Based on a book by the same name, Congo is an action-adventure film that came out all the way back in 1995. The book was written by Michael Crichton, the same author who wrote Jurassic Park. And like Jurassic Park’s movie counterpart, the Congo movie was brought to life by Steven Spielberg. What I have to say about Congo is that I love this movie. It was one of my favorite movies growing up, and having rewatched it recently, I can most certainly say that it still holds up for me as an adult as well.
To be honest, I’ve wanted to talk about this movie for a long time, but I’ve kept putting it off. Congo sits right on the edge of what we consider wheelhouse, and telling Luce and Syng all about it, none of us could come up with a clear consensus about whether or not it’s appropriate to review it on this blog. At its core, Congo is nothing more than an action-adventure film—at the same time, however, the movie also has laser guns powered by diamonds, legendary ancient cities, and mythological killer apes. By 1995’s standards, the movie could definitely have been considered sci-fi-ish. Nowadays, our technology makes the scientific advancements in the movie seem significantly less impressive. Eventually, I did decide that yes, the killer apes and the laser gun do make Congo wheelhouse, even if they don’t really come in until the third act.
I don’t know why I loved this movie so much as a child. When I was eight, the killer apes terrified me into thinking Congo was a horror film—but I’m glad I enjoyed it enough to revisit it, because this movie deserves all the praise. Congo begins with an expedition team for a company called TraviCom hanging out in the Congo and looking for diamonds that they can use to power some new laser communication. While there, two members discover the ruins of a lost city near a volcano. One of them goes inside to explore while the other, Charles, hangs out on the city’s front steps. It’s not long before something is amiss. After the one employee goes inside, something throws his eyeball out at Charles.
TraviCom loses communication with the entire expedition team after this and decides to send Karen Ross, a former CIA operative and Charles’s fiancée, out to investigate. Karen decides to fund another man, Dr. Peter Elliot, heading to the Congo to use as a cover for her journey. Elliot is a primatologist with a pet gorilla named Amy, to whom he taught sign language. Recently, Amy has been having nightmares and painting scary pictures of a giant eye in the forest—the lost city Charles discovered is recognizable by a giant carving of an eye—and he thinks the best way to help Amy is to take her home. Joining Karen and Elliot on their journey and acting as a tour guide and translator who knows how to not get everyone killed is Captain Munro Kelly, the “Great White Hunter”, except as he puts it, he “happens to be Black”.
Who would have ever thought that a movie taking place mostly in the Republic of Zaire, now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo, would actually feature Black cast members? And Congo has a lot of cast members—while out of our three main characters, two are white—most of the actors for the expedition team to find Charles are Black. Congo has diversity issues in that Karen is the only woman in the cast, and the refusal to acknowledge that women of color even exist is most certainly a problem, especially in a movie that literally takes place in Africa. Women did exist over there back in 1995. For the people on the expedition, only our three main characters and Amy both survive the journey to the city and the encounter with the killer apes. Despite the fact that most of the Black cast is fodder for the gorillas, Congo does not hesitate to call out racism and microaggressions. People laugh when they find out that Munro is in charge of the group, because he’s Black.
Karen: Why are they laughing?
Munro: They asked who was in charge. I said I was.
Karen: What’s so funny about that?
Munro: I’m Black. I should have luggage on my head.
The rest of the expedition team also has to put up with people making assumptions about their homes and what life is and is not like in Africa.
Richard: So do you speak English?
Richard: What’s your name?
Richard: Claude? That’s an unusual name for somebody from… um… where are you from?
Richard: Umbasa? Wow. That’s an unusual name for somebody from Umbasa.
Claude: Have you ever been to Umbasa?
Richard: Uh… no.
Claude: Then what do you know about it?
Re-watching the movie, I can say that Munro’s reactions to the racism more often than not have a justified “stupid white people” vibe to it—he takes everything in stride, doesn’t put up with it, and more or less seems to deal with the problem by finding amusement in the fact that people believe certain stereotypes. The racism is so ingrained that a good number of times, it’s perpetuated by other Black people. The people who laugh at Munro being in charge are Black people, and not only that, they’re tribesmen who live mostly cut off from the rest of civilization. As I have never been to any part of Africa, I can’t say for certain how realistic the internalized racism is, or even if the characters are saying something racist—many of the side characters don’t speak English and we have to rely on Munro translating for Karen, Elliot, and the audience. What I will say is that the use of microaggressions do add a certain feel to the movie. Seeing everyone react, whether with anger or amusement to hide their uncomfortable feelings, does add to the characterization and humanizes what could otherwise be a very stereotypical view of Africa.
The movie takes place in 1995, and while at the time Zaire was more or less unaffected by the Rwanda Civil War and the genocide in 1994, tensions between the two were on the rise. Our characters don’t first arrive to Africa in Zaire, and instead have to cross over the border—in the background, there are exploding cars, revolts, and many areas are militarized. It easily falls into the “foreign things that scare white people” category, even if the movie avoids the “Africa is one monolithic country” trope in the process. While the portrayal in the movie may be realistic, there’s not much Congo could have done to subvert this message and othering of African countries outside of developing its Black characters and showing the different ways they deal with outside perceptions. It’s hard for me to say whether or not Congo truly succeeded here—if you have experience with either the culture or history of Zaire, please chime in!
Race issues aside, I was fairly impressed with Karen and Elliot. Munro figures out pretty quickly that Karen has an ulterior motive for helping Elliot and Amy, and it’s not often that we get to see a woman driven by rescuing a male character instead of the other way around. Karen only goes on the expedition to find Charles. However, her boss, Charles’s father, sends her because he wants the diamonds for his company. Karen tells him that she’ll make him sorry for that, and at the end of the movie, after she discovers Charles dead, finds the laser, and murders a bunch of killer apes with it, she then uses it to destroy the TraviCom satellite. It was also kind of nice to see a female character be the one to save the day. Elliot would not have survived any part of this journey without either her or Munro there to rescue him.
Elliot is not what we typically see in a male protagonist. Karen is the character who is out of touch with her emotions, bottles everything up, and is prone to taking charge. Elliot is not any of those things. He doesn’t command authority the way Karen and Munro do; he doesn’t know how to take care of himself. His character is driven by compassion for others—the whole reason he goes to the Congo is for Amy’s sake, because he wants to do what’s right by her. Even then, it’s hard to imagine what he’s going to do with himself once he gets Amy home and then returns to the States, since his character is mostly defined by his relationship to her.
I would not say Congo is a perfect movie, but for something that came out more than twenty years ago and got so many things right, it leaves me to question why movies nowadays can’t. If you have never seen Congo, be sure to check it out. The movie is a lot of fun and I’ve loved it ever since it first came out.