2018, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 58, winter, 2017-2018
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 endnotes 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.
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. 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?”
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 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!” 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.
“[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. 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. 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  by an ongoing investigation into the use of deadly force by police.”
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. 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.” 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.
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), and more progressive analysts suggested that the media was quick to criminalize Michael Brown’s past and thus provide justification for his death.
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. 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.”
“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. 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,” 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.
Fight the power?
From its opening news montage, Dawn works to establish the binary of us and them, eliciting our sympathies for the humans unjustifiably killed by the virus produced by infection of ALZ-113. At the same time, in its suggestion of riots and chaos and the end of world order, it also quietly evokes contemporary scenes of destruction and disorder, of clashes between protestors and police which frequent real news segments. A disembodied now dead voice warns,
“Those who aren’t killed by the virus will probably die in the fighting. Maybe this is it; this is how it ends. Pretty soon there won’t be anyone left.”
Tellingly, the conflict waged in the film has nothing to do with the virus—it’s a non-issue for the surviving humans in the film because they are “genetically immune.” What is an issue is territory and “power” (accessing the disabled hydroelectric dam so as to restore electricity is the plot catalyst), leaving us to understand that it’s really the fighting that will kill us. Such a message is certainly consistent with the film’s overt warnings about power and violence corrupting. But as Foster, one of the surviving black characters, notes, the “scary thing” about the apes is that “they don’t need power, lights, heat. Nothing. That’s their advantage. That’s what makes them stronger.” By contrast, if the humans don’t get the power back, they “could slip back to the way things were.” In this world, the humans live in colonies, while the apes come and go as they please. Apes own the “power” but don't need it. Without the resources of energy, civilization is revealed to be a veneer tentatively affixed to the natural.
After the opening voice over and montage, an extreme close up of piercing eyes and white skin, illuminated by flashes of lightning and punctuated by rolls of thunder, emerges from the dark background. As the camera pulls away we recognize the form as Caesar’s, made white by war paint, readying his now very large posse of apes for the hunt. The mise-en-scene, scored with tribal drums and a haunting bass flute in a syncopated rhythm, establishes a primitive, tribal atmosphere with a rainy, gloomy darkness. The apes don’t live in trees, but in tree houses surrounded by apotropes made from the bones of their prey. Killing deer with spears, riding on horseback, and walking upright, the apes are less animal than aboriginal. In the ten-year interval since the outbreak that killed most of the human population, they are depicted as having advanced along a pseudo-evolutionary timeline, bringing them one step closer to the “fully” evolved humans they will encounter. Electric power is the commodity that these “natives” possess. In a world stripped of natural resources, it is their post-apocalyptic version of gold, oil, or diamonds. It’s something to kill for though they have no need for it.
Establishing the apes’ inherent otherness is achieved in large part through the character of Koba, whose inability to be quelled by the rational, measured Caesar marks him as the film’s main antagonist as well as the audience’s, a pointed change from our sympathies in Rise. Indeed, where Koba’s killing of Rise’s vilified Stephen Jacobs is tacitly justified, even sympathetic (more of a letting go, than killing really), in Dawn, Koba is a vicious vindictive gun-toting killer who must be stopped at all costs. Though Rise works hard to establish Koba’s reactions as responses to what has been done to him, Dawn works harder to naturalize Koba’s difference, and make a claim for his innate depravity. Koba recognizes early on that, “If [humans] get the power, they’ll be more dangerous,” and he encourages Caesar to “destroy them while they’re weak.” Here he goes beyond revenge on a quest for ultimate power, lying to and manipulating those close to Caesar, breaking the cardinal ape rule by killing Ash and attempting to kill Caesar, and ultimately usurping Caesar’s role as leader.
Koba finds his narrative counterpart in Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), who will stop at nothing to protect his armory and restore human dominance. Dreyfus is a mighty opponent, but his desire for “power” is depicted as logical and appropriate. Representative of mainstream United States, Dreyfus is a family man, grieving his own losses. He assumes the mantle of looking out for his people, who, with the restoration of power, are peacefully celebrating when Koba’s apes attack. The renegade dam technician, Carver (Kirk Acevedo), by contrast, represents an alternative (right) white voice. When Ellie (Kerri Russell) tells him that scientists, not apes, are responsible for the outbreak, he calls her view “hippie-dippie bullshit.” Believing an attack by the apes to be imminent because “they killed off half the planet already,” Carver’s perspective is an uneasy reminder of contemporary discourse on race and racial violence. He is an ape “racist.” He hates the apes and doesn’t understand why the others “don’t get sick to [their] stomach at the sight of them.” And as if to firmly situate Carver within a certain demographic, Dawn links Carver’s bigoted views to a Second Amendment subtext as he presses the importance of defending themselves against the apes. Carver is the first to fire a weapon and the first to kill. When told by Malcolm that relinquishing their guns is Caesar’s one condition for allowing them access to the dam, Carver secrets his in his bag, resulting in the humans almost being expelled again. Carver is considered an unlikeable “asshole” by his peers and by much of the viewing audience, but when killed, unarmed, by Koba, who is depicted as the epitome of “black” revenge and concomitant white fear, the film offers justification for Carver’s actions.
Koba’s first act of treachery is to set fire to the apes’ home, shoot Caesar, and frame the humans for it. Before Caesar is shot, the woods are dark and quiet with low lighting around the ape house. As Caesar, Maurice, Malcolm, Ellie, and Alexander look down benevolently from high in the trees onto the now illuminated lights of the city, a peaceful quiet settles over the community, suggesting a hopeful outcome for harmony between apes and humans. But the calm is quickly disrupted by the piercing gun shot and the shrieking ape panic that ensues. The unlawful transfer of power from Caesar to Koba is depicted as the lighting changes from still darkness to burning conflagration. Standing, elevated above the others, and brandishing his gun overhead as the fire he has lit rises, Koba utters a call to arms. “Humans kill Caesar! Burn ape home! Go! Get them! Apes must attack human city. Fight back!” he yells, surrounded by fire. As the flames rise, Malcolm and his family run fleeing the angry, now violent apes. Having scouted out the humans’ stockpile of weapons, Koba then leads an ape attack on horseback into the city.
Dawn depicts a dramatic shift from a community of peaceful, cooperative apes capable of congregation and diplomacy to a violent angry mob with no moral restraint. The nighttime cityscape with its dark skies, bursts of machine gun fire, and hordes of marauding black figures looting the armory, and attacking the barricaded humans, recalls the media spectacle of clashes between black protestors and a militarized police. The apes it seems have reverted to “type,” embracing their wild savage nature, which apparently no amount of enhanced intelligence can conceal. In depicting racial strife through an ape allegory, the filmmakers undertake a political sleight of hand. With the absence of the noble rational Caesar, we are coerced into rooting for the humans and not the apes. As Dreyfus makes clear,
“They may have got their hands on some of our guns but that does not make them men. They are animals. We will push them back. Drive them down!”
Koba, by this point, is a crazed vigilante satiating his own desire for power and primacy. Because of the prior saturation of media coverage of racial unrest, the audience of Dawn is primed to project Koba’s rapacious revenge onto today’s racial conflict.
Greene makes clear that when the original Planet of the Apes franchise was produced and released, “the racial power dynamics of the United States were under sustained, often furious, attack” (12). Although Dawn is released days before the racial unrest in Ferguson, it was written and produced in a similar climate of racial division, division in part fueled by the partisanship that developed during Obama’s Presidency. While polls taken on the eve of Obama’s inauguration reflect optimism among blacks and whites about the state of race relations in the country, polls taken later in his first term show that 37 percent of registered voters believed race relations had deteriorated under Obama. That number jumped to 43 percent in 2013. While race relations did indeed deteriorate as a result of the violence of Ferguson and elsewhere, this pessimism about race can be attributed to the unique treatment Obama received as President. Where other Presidents have certainly been pilloried in the press, they have not been diminished and personally disrespected. In a surreal echo of southern high-school traditions of crowning both a white homecoming king/queen and a black one, Obama wasn’t allowed to be the “President” because he was viewed by many in the electorate and the media first and foremost as the “Black President.” Every policy decision he made was refracted through a racial lens.
Shortly after Obama’s inauguration in 2008, the Tea Party, an ultra-conservative branch of the Republican party, formed. In 2010 members of the Tea Party won a number of congressional seats in the midterm elections, providing a vocal platform of opposition to Obama and his policies. A study published in 2013 measuring the relationship between racial prejudice, white identity, and the Tea Party found that
“Identification with the Tea Party was positively associated with anti-Black prejudice, libertarian ideology, social conservatism . . . and national decline.”
To add to this, conservative news channels, like Fox and Alt-right sites like Breitbart and the National Review, offered daily onslaughts of racially charged criticism of Obama and his administration. On numerous occasions Bill O’Reilly used the bully pulpit of his Fox News cable show to critique Obama for his lack of leadership on U.S. race problems. On the few times Obama did talk about race, such as when he addressed the killing of unarmed Trayvon Martin, he was accused of being a race baiter because he suggested the outcome might have been different if Martin had been white.
Surveys conducted from 2010-2012 measuring racial attitudes of self-identifying conservatives found that people in the United States were more comfortable talking explicitly about race than in previous decades, leading researchers to surmise that “when they heard public figures articulating feelings they shared perhaps some racially conservative Americans abandoned the old rules themselves.” Former presidential candidate and conservative analyst, Pat Buchanan, gave a number of interviews in 2016 stating that the United States was a better place in the ‘50s when everyone knew their place:
“Whites over here, blacks over here, Mexicans over here and the women at home raising the kids.”
And a poll conducted by the Associated Press before the 2012 elections “found that 79 percent of Republicans agreed with negative statements about racial minorities.” The racial divide saw blacks and whites “unfriending” each other on Facebook and in real life as racist attitudes toward and offensive caricatures of Obama and his family circulated. For some African Americans the presence of Obama on the political scene forced them to confront racism they thought “had been litigated and fought” in previous generations. At base, for some, was the underlying feeling “that having a black president didn’t make any difference. If anything, it made things worse.”
If this turbulent social and political environment contributed to the shootings and riots in Ferguson, Baltimore, Charlotte and elsewhere, it’s not inconceivable to imagine that the very same environment provided the fodder for the plot and imagery of “racial” tension portrayed in Dawn. Here as in the original franchise, “the concerns and issues of the era may have been subconsciously incorporated into the films” (Greene 2). While the filmmakers hadn’t yet seen the media spectacle, they were surely able to predict what it might look like, especially with the history of LA and Watts in the rear-view mirror. As Kellner makes clear,
“Serious amounts of money are invested in the production of films and television, so they must resonate with audiences and often anticipate what people are thinking about, fantasizing, or yearning for” (39).
Furthermore, if we consider the racially charged political climate of Dawn’s production, take into account the racial allegory of the original Planet of the Apes franchise, and the fact that it is released at the very moment that police killings and race riots are plastered on the news, it seems likely that viewers might associate the current state of race relations in the United States with the tak over of the apes and the take down of humans. Just like the first series, the films in the latest franchise do not “merely record and play back the society’s ongoing discourses of racial difference and racial conflict, they ente[r] into it and are a part of those discourses” (Greene 19).
What is perhaps most striking, or most disingenuous, or most politic, is that in no interview (that I can find) do the writers, directors, or actors ever mention race. There seems to be collective amnesia or ignorance among them as to the historic and political legacy of the films they’re rebooting. In one interview, when asked specifically about the political message of the films, Matt Reeves sidelines the allegorical or metaphorical implications of the question, offering instead a diegesis of the film’s universe and the importance of the “apes’ perspective.” Curiously, he ends by saying that Dawn helps us to see how “these problems” can exist and “how we find ourselves time and time again descending into violence.” In the same clip, Gary Oldman and Keri Russell both struggle with the question, and then Oldman suggests the film “reflects what’s currently happening in the Middle East” and then uncomfortably adds, “you know, you could make the comparisons,” as Russell looks down at her hands. Oldman quickly recovers and says “I think it’s timeless in that sense.” Andy Serkis, for his part, praises Reeves for making a film, “which is completely unbiased.” So, while the destructive violence is acknowledged, nobody wants to tie it specifically to the tinderbox of U.S. black white racial relations.
However, awkwardly the stars tried to dismiss any political engagement with the films, some critics were quick to discern the legacy of the original franchise. Roger Ebert, for example, suggests that Dawn like Rise “borrows situations and images from the 1960s and ‘70s” films in a “playfully political” way, but “leaves an intriguingly bitter aftertaste.” A critic for the film magazine, Paracinema, calls out the implied racial commentary in the films:
“The assertions made by Rise are not new; they’ve been present in cinema since The Birth of A Nation insisted that Black savagery and inherent primitivism would presage the collapse of white civilization. In that sense, Rise is nothing more than an unoriginal but sparkly return to a ‘rational’ racism.”
And the blogosphere agrees, calling Rise “the ‘post-racial’ version of Planet of the Apes in the same way America has experienced this idea of post-racialism. The issues of race are ever present but largely ignored or discussed in “colorblind” terms.”
The ramification of such representational politics has larger implications for society as a whole. We cannot ignore the fact that perceptions of African Americans as more prone to violence and criminality results in their higher rates of detention and incarceration. In fact, African Americans make up approximately 40 percent of the prison population, though they comprise only 13 percent of the overall population. In their study of the black-ape connection, Goff et al also found that “a black-ape association influences the extent to which people condone and justify violence against Black suspects” and the association was linked “to the death-sentencing decision of jurors” (Goff, Eberhardt 294). Indeed “participants were more likely to believe that the beating the Black suspect received was justified when primed with apes than with big cats” (302). As Alexander has shown in The New Jim Crow, the criminal justice system produces and enforces racial hierarchy in the United States.
“In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind” (Alexander 2).
Popular culture participates in and perpetuates discourses of racial hierarchy. In depicting criminal “apes” jailed and in violent clashes with police, in Rise, and a militarized opposition in Dawn, the films cement an association of blackness with animality and lawlessness, and justify and naturalize the incarceration of African Americans. The implicit perception of African Americans as apes continues the legacy of African Americans as not deserving of basic human rights and validates violent retaliation by a threatened hegemony.
Just like Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), Dawn “establishes the terms of its conflict by playing on the audience’s memory of extratextual historical references. . . of racial oppression” (Greene 89) and just like the earlier films, it ends up contributing to racial divisions rather than racial unity. While Dawn tries to show both human and ape sides as weakened by a thirst for power and prone to violence, in the context of its reception such a message is dangerously redirected. Koba’s desire for revenge, while understandable in the context of his story of abuse at human hands, risks being falsely aligned with the motives of protestors in Ferguson. Just as in 1972, the movie reinforces a dawning white awareness that black America is ready to fight for justice and to stay “woke.” Indeed, the main reason the ending of Conquest was changed from a violent ape revolt to a conciliatory message of peace was because “[e]ven liberal whites who wished—and wish—to see racial inequality eliminated would not –and do not—want to be punished, or even held accountable, for their profit from it” (Greene 110).
Koba receives his comeuppance at the hands of Caesar who, just as Koba does, breaks the one ape commandment: “Ape not kill ape.” While Caesar’s deed satisfies an audience tired of Koba’s villainy and angered by the betrayal of Caesar, it has the concomitant effect of altering how we view Caesar. His character and his heroism are diminished by the act. As he makes clear at the end of Dawn, when Malcolm urges him to leave the city to prevent war, “War has already begun.” But in a departure of Rise’s narrative efforts to demonstrate that the apes are retaliating against unethical inhumane treatment at the hands of humans, Dawn places the blame squarely at the feet of the apes: “Ape started war and human, human will not forgive.” Obviously, this line sets-up the third installment in the series, War for the Planet of the Apes (2017. However, given the not so subtle substitution of ape for black and human for white, in staging a “race” war which vilifies the apes and redeems the humans, Dawn adds oxygen to the incendiary race relations of its day. This is not to say the film is consciously endorsing racism. Rather, in trafficking in imagery associated with the racial conflicts of its own historical moment, it contributes to pervasive white anxiety about black power, an anxiety already heightened during Obama’s Presidency.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, in its depiction of apes bent on revenge against humans, released in a cultural climate pitting blacks against whites, delegitimizes African American claims for social justice and reinforces beliefs held by some whites that blacks are inherently violent and a threat to “good whites” everywhere. Because media spectacles like film shape our social memory and construct our reality, the racially divisive message of the film supports the climate of intense partisanship into which it was released and helps to fuel the claims of white extremists instrumental in Donald Trump’s rise to power.
Build that wall
Unlike Dawn which gets interpreted retrospectively through the events surrounding its release, War for the Planet of the Apes, opening in July 2017, is conceived, written, and produced during the ongoing race crisis in the United States. With hate crimes spiking since the election of Donald Trump and a newly visible, empowered, Neo-Nazi movement gaining strength on college campuses and in the media, War doesn’t tap into our cultural memory—it provides a blueprint for surviving the cultural present. The open racial hostility leveled at Obama during his two terms in office paved the way for the most racist, xenophobic, bigoted presidential campaign seen in the modern political arena. Historically, both Republicans and Democrats have made implicit racial appeals to white voters utilizing code words like “welfare reform,” “law and order,” and “immigration reform” to signal to their base their support of policies targeting specific minority groups. But in 2016 Donald Trump showed not only that racial and ethnic groups could be talked about explicitly and derogatorily, but that such invective would be welcomed by large swaths of the voting public.
Many studies correlating voters’ degree of racial resentment with support for Republican candidates have found that “Republicans who scored highest on racial resentment were about 30 percentage points more likely to support Trump than their more moderate counterparts.” Whereas black white relations have often been the subtext for Republican race baiting, such as George H.W. Bush’s successful deployment of African American convicted murderer Willie Horton in an ad implying Michael Dukakis was “soft on crime,” Trump targeted a variety of racial and ethnic minorities and nationalities. By attacking Mexicans, Muslims, Jews, and Chinese, Trump could tap into a range of current national concerns, including immigration, terrorism, and the economy, in addition to citing bogus statistics about “black on white crime” (15% not the 81% cited by Trump), criminal justice reform, or as he calls it, the “war on cops.” By expressing his racism in terms of a national and/or economic threat to the United States, he deftly segregated the country into whites and non-whites, Christians and non-Christians. From New Hampshire voters who believe that illegal immigrants “are sucking our economy dry” to Neo-Nazis who believe that they have found “the one man who actually represents our interests,” his politically incorrect speech has become the patriot’s playbook. In closing borders, banning Muslims, deporting “illegals,” and ending scrutiny of police departments with a record of civil rights abuses, Trump made very clear that the country’s economic and national security as well as its very identity required a racial and ethnic purge. As Trump supporter Pat Buchanan made clear in a 2016 interview,
“Anybody that believes that a country can be maintained that has no ethnic core to it or no linguistic core to it, I believe is naïve in the extreme.”
War, what is it good for?
Where Rise and Dawn reflect white fear of a racial takeover, which can be tied to the hysteria around Obama’s Presidency and the visibility of blackness and perceived diminishing of whiteness, War insinuates the pendulum has swung too far back. The warning in War is not fear of the other, but rather fear of what has become of us—to the United States. Kellner argues that
“when there is dissatisfaction in a society with a political regime, Hollywood is quick to exploit it with films transcoding the dissatisfaction or anger with the ruling group, whatever its politics” (34).
While the humans are still fighting the apes, here humanness doesn't stand for a generic whiteness, it represents white Americanness, as War skewers the privilege that white Americans have arrogated to themselves. Whiteness in the film is anything but redemptive. Rather it is represented by a jack-booted thug, Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), lacking the humanity that the apes exhibit in spades, and a weak, scared traitor in the figure of an albino gorilla named Winter (Aleks Paunovic).
War opens with a military contingent stealing through the pre-dawn California forest where the apes have been hiding out in a fortified tree camp awaiting the arrival of these soldiers, summoned by Dreyfus and his team at the end of Dawn. On first glance, the mise-en-scene of the first few frames echoes the racialized divisions of human and ape evident in Dawn. The soldiers wear helmets with slogans such as “Monkey Killer,” “Bedtime for Bonzo,” and “Endangered Species.” The soldiers are apprehensive as they look up at the apes on horseback patrolling their forest, unaware they are being hunted. When the African American captain looking through his rifle scope is stopped by a big black gorilla hand on his shoulder, we assume the jig is up. However, as the shot widens to include the gorilla, it’s clear they are in collusion. In the intervening period, several apes have turned, and are working as “donkeys” for the humans. These apes, we learn, are what’s left of Koba’s followers and, fearing Caesar, have joined forces with the humans. Just as Rise and Dawn repeatedly associate black bodies with ape bodies, here the captain and the gorilla are framed in tight close up with the faces tilted at the same angle looking up to a chimpanzee scout in the trees. Soon enough the floor of the forest becomes littered with black ape bodies, in addition to the captain himself. African American characters die quickly or are demonized both in the original Planet series and in Rise, but here the quick dispatching of the black captain (Roger Cross) makes way for his Hispanic successor, Preacher (Gabriel Chavarria), whose watchful presence in the film serves as a constant reminder of the complex racial landscape the film will traverse. With his brown skin, War positions Preacher as a kind of racial intermediary, expressing allegiance to the Colonel, but showing admiration and empathy for Caesar.
War moves away from a critique of black/white relations and instead utilizes the prevailing Trumpian rhetoric of immigration—of building a wall and securing the border, as well as the discourse of terrorism—of an unnatural enemy and “holy war.” Where Dawn finds itself in the midst of the divisive racial politics that followed its release, War seems determined not to be on the wrong side of history. Mark Bomback and Matt Reeves cast a wide net in this aggressive take-down of a United States whose insularity and divisive nationalism brought us Donald Trump. The heightened militarization of Americanness since 9/11, involving the capture and killings of “high-profile targets,” and culminating in the most notorious of all, Osama bin Laden, in 2011 have not made us safer, or less prone to terrorist attacks. Rather, the film suggests, such actions have diminished us. As Justin Chang notes,
“This is hardly the first ‘Planet of the Apes’ movie to function as an allegory of oppression, hysteria and xenophobia, but it is almost certainly the most trenchant and serious-minded of the lot. It’s impossible not to root for these brave and beautiful apes or to feel a sense of alienation from our own comparatively stupid, prideful, and empathy-deficient species.”
In subtle ways, Caesar is represented as a bin Laden-like figure. Rumored to be holed away in a “hidden command base,” Caesar is something of a mythical figure to the soldiers who first encounter him. Preacher, whose face shot in side light suggests his duality, expresses surprise that Caesar is alive:
“You’re him. We’ve been searching for you for so long… Some of us started to think you might be dead.”
In subtly associating Caesar and his protective fortified seclusion with bin Laden, the film doesn’t equate Caesar’s actions or intentions with the mastermind of 9/11, but it suggests an analogy in order to condemn the United States and its jingoistic excess. It offers a warning, to quote Chimamanda Adichie, of the “danger of a single story.” Caesar shows mercy to the humans by letting the captured soldiers go, but he also wants to send a message to Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson): “He’ll see we are not savages.” Predictably the Colonel seeks nothing less than the annihilation of the apes, and in a dramatic nighttime incursion reminiscent of the Navy Seal mission to get bin Laden, the soldiers rappel in to the compound on ropes with laser beam flashlights. Mistaking Caesar’s wife for Caesar, the Colonel kills her and radios to his men: “Target acquired. King Kong is Dead.”
Consumed by thoughts of revenge, Caesar abandons his baby son, Cornelius, and the rest of the apes and sets off to find and kill the Colonel. However, aware that Caesar is as much a danger to himself as the Colonel, Maurice (Karin Konoval), Rocket (Terry Notary), and Luca (Michael Adamthwaite) accompany him. When Caesar and his posse, with the help of Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), a similarly enhanced ape raised in a zoo, come upon the prison where the Colonel and his army are based, Caesar finds his apes have been captured and forced into labor. In this former California Border Quarantine Facility, the apes are enslaved and are forced to build a border wall. When Caesar, genuinely confused, asks “Why do they need a wall?” the film critiques the insanity of Donald Trump’s plan to keep out illegal immigrants from Mexico. But this wall is not for keeping out the apes, even though they are the existential threat to humans; rather the purpose of the wall is to keep out the other humans who seek to eliminate the Colonel. But as Caesar observes, “his wall is madness; it won’t save him.”
The virus, we learn, has mutated, robbing humans of the power of speech. Having killed his own son, who developed the mutation, the Colonel has ordered his men to kill anyone who exhibits its symptoms. The Colonel fears that if the remaining humans contract the mutated strain, it will “ro[b] us of those things that make us human. Our speech, our higher thinking. It will turn us into beasts.” But as the film painfully delineates in the Colonel’s crude fanaticism and violent treatment of outsiders and his own people, the humans are already beasts. Where Rise and Dawn implied that science would destroy us, War makes clear that our own hubris and hatred for the other will be our downfall. The Colonel’s “holy war” finishes us all in the end.
There is an obvious and palpable critique of the United States in this film. The ape shelter in Rise evokes the U.S. prison complex and makes a connection between imprisoned apes and disproportionally incarcerated African Americans. The military facility where the apes are imprisoned in War, by contrast, evokes detention centers like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay where atrocities are committed in the United States’ name. Just like Guantanamo, a U.S. flag bears witness to the atrocities within it, but this flag is defaced and ultimately burns. Like a neo-Nazi flag with a tag, the symbols of alpha and omega are scrawled across the one in the compound. In a scathing parody of U.S. patriotism, the soldiers assemble in formation and salute it as they chant “we are the beginning and the end.” When the U.S. national anthem begins to play, on cue they rush to the apes’ cells and watch the “donkeys” beat their fellow apes, readying them for work on the wall. Watching all of this from on high is the Colonel who, shaving his head and sipping from his flask, epitomizes an evil “skin head,” dispassionately overseeing the apes’ torture. The Colonel often dismisses Caesar and his anger and grief by calling him “so emotional.” Accusing the captive of being “confused in [his] purpose,” and of “taking this all much too personally,” the Colonel crafts his own version of “special snowflake”—the Nazi-era epithet appropriated by the alt-right and used broadly by conservatives to attack liberals outraged at Trump and his policies.
While War is clearly invested in critiquing U.S. policies on immigration, illegal detention, and terrorism, like its predecessors, it continues to utilize racial imagery associated with African Americans and slavery. The apes are routinely lashed and strung up on trees in punishment. But here unlike the other films, the discourse of racial protest is used to critique the United States. Caesar stands up to the inhumane treatment received by the apes. When Caesar yells “leave him!” to the donkey whipping an orangutan, we get a dark reminder of the country’s past and the courage required to challenge it. Punished for his outburst, Caesar is lashed and tied to a tree in a crucifixion pose. In a state of delirium, Koba appears to Caesar. “Slave,” he says to Caesar “you cannot save them. Apes all die here.” But in the end, they all work together to save themselves. In raising their hands in the “ape together strong” sign, the film evokes the “black power” symbol and offers a cautionary message to whites about repeating the same mistakes.
Heart of whiteness
War, in its exploration of the darker side of human nature, evokes Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. And Woody Harrelson’s aggressive, troubled Colonel resembles Marlon Brando’s Kurtz in Coppola’s adaptation, Apocalypse Now. The lesson of Conrad’s novel is that man’s capacity for evil and darkness does not come from an exterior mythical “dark continent” but rather from within us. The sinister threat we project onto others, whether they be Congolese, Vietnamese, or apes, is really a distorted reflection of ourselves. War does interesting things with this trope. Rather than pursuing the Colonel into the “heart of darkness,” instead Caesar is forced into an empty whiteness. The cinematography provides as vivid a visual contrast between the warm, lush darkness of the forest and the bleak, stark snowy landscape beyond it as does the Manichean narrative itself. While it is the Colonel who epitomizes the rottenness at the core of white nationalism, Caesar is also sullied and darkened by his proximity to it. When Caesar first comes face-to-face with the Colonel at the prison, they are both shot in medium-close up in hard, high-contrast lighting. The deep shadows on their faces emphasize their conflicted, divided natures. It is only in seeing his own vindictive anger reflected back at him in the Colonel’s radicalism that Caesar can regain his own humanity.
Caesar’s journey to the heart of darkness involves an encounter with three versions of whiteness—one, the sadistic power-hungry Colonel; two, the frightened traitorous albino Gorilla, Winter; and three, the mute guileless girl, Nova. Before arriving at the camp, Caesar and his group come across a seemingly abandoned homestead where a man tries to shoot them but is swiftly gunned down by Caesar. Upon entering the house, Maurice finds a mute white girl (Amiah Miller) hiding in her bed. Deliberately lowering the gun in Caesar’s hand, Maurice approaches the girl and offers her the white doll he spies on the ground. (It is this white doll, and not Caesar’s rage, that will be the catalyst for the Colonel’s death as it is contaminated with the virus that causes the mutation.) In a tight close up, Maurice’s kind eyes and brown face peer gently at the girl and then the camera cuts to the darkness of the bed where the girl lies. As the camera zooms in the girl’s pale face emerges from the darkness, as she looks cautiously but not fearfully at Maurice. Caesar wants to abandon the girl who “can’t speak,” but Maurice tells him, “I cannot leave her.” Caesar’s initial callousness and watchful wariness of the girl is an indication of how he harbors no vestige of respect or faith in humanity. Indeed, not long after they find her, Caesar breaks the ape commandment again, killing Winter, who having betrayed Caesar is now working as a donkey for the humans. But it is this mute girl, who will become Nova (in a nod to the original series), who represents a different kind of human. As her name indicates, she is “new,” and seems to have no allegiance to her own people who have been corrupted by the bitter divisive war. If Caesar is a Moses figure, leading his “people” to the promised land, Nova is Christ like, offering him salvation. Not only does she help to liberate him from his physical enslavement in the jail, her innocence and trust lift Caesar out of his mental and emotional prison.
Though Nova is clearly human in appearance, the big fur hood of the warm oversized coat that frames her face resembles Maurice’s facial flange. And she identifies more with the nurturing apes than with the callous humans. When Nova asks Maurice, who is both a parent and teacher to the young girl, if she is an ape, he pauses and tells her she is “Nova”—new. Like Christ, who was prophesied to come from among the Israelites and redeem mankind, this white skinned, blue eyed, blond haired girl who vocalizes like an ape and dresses like an ape, the film implies, is the prophet that will redeem humanity.
The equation of whiteness with desolation and a desperate hatred, in addition to its embodiment by a neo-Nazi type figure comments on today’s myth of “embattled whiteness.” Building a wall and securing a border cannot protect us from the real threat—ourselves and the parody of humanity the United States has come to represent. Rather than sympathize with the plight of the humans, War puts us into Caesar’s shoes, and we watch, as he does, with “horror, the horror” at the zero sum game the humans engage in to destroy themselves. But in Nova, War offers us the possibility of redemption, a way out of the darkness of whiteness toward a new future of inclusiveness.
Acknowledgements: I would like to thank “Auntie” Ken Roemer for his enthusiasm and interest in “the apes.” In the deserted summer halls of Carlisle, Ken was a welcome friend and interlocutor whose wit and conversation brightened some very long and solitary writing days.
1. Phillip Atiba Goff, Jennifer L. Eberhardt, Melissa J. Williams, and Matthew Christian Jackson, “Not Yet Human: Implicit Knowledge, Historical Dehumanization, and Contemporary Consequences.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94:2, 2008; pp.292-306, 293. [return to text]
2. Eric Greene, Planet of the Apes as American Myth: Race, Politics, and Popular Culture. Wesleyan Press, 1998. 25.
3. In Pierre Boulle’s original novel, La Planète des Singes (1963),the ape/human hierarchy does not function as an allegory for race relations; Boulle’s primary concern was to understand what separates human beings from animals and how human superiority could be asserted and maintained in the face of a challenge to it (Greene 33). Rupert Wyatt’s 2011 reboot, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, foregrounds some of these original themes, locating them within particular issues of concern to twenty-first century audiences. Issues relating to the ethics of bioengineering and big pharma, and the extent to which we should utilize animals as test subjects in human drug trials are opened for examination. To that end, the film also explores the question of species boundaries and what constitutes the difference between the human and the animal.
4. David Denby calls Rise, “shrewd, coherent, and fully felt,” and a “needling rebuke to human vanity.” https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/09/05/noble-creatures; Roger Ebert sees Rise as a “traditional hero’s journey,” “surprisingly intimate and wrenching.” And Dawn as a “messy, often sad sequel” exploring the aftermath of revolution wherein the “tribe’s survival must be purchased at the cost of its soul.” https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/dawn-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-2014; The New York Times’ A.O. Scott suggests that while Dawn “paints a darker, scarier picture of the future,” it ultimately champions “tolerance and cooperation.” https://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/11/movies/review-dawn-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-continues-the-saga.html. While most mainstream media critics see Rise and Dawn as transcending the racial politics of the earlier franchise, many bloggers have addressed the racial politics of the film, directly. For the range of these, see http://paracinema.net/2011/12/enlightened-racism-in-rise-of-the-planet-of-the-apes/; http://kalabashmedia.com/2017/07/20/planet-apes-racist/; https://feministfrequency.com/2017/07/18/masculinity-rage-and-racism-some-thoughts-on-war-for-the-planet-of-the-apes/; https://thegrio.com/2011/08/05/the-racial-politics-behind-planet-of-the-apes/.
5. Jar Jar Binks, reviled by many Star Wars fans, is the controversial character who appears in Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace. He is widely considered to be a racial caricature, resembling the stage persona of the lazy Stepin Fetchit, in addition to exhibiting traits associated with blackface minstrelsy.
6. In my book, Almost Human, But Not Quite: Hollywood, Race, and the Rise of Donald Trump, I explore these ideas as they relate to other films and television shows produced during the Obama Presidency. Manuscript in progress.
7. See Kellner and Ryan, Camera Politica: The Politics and Ideology of Contemporary Hollywood Film. Indiana and Bloomington, Indiana UP, 1988; Kellner, Cinema Wars. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2010.
8. Isiah Lavender III, Race in American Science Fiction. Bloomington: Indian UP, 2011. 7.
12. Ralina L. Joseph, “Imagining Obama: Reading Overtly and Inferentially Racist Images of our 44th President, 2007-2008.” Communication Studies 62:4, 389-405.
13. “‘Ape in heels’: W.Va. mayor resigns amid controversy over racist comments about Michelle Obama.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2016/11/14/ape-in-heels-w-va-officials-under-fire-after-comments-about-michelle-obama/?utm_term=.08ee06ba4872
14. For a collective sampling of these images see, http://www.historyonthenet.com/authentichistory/diversity/african/3-coon/6-monkey/
15. Eric Greene, Planet of the Apes as American Myth: Race, Politics, and Popular Culture. Wesleyan Press, 1998. 176.
17. I examine the film’s treatment of bioengineering and its exploration of species boundaries in my book, Almost Human, But Not Quite: Hollywood, Race, and the Rise of Donald Trump. In progress.
19. Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the Unites States. 3rd edition. New Yok: Routledge, 2014. 190.
20. Doulgas Kellner, Cinema Wars: Hollywood Film and Politics in the Bush-Cheney Era. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2010, 2.
22. The Watts “riots,” occurring from August 11 to 16, 1965 in the poor, largely African American Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, is considered to be the largest race-related conflict of the Civil Rights period. The fighting followed the arrest by a white police officer of a black motorist, Marquette Frye, for suspicion of drunk driving and resulted in a violent confrontation between onlookers and police, exacerbated by claims of police brutality. Thirty-four people were killed, hundreds arrested, and numerous businesses were looted or destroyed. The National Guard was mobilized to restore peace and order. Notably, the police chief of Los Angeles at that time, William Parker, compared the rioters to “monkeys in the zoo.” http://time.com/3974595/watts-riot-1965-history/
23. In Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973), Caesar finds a recording of an interview with his father, Cornelius, from 1972. When asked how apes first acquired the power of speech, Cornelius responds: “They learned how to refuse. On a historic day, an ape spoke a word which had been spoken to him time without number by humans. He said ‘no!’”
24. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness. New York: The New Press, 2010, 2012, 7.
25. The killing of black 19-year-old Timothy Thomas by police on April 7, 2001 led to rioting in the city of Cincinnati and was the largest scale racial uprising since 1992.
26. Between “1965 and 1968 three hundred race-related disturbances and race-related violent confrontations, usually referred to as ‘riots,’ gripped the nation, involving an estimated half million African Americans, a number equivalent to the number of US soldiers serving at the time in Vietnam. The battles resulted in over eight thousand causalities” (Greene 79).
28. An investigation of the incident by the Department of Justice, published on March 4, 2015, supported Wilson’s version of events, based on DNA evidence, and found witness statements suggesting Brown was raising his hands to surrender were “inaccurate because they are inconsistent with the physical and forensic evidence” and others were “materially inconsistent” with prior statements by the same witnesses. https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/opa/press-releases/attachments/2015/03/04/doj_report_on_shooting_of_michael_brown_1.pdf
29. Quoted in Michael Tesler, Post-Racial or Most-Racial?: Race and Politics in the Obama Era. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016. 231. See also, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2015/03/04/the-12-key-highlights-from-the-dojs-scathing-ferguson-report/?utm_term=.9226908bbb17
30. Tesler, Post-Racial, 192.
31. Howard Kurtz, “How a false media narrative made Ferguson worse.” http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2014/11/26/how-false-media-narrative-made-ferguson-worse.html; Ron Christie, “How the Media and Obama made Ferguson worse.” http://www.thedailybeast.com/how-the-media-and-obama-made-ferguson-even-worse
36. http://www.salon.com/2017/04/27/trolling-for-a-race-war-neo-nazis-are-trying-to-bait-leftist-antifa-activists-into-violence-and-radicalize-white-people/; http://www.vocativ.com/338228/white-supremacists-dallas-police-shootings-police/
37. For more on Jacobs’ role in the film and the positioning of African American actors alongside the apes in Rise, see Ingram, Almost Human, But Not Quite: Hollywood, Race, and the Rise of Donald Trump, in progress.
38. Tesler, 208. Fn.15, 16.
39. Until 2004, when the federal Departments of Justice and Education declared the practice “inconsistent with federal l aw,” many schools in the south crowned separate black and white homecoming officers. In addition to racially segregated proms, such practices were attempts by schools to challenge the spirit of integration. https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2004/10/13/07ocr.h24.html?tkn=
40. Eric D. Knowles, Brian S. Lowery, Elizabeth Shulman, Rebecca L. Schaumberg. “Race, Ideology, and the Tea Party: A Longitudinal Study.” http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0067110
51. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/news/2015/05/28/113436/8-facts-you-should-know-about-the-criminal-justice-system-and-people-of-color/; http://www.sentencingproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Uneven-Justice-State-Rates-of-Incarceration-by-Race-and-Ethnicity.pdf
53. See Omi and Winant; Tesler and O’Sears, Obama’s Race; Belcher, Black Man in the White House; Anderson, White Rage.
54. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/08/01/trump-is-the-first-republican-in-modern-times-to-win-the-partys-nomination-on-anti-minority-sentiments/?utm_term=.7d99495cbe16; https://www.vox.com/2016/9/19/12933072/far-right-white-riot-trump-brexit; http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/08/31/the-fearful-and-the-frustrated
55. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/08/01/trump-is-the-first-republican-in-modern-times-to-win-the-partys-nomination-on-anti-minority-sentiments/?utm_term=.7d99495cbe16; Belcher, Black Man in the White House; Tesler, Post-Racial or Most Racial
62. For a detailed account of the raid of Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, see http://www.cbsnews.com/news/seals-first-hand-account-of-bin-laden-killing/
64. In Planet of the Apes (1968), Nova is a mute human paired off for procreation with Taylor. He rescues her when he escapes captivity, although both soon learn that escape is impossible.
65. The comparisons of Caesar and Moses are many, both in the original franchise and in the reboot. In Escape from the Planet of the Apes, Caesar’s parents, like Moses’s parents, defied the order that all baby apes be killed by hiding him in a circus, where he was later adopted. In the current film, Caesar liberates the apes from slavery and leads them to the promised land.
66. Of course, we do well to question why such a savior needs to be white, and why whiteness is, at least in the case of Nova, tied to purity and innocence.