruce. You didn’t know where his free-associations might take him. Some of his bits were like séances, in which the spirits of African-American junkies and winos—people Pryor knew as a child, people he could have been, people he knew he could become—had a crack at the mike and could finally give voice to their rage and self-pity and delusions.

Many obituaries have cited Pryor’s early career in the accommodating Bill Cosby be-nice-to-whitey mode. It was when he began to speak to African-Americans that he became an object of worship—by blacks and whites. He had the audacity to show whites (especially white liberals) how they looked through a black man’s eyes—and, more important, how they sounded: whiny, unmusical, cringing, borderline insane. White people amused Pryor, and we loved to watch him laugh at us—not just because we were masochists, but because he showed us how far we still had to go.

Pryor exposed his demons without necessarily celebrating them. Well, he celebrated them, but he didn’t, if you’ll pardon the expression, whitewash them. He didn’t mind coming off as a crazy, self-centered asshole with too much freedom and power for his own good. “It’s hard to wake up and see the same person all the fucking time,” he said of his marriage in Live in Concert. “In the first year and a half, my wife thought her name was ‘White Honky Bitch.’ ” When he said on Saturday Night Live that the problem with women is that they don’t just leave you but they tell you why (“Don’t tell me why, bitch. Just leave”), he was basically saying there was no hope. He didn’t want to make it work. He didn’t want to grow up and be mellow and nice. And we didn’t want him to be, either.

We certainly didn’t want him to be the man he became in his movies—which squandered his gifts as badly as anything this side of Elvis Presley’s Clambake. After a thrilling start in the otherwise dire Silver Streak (watch the scene in which he poses as a servile train porter before pulling out a big gun and shoving it in the racist villain’s face), Pryor muffled his blowtorch rage and impersonated shaky, pushed-around little guys who’d manage to stand up for themselves after much humiliation. Not much later, Eddie Murphy would take the multiplexes by storm playing the kinds of characters that Pryor should have played—only Murphy had none of Pryor’s emotional honesty or capacity for self-criticism. He was Pryor reinvented as a combination little prince and cynical businessman.

I’m not an expert on multiple sclerosis—although in a recent interview I heard Teri Garr (who has a new book out about her life and her MS) speculate on the ways in which a physical trauma might have brought on and exacerbated her disease. Certainly being burned to a crisp by an exploding crack pipe didn’t help Pryor’s health. In later years, he had the look of a man who’d brought calamity on himself. No one missed the irony that this cock of the walk who’d once strutted around the stage exulting in his misogyny was now dependent on the kindness of wives and ex-wives. It was payback time.

Pryor-the-artist used Pryor-the-man as a character, and there’s no telling how much the latter acted up to make kindling for the former. God, I wish he’d found a middle ground—a design for creating and living. But what other comedian could have embodied the freebasing pipe that nearly did him in, the pipe that in Live on the Sunset Strip speaks in the consoling tones of the mother he never had? “Rich, me and you are gonna hang out in this room today… I understand, Rich. It’s your life. Where were they when you needed them?” We should lament the demons that engulfed Richard Pryor, but celebrate the exquisite madness—and the genius—it took to yank them into the light.

Update (12/16/06): A few readers have noted that Pryor’s near-death experience might have been a suicide attempt and not an accident–at least, that’s the scenario he presents in his (awful) auto-biopic Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling. And yes, he was freebasing, not smoking crack. … 3:46 a.m. PT