So Jurassking About Reconstruction? On Dinos, Enslavement, and Society
In preparation for the June 2022 release of Jurassic Park: Dominion, advertisers have already been asking us: “Can humans and dinosaurs coexist?” While trying to build dramatic anticipation for the conclusion of the second Jurassic Park trilogy in which dinosaurs finally make landfall, the question reveals certain historical amnesia. Dinosaurs have been walking amongst us for over a century.
The Jurassic Park franchise straddles two different kinds of dino films: the cautionary science parable and the “lost world” adventure. The first are films in which dinosaurs return as a result of science and become an emblem for human hubris. The second is part of a much longer tradition of colonial adventure tales in which dinosaurs are “discovered” living in some unknown remote part of the world and represent The Untamed in need of civilizing and capitalizing order.
It’s a highly effective blend that reaches back to the early days of both film and paleontology at the turn of the 19th and early 20th centuries, in which a symbiotic relationship formed between the two; each using the other to showcase technical and scientific “progress.” Science used film to display the latest understandings in paleontological discovery while film strived to render these understandings as “realistically” and “authentically” as possible.
And in an astonishing triple pirouette of these ideas, it was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of Sherlock Holmes, who first put dinosaurs, cinema, and scientific exploration together when he released a trick film claiming it was found footage from the expedition at the center of his 1912 novella, The Lost World.
Only a few decades removed from the explosive evolutionary debates launched by the works of Lamarck, Darwin, and others in the 18th and 19th Centuries, the film offered a secular sense of the sublime in which the newly-made-radically-distant past could still be found in the present. Yet by the time the film was making its rounds, paleontologists, other scientists, philosophers, and businessmen were heavily invested in finding additional ways to prove themselves the pinnacle of any evolutionary course.
Despite being coterminous, most histories written about paleontology and scientific racism of the 19th and 20th Centuries rarely show their extensive overlap; the two branches of “science” had remarkably similar goals and “results.” Each naturalized a perceived existing biopolitical order. Paleontology sought to explain dinosaurs’ place in the evolution of life on earth and why the great giants were ultimately unfit to survive. Similarly, scientific racism sought to justify colonial regimes by defining an evolutionary path for social life from the “primitive” and unfit to the “civilized” and fittest societies.
Each used a unique combination of imagination and “data” to construct biological reasons for prehistoric and primitive “inefficiencies.” For a time, both devised phrenological explanations, citing headspace and form as evidence of evolutionary disfavor. In both the literature of racial science and paleontology, this leads the subjects of study to be given similar personality traits such as being ‘indolent,’ ‘stupid,’ ‘lumbering,’ ‘infantile,’ ‘gluttonous,’ and others.
No matter the particular trait being highlighted, the resounding conclusion was that the destruction of the dinosaurs and primitive societies, past and present, was inevitable. To the leading scientists of the day, dinosaurs and racial others sowed the seeds of their own destruction by not “improving,” “modernizing” or “adapting to,” their conditions.
Without doing so intentionally or explicitly, dinosaurs become raced in the white cultural imagination, especially as racist figures like the minstrel, noble savage, etc. become more and more abstracted during the neoliberal/neocolonial age. As it becomes less acceptable to present transparently racist characters/caricatures in mainstream media, there’s a shift towards a racialization of nonhuman entities to embody racial anxieties and ideologies. And this process is most clearly exposed as the seams of classical colonialism start to fray.
From the 1920s through the 1950s, lost world dinosaur films like The Lost World (1925/1960), The Land Unknown (1957), and The Valley of Gwangi (1969), depict the dinos as bumbling, clumsy, menacing, but conquerable; all in keeping with the latest science and colonial mindset. Yet by the same time former colonies were achieving independence during the 1960s-1990s, dinosaurs in science and films like When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970), The Land That Time Forgot (1974), King Kong (1976), Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend (1985) and Jurassic Park (1993) were more complex, powerful, rebellious, organized, and intelligent.
By the time we get to the later Jurassic Park films and especially into the Jurassic World trilogy which will complete next June, dinosaurs become even bigger emblems of neocolonial anxieties. While they’ve always been so, dinosaurs have come to embody the humbling anxiety that all great things, beast or empire, return to dust. While they’ve always represented this fear, it’s even more in the fore today.
But the most evident example of the dinosaur as an imaginary for racial anxieties comes from the persistent fear of their revolt. Since the Civil War in America in the late 19th Century through today’s post-Cold War global struggles for sovereignty, there’s been a massive dispersal of once-free labor. The anxiety is now not only how to keep it managed and productive, as it was in the classical colonial period, but additionally how this labor is going to be controlled and policed.
The trajectory in dinosaur films now is how to contain the “clever girls,” keep them docile and continue to profit off of them and their labor. Even the action figures and merchandising that result from these films help kids rehearse a mindset of surveillance and rebellion. (See 1993’s bizarre Prehysteria! for a literalization of this idea.)
This is not to say Jurassic Park, its creators, or its fans are racist. Rather, this has been an attempt to reconcile mutual histories of paleontology, racism, and cinema to show how dinosaur films are an active extension of our culture. They are the repositories of real-world conditions and ideas.
As the once enslaved dinosaurs reach America, we’re being asked if two differently racialized groups can coexist. This question has a prehistory of its own. America asked the same thing during the period of Reconstruction (1865-1877) after the Civil War. Following that history, which has been brought parallel to the history of dinosaurs, we know the answer will be a mournfully resounding ‘no.’
About B.L. Panther
B.L. Panther is a culture writer living in Chicago. A Pisces with an MA in Folklore, they are a regular contributor at TheSpool.net covering a wide range of topics including trans/queerness, camp, race, history, and anti-colonialism.