Popular cinema as a form of racial rearticulation

After the civil rights reforms of the 60s and legislation of the 70s, overt political efforts to maintain white supremacy and enforce racist discrimination were harder to sustain. A new strategy that “would recast themes of racial equality and justice in ways that would serve to rationalize and reinforce persistent patterns of racial inequality” was required.[19] [open endnotes in new window] These kinds of strategies need to be advanced not solely in a political forum, but in the media and popular culture. Whatever the cultural intentions behind the first two films in the original Planet of the Apes franchise (1968-1973), the later films, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and Battle for the Planet of the Apes, in their expression of virulent race paranoia can be seen to be part of such a reactionary strategy as they clearly work to raise questions in the minds of white U.S. viewers about their post-civil rights future. Michael Omi and Howard Winant argue that the ideology and politics of the new right and neo-conservatism stem directly from “the new social movements of the 1960s, and both were centrally concerned with defining the limits of racial democracy” (190). If the films of the earlier franchise function as a reactionary racial project, then the films of the new franchise operate as a form of racial rearticulation, which redirect the animus inherent in the history of black/white relations through species antagonism and “scary” science all the while signaling to segments of a white audience the potential racial threat before them. Historically,

“rearticulation proved far more effective than repression in containing the radical thrust of the black movement, and of its allied movements as well” (255).

The current reboot of the original franchise, centered on bioengineering and species antagonism, attempts to mask, in our so-called post-racial, colorblind society, that racial hierarchies are maintained over time by rearticulating the racist ideologies of previous decades. As Kellner has argued,

“Hollywood cinema can be read as a contest of representations and a contested terrain that reproduces existing social struggles and transcodes the political discourses of the era.”

Thus prevailing sociopolitical movements or struggles get “translated, or encoded” in fictional form as means of both reproducing and contesting dominant ideologies (Kellner 2, 39). Because the phrase “planet of the apes” has entered reactionary racist discourse as a shorthand for racial apocalypse” (Greene 177), and because it has been used widely in the media to describe the United States under the presidency of Barack Obama, we do well to question the ideology behind the reboot and the political and social implications of its timing and of its success.

In interviews about Rise and Dawn, screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, make clear that they had every intention of following the plot of the original films, where the apes come to rule the Earth. They asked themselves

“What’s going on in our world today, that if the right dominoes were to line up, touch each other, it could lead to apes taking over the planet and, perhaps, getting Colonel Taylor on that beach in thirty-nine hundred years?”[21]

It seems apparent that in Rise, the first installment, they determined the right dominoes were to be found in science, specifically in bioengineering and the threat of talking, intelligent apes. And the film certainly draws out in dramatic cinematic fashion the potential implications for our species of an “other” empowered by genetic manipulation. Had the writers and directors remained within the narrative of threatening science, we might not find quite as trenchant a racial subtext, but Rise’s dramatic climax is one of violent confrontation between unarmed, though nevertheless menacing, apes and police, a plot which Dawn draws out and enhances in its narrative of guns and violence and a thinly veiled metaphor about “power.” The tipping point now, as in 1965, seems to be violent confrontation between whites and blacks, leading us right back to the racial tensions that inspired the original franchise. In 1972 the ape liberation scene in Conquest borrowed heavily from the urban uprisings of Watts[22] and later riots in Boston, Chicago, Detroit, and elsewhere (Greene 80). In 2011 Rise’s climactic confrontation on the Golden Gate Bridge between the apes and the police along with the scenes of destruction and mayhem in the city that precede it calls to mind the unrest in LA in 1992, after the acquittal of four white police officers in the severe beating of black motorist Rodney King.

Goin’ wild in the penile

When Charlton Heston’s George Taylor is taken into captivity by the apes in Planet of the Apes, he is beaten and abused. Perceived as lesser because human, Taylor is robbed of his white hegemonic patriarchal power. Exposing the mechanics of institutionalized racism, the early film essentializes the humans in ways that mirror racist ideologies historically used to subjugate African Americans. The apes consider the humans to be dumb beasts with communicable diseases, to all look alike, and to be “natural born thieves.” In doing so, the film taps into “a long-standing fear among whites in the United States of an ‘exchange of situation,’ a loss of racial dominance” (Greene 25).

In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar’s aggressive, albeit protective, response to the neighbor who attacked Charles results in him being sent to a “primate shelter.” This Caesar’s journey clearly follows that of Caesar in the original franchise in that both apes, endowed with intelligence and speech, infiltrate the subordinated ape population, emancipate them and lead them in revolution against their human oppressors. Interestingly, Rise also draws parallels between Taylor and Caesar. And like Taylor, Caesar is considered a dumb beast by his cruel human jailors and is harassed and hosed by one particularly vindictive “prison” guard. Like Taylor who was rendered temporarily mute, Caesar does not speak at first. Both captives utter their first words under extreme duress and in doing so mark the beginning of their separation from their “kind.” What’s different is how the two series frame these two parallel themes and the different resonance of each when race and racial context is taken into account.

In Planet, when Taylor attempts to escape his captors, he is ruthlessly pursued, pelted, whipped, roped and dragged by a horse, and ultimately hung up by the apes. When they go to cut him down, he speaks to the apes for the first time, delivering the famous comeback, “Get your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!” Arguably, one of the most famous movie lines of all time, the rebuke strikes a chord with a white audience because it seems to affirm what has been obscured all along: the blatant (stinking, dirty) bestiality of the apes and their incredible overreach in attempting to usurp human power. Although Taylor remains captive, undergoes a rigged trial and eventually escapes again, he has the moral high-ground. While the film sets out to analogize the human’s experience under ape rule with African American experiences under white rule, it only reinforces the superiority of whiteness, thus providing tacit justification of racial oppression.

This position is echoed in Rise, where it’s the evil Dodge Landon (in a curious amalgamation of the names of Taylor’s fellow astronauts) who utters the iconic “dirty ape” line to Caesar, and the captive angrily rages out his first word, “No!”[23] While I think it’s probably the case that most viewers sympathize with Caesar at this moment, the riot that ensues when the apes are freed implies a lurking danger as the riot culminates in Caesar’s electrocution of Landon, and the apes’ violent confrontation with the police on the San Francisco bridge It is Dodge Landon (Tom Felton), also, who utters Taylor’s other famous line, “It’s a madhouse!” when the apes first reject the newly incarcerated Caesar. By giving the hero Taylor’s lines to the evil antagonist, Rise betrays the ambivalent racial message of Planet, evoking white sympathy along with white fear.

The racial reversal works for the most part in Planet because there is something obviously incongruous about humans being jailed by apes. Heston’s Taylor always seem out of place and ready to right the wrong that deprives him of his liberty. This incongruity is supposed to force the viewer to see the treatment of African Americans as equally arbitrary and dehumanizing, because it “imput[es] to white humans, through the use of one of Hollywood’s favorite symbols of specifically white humanity [Heston], the very animalistic qualities usually ascribed to non-whites” (Greene 45-6). The same cannot be said of the jailed apes in Rise. Indeed, there is something all too familiar about these prisoners.

When Caesar is apprehended after committing his “crime,” he is transported to the shelter in a paddy wagon and dragged by the neck into the facility. Caesar’s difference from the other apes is obvious. He is dressed in jeans and a sweater, making him appear more man than beast, and he is able to communicate with Will by signing. Will and his girlfriend Caroline (Freida Pinto) are reluctant to leave him, but John Landon (Brian Cox), the manager of the shelter, assures Will that they’ll “integrate him.” Dazzled at first by the mural of the fake outdoors on the wall and the extensive tree-like jungle gym, Caesar, having heeded Will’s command to “trust me,” asks permission to explore his new surroundings. Too late, Caesar realizes the illusion and so begins his institutionalization. Slowly and painfully, Caesar is forced to recognize his true place in the world. And like a slave who must feign ignorance so as not to provoke his master, Maurice reminds him to be “Careful. Human no like smart ape.” Harassed and taunted by inmates and jailors alike, Caesar throws off his “white mask” and embraces his “black skin,” eventually becoming the alpha of the other apes.

Though technically an animal shelter, the mise-en-scene is carefully crafted to resemble a prison, with rows of cages in which faces are pressed to the bars. The fact that the inmates, except for Maurice the Orangutan, are dark furred and the jailors are white and employ classic prison control techniques all work to cement the association of apes and blacks and to naturalize the incarceration of African American men. Shot with low lighting and in medium close-up, the apes are vicious and menacing to Caesar; in a frenzy, they pound their cages and screech at him. The jailors call the apes “stupid monkeys” and “lazy baboons,” epithets that are technically appropriate in this instance, but operate as racial slurs when the themes of the film and its history is taken into account.

Michelle Alexander has argued the mass incarceration of black people in the second half of the twentieth century has operated culturally as a form of racial control. Though committing crimes at the same rate as whites, in the United States, black men are imprisoned at rates twenty to fifty times greater than those of white men.[24]

“[M]ass incarceration defines the meaning of blackness in America: black people, especially black men, are criminals. That is what it means to be black” (197).

When Will finally arrives to release Caesar, recognizing the captivity of his fellow inmates, Caesar refuses to accompany him. Seeing this, the “warden,” Landon, muses: “I guess he likes it better here with his own kind.” The species difference that Landon observes is layered over by the other formal and narrative elements which racialize the prison and Caesar’s experience there, seemingly pointing to the inevitability of the incarceration of Caesar and his “kind.” In this way, Rise endorses and indeed participates on a cultural level in the “tightly networked system of laws, policies, customs, and institutions that operate collectively to ensure the subordinate status of a group defined largely by race” (Alexander 13).

From Watts to L.A. to Ferguson to Baltimore …

Just as the narrative arc of the original movies reveals, white anxiety about blackness stems from the fear that the evils visited on the slave will be returned on the master. Rise exploits this fear, depicting intellectually advanced apes escaping “prison,” destroying property, killing police, and overtaking the city. In 2011, when Rise airs, the “Rodney King riots” were the most recent consequential episode of violence stemming from racist police practice and a judiciary which exonerated white cops.[25] But by 2014, when Dawn airs, the people in the United States find themselves in a time of racial tension and violence not seen since the 60s.[26] The days and months following the release of Dawn in July 2014 marked a flash point in what would become (and continues to be as of this writing in 2017) an epidemic of white police officers killing African Americans and largely being acquitted for their actions.

A study in 2015 revealed that young black men die at the hands of police officers at five times the rate that white men do.

“Despite making up only 2% of the population, African American males between the ages of 15 and 34 comprised more than 15% of all deaths logged this year [2015] by an ongoing investigation into the use of deadly force by police.”[27]

Just six days after the release of Dawn on July 11 2014, on Staten Island, NY, 43-year-old African American Eric Garner was arrested for selling loose cigarettes. A white police officer, Daniel Pantaleo, applied a fatal chokehold to Garner, despite the fact that that form of restraint is prohibited by police departments in the state of New York. Although the medical examiner declared Garner’s death a homicide, a grand jury decided not to indict Pantaleo. Then, on August 9, 2014, just 29 days after Dawn’s release, with racial tensions still high, Michael Brown, an 18-year-old unarmed black man, was fatally shot on the street in Ferguson, Missouri by police officer Darren Wilson, who believed Brown to be a robbery suspect. Eye witnesses at the scene report Brown to have raised his arms in surrender when he was shot six times by Wilson, though other witnesses claim Brown was running towards Wilson when shot.[28] Brown’s body was left in the street uncovered for four hours, drawing a number of local residents to hold a vigil and erect makeshift memorials to Brown.

The following day, protests erupted prompting a heavily militarized police presence involving riot gear, tear gas, and rubber bullets being sprayed into crowds of protestors. The Ferguson uprising lasted for two weeks, resulting in the Missouri Governor calling for a State of Emergency, the implementation of curfews, and, ultimately, on August 18, the calling in of the National Guard. An armed police response of this scale had not been seen since Watts, which occurring from August 11-16, 1965, was almost exactly 49 years before.

As a result of an investigation into the nature of policing in Ferguson, the Justice Department issued a report in March of 2015 detailing the unfair and unequal treatment of African Americans by Ferguson police, observing that the department’s leadership fueled a culture of “explicit racial bias.”[29] To further inflame tensions, on November 22nd 2014, just four months after Dawn’s release, a 12-year-old African American boy, Tamir Rice, was killed by police for possession of a pellet gun that was assumed to be a pistol. In a December 2015 Gallup poll, 13 percent of people in the United States cited race relations and racism as the most significant problem facing the country, the greatest percentage to do so in a poll since the 1960s.[30]

Media spectacle and trauma

In his examination of the role played by Hollywood in supporting and contesting the actions and policies of the Bush-Cheney administration and its “war on terror,” Kellner argues that the media reporting of the attack on the World Trade Center on 9/11, which was repeatedly replayed in 24-hour news cycles, had not only a material effect, but also produced a psychic effect on the U.S. populace, “traumatizing a nation with fear” (Kellner 100). In their wall-to-wall coverage of traumatic events like 9/11, media outlets turn historical events into “powerful media spectacles” which “shape social memory” (98). A similar dynamic can be seen to be at work in the media coverage of the unrest in Ferguson after the killing of Michael Brown, as well as those occurring in Baltimore, following the death in police custody of Freddie Gray, and the subsequent other scenes of protest and violent clashes between police and protestors/rioters erupting around the country. Analysts from outlets on both the progressive and conservative side have weighed in on the role the media played in perpetuating specific accounts related to Ferguson. While they tend to disagree about the nature of that narrative, most pundits agree that the media’s insatiable drive for ratings skewed the story and inflamed racial tensions. Thus, conservative sources suggested that a “false media narrative” perpetuated the “Hands up, Don’t shoot!” account (referring to initial reports that Brown was surrendering to Wilson when he was shot),[31] and more progressive analysts suggested that the media was quick to criminalize Michael Brown’s past and thus provide justification for his death.[32]

Scenes of burning cars, crazed looters, aggressive militant police, and body after black body shoved against police cars, hands behind backs or atop heads saturated our screens and cemented the polarity of racial views already entrenched in the United States. You only have to scan Twitter or the comment section of any news story to see how the overrepresentation of “black crime,” as well as the depiction of “black violence” fuels bias and forestalls legitimate consideration of its causes, and instead perpetuates stereotypes about African Americans.[33] As conservative radio talk show host Laura Ingraham demonstrated on Twitter when reacting to inflammatory images of rioters played on never ending loop on Fox news, “No fathers, no male role models, no discipline, no jobs, no values=no sense of right and wrong. #Family #Character.”[34]

Kellner suggests,

“Spectacles of terror use dramatic images and narrative to catch attention, and intended thereby to catalyze unanticipated events that will spread further terror through domestic populations” (Kellner 99-100).

Whereas the media spectacle of 9/11 traumatized and galvanized the populace as a whole, inspiring Americans to support the “war on terror” through overt appeals to patriotism and a ceding of their personal liberty to the government, the media spectacle around Ferguson and Baltimore has had a divisive effect in the United States. Indeed, the nature of the “terror” produced in these media images differs according to the population watching. To a black audience, continual reports of police shooting and killing unarmed black people further reinforces a reality they already know to be true. However, the daily repetition of that story, in whatever city, in conjunction with the endless video of black men shouting, “Don’t shoot, don’t shoot,” right before being shot, and the ongoing fact of police acquittal, can produce anger in addition to a very real fear that the agencies entrusted with guarding their civil liberties will no longer do so. If a citizen cannot seek redress for oppression from the government or the judiciary, our democracy is indeed in tatters. To a black viewer, then, the media spectacle might produce a sense of disenfranchisement, despair, and racial isolation.[35] A white viewer can also be manipulated by these media spectacles, but rather than experiencing fear or isolation, some will find their racist views affirmed and justified.

Because “popular media shape social memory and perceptions of the recent past and present that are still alive in the political discourse and struggles of the day” (Kellner 98), the media spectacle of race riots and lootings conjure up and redeploy narratives of the “scary black man” seething with violence and revenge against whites for enslavement. Regardless of the viewer’s perspective, the perpetual reiteration of the racial spectacles of Ferguson and Baltimore produce a psychic effect similar to that experienced after 9/11.

“These made-for-media events become global spectacles that create fearful populations more likely to be manipulated by reactionary forces who give simplistic answers to contemporary anxiety and problems” (Kellner, 100).

In this case, the media’s continued sensationalized coverage of the violence in Ferguson and Baltimore works to construct and reinforce the racial polarization of the nation, making us more susceptible to divisive political ideologies.

Hollywood, for its part, capitalizes on media spectacles by reproducing traumatic imagery and shaping audience response to it. Films therefore have the capacity to “construc[t] individuals’ views of history and contemporary reality” (Kellner, 98). The writers and producers of Dawn likely could not have predicted that their film would be released in an environment of extreme racial violence. But the social, political, and cultural context of a film always informs its reception. And the context surrounding this film was one of extreme racial division, an environment where legitimate calls for checks on police brutality against African Americans resulted in “Blue Lives” being pitted against “Black Lives.” Because “cultural products work by accessing our cultural memories” (Greene 89) and because most viewers of the film were likely to see it concurrent with or after the racial uprisings of Ferguson and in the framework of what neo-Nazi groups are labelling a 21st century “race war,”[36] Dawn elicits and indeed reinforces the same kind of white racial paranoia as the original films did. In the context of its release, it’s hard not to read every scene of social unrest and opposing viewpoints through the lens of contemporary racial strife.