Obama, Trump, and the
politics of an ape planet
“What planet have I landed on? Did I slip through a wormhole in the middle of the night and this looks like America? It’s like the damn Planet of the Apes!”
—Fox News commentator Glenn Beck in 2010
In his extensive examination of the original Planet of the Apes series of films (1968-1973), Eric Greene makes a persuasive case that the filmmakers allegorized the racial conflict and violence of the civil rights movements and Vietnam war protests of the 60s and 70s in an attempt to address the crisis in race relations absorbing the United States at that time. The series drew on the long association between apes and “Negroes” that had permeated European writings about Africans since first contact and later fueled scientific racism’s evolutionary paradigms that located people of African descent “somewhere between the deformed and the simian.” [open notes in new window] In that vein, the creators of Planet of the Apes used species difference as an analog for and a means of working through prevailing cultural anxieties related to racial difference.
“The sense that racial violence abroad and at home was beyond control had shaken the security of white racial hegemony and led to a self-examination by whites of which the Apes films were a part.”
In depicting a society where racial power relations are reversed and humans are treated as an inferior species subject to dehumanization at the hands of their ape overlords, the original 1968 film manages to elicit both fear and sympathy from a white audience.
It’s in light of this filmic history that I examine the recent trilogy reboot of The Planet of the Apes (2011-2017) directed by Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) and Matt Reeves (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, War for the Planet of the Apes). The new franchise has enjoyed financial and critical success, due in part to the motion-capture technology that affords the actors playing the apes a full range of emotions and actions previously constrained by suits and masks. These apes are believable and sympathetic. The films in the reboot are well-acted and offer entertaining and compelling viewing, with each sequel improving on the last. In its depiction of a subordinate group rising up against an oppressive abusive power structure, its emphasis on family and loyalty, and its representation of archetypal villains and heroes on both the human and ape sides, the reboot offers the viewer opportunities to root for and identify with the apes.
However, because the storylines of the new franchise follow so closely the narrative trajectory of the original series, it is important to examine the ways that it couches these themes within the political and racial framework of the original Apes films. Certainly, the high production value, nuanced performances, and computer technology of the reboot set it apart from the stilted, campy, gorilla-suit acting of the first films. Viewed in isolation, without the perspective that the history of the original films provides, the new films can be seen as progressive and to validate the experience of the underdog. Most reviewers have praised the films’ exploration of the social and emotional consequences of one group usurping power and exercising it over another; and they have noted the themes of social responsibility, oppression, loyalty, and betrayal, which traverse the films.
Nevertheless, when assessed in light of the franchise’s history and situated within the social and political moment of their production, the new films can also be seen to comment on the tumultuous racial climate of the United States during the presidency of Barack Obama. To be sure, no inherent or natural connection is made between the apes depicted in the films and African Americans. And while these apes express human emotions and behaviors, they are not racial stereotypes or caricatures. In other words, there is no Jar Jar Binks here. However, both Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes undercut their overt narratives of resistance and empowerment through the utilization of imagery that evokes episodes of black/white racial conflict taking place in U.S. cities at the time of the films’ production and release. War for the Planet of the Apes also comments on the racial climate in the early decades of the twenty-first century. However, instead of trafficking in the media spectacle of racial uprising, as I argue Rise and Dawn do, it offers a critique of the hyper-nationalism peddled by Neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Trump’s United States.
As part of a broader system of cultural representations, films both construct and reflect social reality. Hollywood film, in particular, is always a product of the time and social history which informs it, whether the film is challenging or endorsing the prevailing politics of its epoch. Douglas Kellner argues that filmic representations operate as a form of political ideology. Ideology works to “pacify, channel, and neutralize the forces that would invert the social system of inequality were they not controlled.” But ideology also “testifies to the power of those forces, of the very thing it seeks to deny” (14). Films do their ideological work most keenly during times of “social crisis.”
“Some idealize solutions or alternatives to the distressing actuality, some project the worst fears and anxieties induced by the critical situations into metaphors that allow those fears to be absolved or played out, and some evoke a nihilistic vision of a world without hope or remedy” (168).
In its depiction of a post-apocalyptic, dystopian world where the boundaries of the human are challenged by intelligent apes, this science fiction trilogy both stimulates and justifies our fears about the other and ourselves.
Science fiction, as a genre, is well practiced at social commentary, regularly taking a position on racial politics and race relations in its utilization of aliens and androids as symbols of otherness. In his book, Race in American Science Fiction, Isiah Lavender argues that prevailing cultural views about race are “embedded” in science fiction.
“Science fiction often talks about race by not talking about race . . . Even though it is a literature that talks a lot about underclasses or oppressed classes, it does so from a privileged if somewhat generic white space.”
By utilizing techniques of estrangement and defamiliarization, wherein our world is altered and made strange yet seems uncannily familiar, science fiction can explore the boundary of self and other and expose the mechanics of prejudice and racism. However, Lavender suggests that science fiction at times reproduces these biases. In order to see how science fiction sometimes “unthinkingly reproduces white privilege,” we should view the science fiction world of the text as an “ethnoscape,” recognizing “a symbolic transfer of meaning between racial/ethnic politics and the shifting world of the sf text” (158).
Taking seriously both Kellner’s and Lavender’s assessment of the ideological work that film can do in times of social crisis and political upheaval, and how it attempts to “placate social tensions and to respond to social forces in such a way that they cease to be dangerous to the social system of inequality” (Kellner 14), I examine why the Planet of the Apes franchise is resurrected during the tenure of the first African American president. Films function differently in different contexts and can produce variant political readings, but I would argue that our social moment—where black men are shot in alarming numbers by police, and white supremacists organize on college campuses and march brazenly in the streets—despite or indeed because of the election of Obama, is eerily reminiscent of the racial climate of the late 60s and 70s. Just as the earlier films do, the new franchise, regardless of its overt message of minority group resistance, engages in a form of racial politics that reflects an implicit white fear of an empowered African American minority and the waning of white privilege.
“Primate in Chief”
In May of 2016, the White House issued a press release announcing that Barack Obama’s oldest daughter, Malia Obama, would attend Harvard University in the Fall of 2017, after taking a “gap year.” When Fox News reported the story on its website, readers responded with virulently racist comments, referring to Malia as an “affirmative action parasite” with “black privilege.” One commentator called Malia a “little monkey” and another referred to Michelle Obama as her “man-thing mother, Sasquatch.” One reader suggested that the “little ape should go to college in Africa.” The responses were so inflammatory that Fox was forced to shut down the comment section. Clearly, associating African Americans with apes is an enduring racist strategy, but it resurfaced in public discourse with Obama’s entrance onto the political scene. George W. Bush was sometimes lampooned as a chimp during his time in office, but as critics have noted depicting Bush as a chimp is not the same as depicting Obama as one because of the historically trenchant racist association of blacks with apes. Abraham Lincoln, too, suffered the association, not because he was black, but because of his support of African Americans. Dubbed the “black Republican” by Southerners, his condemnation of slavery and support for emancipation also earned him the monikers “Ourang-Outang at the White House,” “the Illinois Ape,” a “Baboon,” and the “original gorilla.”
During the 2008 election cycle, t-shirts and buttons depicting monkeys and/or bananas appeared alongside Obama’s name or image. The cartoon character Curious George was frequently used as a stand-in for Obama after a caller on conservative Rush Limbaugh’s radio show stated that her daughter thought Obama looked like the cartoon monkey. One t-shirt captioned “The Evolution of a President” depicted the well-known drawing of the evolutionary scale of ape to human above Obama’s image. A cursory Internet search reveals hundreds of photo-shopped images of Barack and Michelle Obama as chimpanzees, some swinging from trees, with captions like “Primate in Chief.” One white supremacist website featuring such pictures of the Obamas is called “chimpout.” In 2009, The New York Post ran a cartoon which depicted a dead chimpanzee with bullet holes in its chest and two cops standing over it with a smoking gun. The caption read “They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill.” In 2016, after Trump’s election win, the mayor of a small West Virginia town was pressured to resign a day after she had commented favorably on the Facebook post of another official that referred to Michelle Obama as an “ape in heels.”
Images of blacks as monkeys proliferated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in postcards featuring the coon caricature, a lazy, bumbling, inarticulate buffoon or dandy who was routinely drawn with exaggerated chin and lips and protruding ears, suggesting a simian resemblance. The purpose behind these representations was to “cater to the White notion that Black coons are too stupid to understand that their efforts to assimilate into White culture only emphasize their inherent inferiority.” Comic strips, musical lyrics, children’s books and toys all furthered the association, which continued into the late twentieth century with athletes like Jackie Robinson, Michael Jordan, and Patrick Ewing enduring “ape” taunts and thrown banana peels on and off the field/court. In 2017, black athletes still experience this level of racist offense. Brazilian soccer player, Everton Luiz, who plays for a Serbian team was subject to monkey chants and racist epithets by fans of the opposing team. And in May of the same year, Baltimore Orioles’ star Adam Jones was racially taunted and had peanuts thrown at him during a game at Fenway Park in Boston.
Notably, Eric Greene makes clear the expression “planet of the apes” carries specific racial power, which goes beyond the historic black/ape association.
“Using the phrase ‘planet of the apes’ is more than just an ethnic slur likening African Americans to apes. It is a statement expressing a sense of white powerlessness in a situation where the ‘natural’ order has been reversed and the despised racial ‘other’ now dominates.”
Likening Obama’s United States to the ‘planet of the apes’ became a common trope among the alt-right and certain conservative media circles during the Obama presidency. In December 2008, just after Obama’s election win, the white supremacist site stormfront.org published “Planet of the Apes: An Obama Years Survival Guide.” Another neo-Nazi site, The Daily Stormer, routinely called Obama’s Presidency the “Planet of the Apes Occupation.” In 2010, then Fox News host Glenn Beck, discussing on-air a critique of an Obama policy, asked his viewers,
“What planet have I landed on? Did I slip through a wormhole in the middle of the night and this looks like America? It’s like the damn Planet of the Apes!”
Given this history and the implicit meanings behind the films in the original series, we should inquire why a reboot of the Planet of the Apes series with all its attendant racial baggage resurfaces during Barack Obama’s presidency.
Apes then and now
In the original film, Planet of the Apes (1968), George Taylor (Charlton Heston) and his crew crash land on the ape “planet,” which we later learn is future Earth, and encounter a group of mute, “primitive” humans. The new arrivals are soon rounded up by gorillas on horseback and taken into captivity. Taylor is the only one of the original crew that makes it. Dodge (Jeff Burton), an African American astronaut, is shot and killed (and later stuffed and displayed in a museum), and Landon (Robert Gunner), a white astronaut, is lobotomized. Taylor is shot in the throat, temporarily impairing his speech and preventing him from distinguishing himself from the mute humans that are imprisoned and studied by the apes. Taylor, named “Bright Eyes” by Zira, the chimpanzee scientist, is subject to a variety of dehumanizing treatments in captivity; he is stripped, beaten, tied up, gagged, and, in an obvious echo of the tensions of the film’s political moment, hosed.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) offers a narrative prequel of sorts to the original Planet of the Apes, providing an explanation for the ascendancy of the apes depicted in the first films, suggesting that humans effect their own demise by using bioengineering and “run away science” to tamper with the natural order of things. But the second half of the film, where Caesar emancipates his fellow apes, follows quite closely the narrative of the fourth film in the original franchise, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972). In the third movie, Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), the two chimpanzee protagonists from the original movie, Zira and Cornelius, are transported back in time to 1973 Earth. Originally welcomed by the humans, they are killed when it is learned that Zira is pregnant, for they fear that the “progeny of the apes will one day dominate the human race and destroy the world.” Their child, who will be known as Caesar, having been switched with a circus chimpanzee, escapes his death. Eighteen years later, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes finds adult Caesar and his human protector, Armando (Ricardo Montalban), in a world where apes have become pets to humans after a virus killed off all the cats and dogs. Later, recognizing the apes’ ability to follow directions, the humans train them as a domestic labor force. Horrified by the servile state to which the apes have descended, Caesar secretly mobilizes the apes, who rise up in rebellion against their human captors.
The three films in the new franchise, Rise, Dawn, and War, follow the life of Caesar (played by the extraordinary Andy Serkis), who is born to a mother, known as “Bright Eyes,” caught in the wild by African traffickers and sent to the labs of Gen-Sys, a pharmaceutical corporation, as a test subject for an experimental Alzheimer’s drug ALZ-112. Bright Eyes breaks out and attacks her handlers in order to protect her new baby. As a result of her rampage, the other test apes are euthanized. Caesar is rescued by Will (James Franco), the study’s lead researcher, and brought to the home Will shares with his father Charles (John Lithgow), who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. Affected by the drug in utero, Caesar experiences rapid intellectual development and after being exposed to a new version of the drug—ALZ-113, he develops a capacity for speech. After attacking a neighbor while defending Charles, Caesar is locked away in a primate shelter. There Caesar empowers his fellow ape captives with the ALZ-113 and leads them in revolt against their cruel human jailors. After a tense face off with police on the Golden Gate Bridge, Caesar leads the apes to a life of peaceful self-determination in the woods. Meanwhile, the drug proves deadly to humans and results in a pandemic, known as the “simian flu” (Rise).
Ten years later, a small band of surviving humans, seeking access to the hydro-electric damn under the ape compound, encounters the intelligent apes. Nefarious actions on both sides result in an armed confrontation between the apes and the humans, causing Caesar and his surviving apes to flee again (Dawn).The final film in the trilogy opens 15 years later with the apes holed up in a fortified command base awaiting inevitable war with the humans. Led by a calculating, crazed Colonel (Woody Harrelson), the humans find the apes and murder Caesar’s wife and son, causing Caesar to abandon his group and pursue the Colonel to avenge them. When Caesar goes to kill the Colonel, he finds the soldier already infected by the virus mutation now affecting the surviving humans, rendering them mute. Rather than kill him, Caesar watches as the Colonel takes his own life. Caesar again leads his apes, who have been imprisoned in the Colonel’s compound, to a new home where he dies as a result of a wound sustained in the recent battle at the compound (War).
With the release of Rise in 2011, the references to the Obamas and Planet of the Apes become more common. Images of the Obamas’ faces superimposed over those of Zira and Cornelius from the original series proliferated, including one of them standing in the sand next to the iconic image from Planet of the battered, half-buried Statue of Liberty. In 2012, in the run up to the election where Obama won a second term, one particularly memorable photoshopped image from Escape from the Planet of the Apes featured Hilary Clinton seated between the Obamas, depicted as Zira and Cornelius, with the caption “It’s a madhouse. A madhouse.” Many of these pictures originate from neo-Nazi platforms, like Stormfront.org which styles itself as “the voice of the new, embattled White minority” and is counted by Southern Poverty Law Center as an active hate group. Michelle Obama, particularly, is a favorite target of Internet trolls who compare her face to those of chimpanzees and gorillas, but she is most commonly compared to Zira. This likening backfired for Univision network host Rodner Figueroa, who was forced to resign in 2015 after saying that Michelle Obama “looks like she’s from the cast of Planet of the Apes.”
In documenting the legacy of the original series, including its adaptation for the small screen and in comic books, Greene remarks on the political value for the extreme right of an appropriated Planet of the Apes discourse. One reporter interviewed by Greene asserted that the phrase “planet of the apes” had surfaced as a racial insult at every KKK rally he had ever covered. Tellingly, Greene makes clear the ways in which the politics of the day inform and reinforce prevailing views about race. The “Apes’ movement from politically influenced fiction to fiction used to influence politics exemplifies the continual exchange in which politics flows into popular culture, which then flows back into politics” (179). This same exchange between the cultural and the political is evident in the new franchise.