Last night I went to see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes with a group of perfect strangers, and I had a good time. The film is technically awesome and well-performed. There are sincerely touching and affecting moments. But as I sat surrounded by a boisterous crowd who hooted and howled every time an explosion sent chimpanzees flying through the air, I knew that there was a conversation we would all need to have, and it's not going to be pleasant.
The original Planet of the Apes came out in 1968, the same year MLK was shot. Its sequels spooled out over the years that followed, in the wake of the Civil Rights Act. The new Planet of the Apes movies have been made in the years of our first black President. People, this is not a coincidence. The Planet of the Apes movies are about race.
Most of you know this already, but we have chosen not to talk about it because talking about race makes Americans very uncomfortable. And sometimes very smart people will pretend something is not true because they don't want to talk about it. So if you're one of the people insisting that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is just a summer blockbuster action flick about monkeys who ride horses, and can't we just pass the popcorn and enjoy it -- why do I have to ruin it! -- my only answer is that this movie is art, good art poses questions, and I'm just trying to answer the questions this movie has asked me.
One of the oldest insults leveled against blacks -- whether in America or elsewhere -- is to compare them to monkeys. And the makers of these pictures are not shy about their metaphor either. There is precisely one gorilla in 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes; his name is Buck. Now, they could have named that gorilla anything. Kong, Magilla, or maybe Bob. But they named him Buck, which is a derogatory term for a young black man.
These movies are not just "about race," they are absolutely grounded in our current conversation about race and President Obama. One of the most remarkable things about the criticism of Obama which comes from the right is that it seems to hold two drastically opposing viewpoints: on the one hand, President Obama is a fascist dictator with a cunning plan to overthrow America. But on the other hand, he is an impotent idiot, unable to accomplish anything. These contradictory stances are held at the same time. I hate to soil Ken Hite's wonderful gaming term "biassociation" with political usage (SEE NOTE 3), but it seems appropriate here. Rise of the Planet of the Apes solves the problem of this conflicting interpretation of the President by splitting him off into two people, a tactic that was old when Spenser used it four centuries ago in the Faerie Queene. In Rise, the fascist dictator black man is represented by Caesar -- who is not just named after a dictator, but who straight-up explains fascism to Maurice the orangutan using the fascia, the symbol of Rome, a bundle of sticks tied together in order to go unbroken. And the impotent idiot-in-chief black man is represented by the well-groomed and handsome David Oyelowo, who prods James Franco's character into unethical research that ends up wiping out everything that walks on two legs but which isn't black.
But Rise of the Planet of the Apes was three years ago; let's get back to the present. Dawn depicts a war, a war between apes and man. And, once we acknowledge that these are movies about race, that means that what we are watching is a movie about race war. There are some ugly truths about America that this film is pandering to. There are millions of Americans who see that the white majority in this country is shrinking, who see a black President and a rising Latino population, and they are afraid. They say things like, "This isn't my country anymore," or "This isn't the America I used to know." And what these sentences mean -- and this can be very difficult to admit -- is that "This country isn't as white as it used to be." These people are afraid, afraid of change and a racial uprising, an America in which their position of privilege is gone. They may even be afraid of a role reversal, in which white Americans are the minority, oppressed and discriminated against by the angry young bucks who want revenge.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes all these horrifying, irrational, and ugly fears and puts them on the biggest screens in America. Those chimpanzees in war paint? That's a metaphor for African primitivism and all the trappings of African culture which black Americans maintain. (Yes, Annalee, it's African. It was just too uncomfortable for you to go there in public.) When a chimpanzee tricks a couple of white rednecks by pretending to be a stupid monkey, he's performing a minstrel show. When an ape is shown carrying a white woman over his shoulder, her calves pumping as she kicks, that is a miscegenation rape image. When the human beings in this movie, traumatized by the "Simian Flu," experience a primal revulsion whenever they see an ape, that is the trained reaction of the bigot himself, who sees a black man and recoils in unspoken loathing. When apes put human beings in cages, that's white folks being made into slaves. When an ape is walking on the American flag, that's the blacks, "taking over the goddamn country."
Caesar is, of course, at the heart of this, but the debate is now over whether or not he is, himself, a racist. His vengeance-crazed right hand man Koba(ma) (SEE NOTE 1 BELOW) accuses him of loving humans more than apes, pointing out Caesar's mixed-race heritage as a chimp raised by a white dude. But it is Caesar himself who answers the question of his own racism at the end of the film when he admits that, yes, he thought all apes were better than all humans. Yes, the black super-smart dictator thinks his own kind are better than All Of You.
Okay, so, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes takes the fear of race war which millions of American hide deep inside them, and puts it on the big screen. But what does it say about this war? Yes, it's about race, but what does it say about race?
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes says racial war is inevitable and destructive. (SEE NOTE 2) It says that there are basically three kinds of people: violent bigots who will stop at nothing, naive idealists who are doomed to be overwhelmed by events, and the sheeple, who go where they are told to go and do what they are told to do, largely out of fear. The idealists are sympathetic and kind, even brilliant, but intelligence is not what gets shit done in these movies. It's the violent bigots who get shit done in these movies, and the rest of us are just going to be drug under. It's a very depressing message. This is not a film which outright encourages the racial war it has chosen to depict in eye-popping digital glory -- it never claims that race war is a Good Thing -- but it is a film which over-indulges in racist imagery. It is race porn; something you watch so that the silent screaming of your threatened id can be released, and your fears about the collapsing nation can all be confirmed.
I appear to have suddenly gotten a lot of traffic, almost entirely from people who disagree with me (which is cool) and who think I am a "raving nutter" (which is not cool). These comments have been Anonymous and are difficult to reply to on my blog, but I'll use this column to do what I can.
1) One Anonymous writer took issue with my "Koba(ma)" reference. I did not expand on this idea because I was not sure what to make of it. This poster thought it was ridiculous, and also noted that Koba was a nickname for Stalin. I did not know that! That is very useful, and I thank you for the tip. This anonymous poster also argued that Koba acted a lot like Stalin in the film, but I see Koba as a pretty one-dimensional hate-filled bad guy.
2) Other writers have noted -- and they are absolutely right -- that the portrayal of the apes in this movie is sympathetic. Yes, it is. So is the portrayal of most of the human beings. Yes, we are "rooting for the apes", but we are also rooting for the humans. We're rooting for the smart, kind, sympathetic people regardless of race in this movie. And those people -- Man or Ape -- all lose. An anonymous poster said, "The apes win." No, they do not. No one wins. Because Caesar's goal, and the goal of the apes, is to avoid war. But they are forced into it by radicals on both sides. This is one of the complicated aspects of this film, and that's why I call this film depressing.
3) Ken Hite helpfully corrected me, that "bisociation" (which I apparently spelled wrong) originally comes from Arthur Koestler, and perhaps "doublethink" would be more workable in this case. Thanks, Ken.
I've had to enable comment screening to filter out anonymous and hateful posts, but I want to thank the people who wrote constructively. You have made my argument better and I am grateful for that.