Rise of the Planet of the Apes Provides Lessons in Liberation

A chill-inducing moment turned Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a potentially campy summer action movie, into serious drama. It occurred right after the prison guard Dodge Landon (played by Tom Felton) delivered the iconic phrase from the original Planet of the Apes, immortalized by Charlton Heston: “Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!”

Sure enough, the recognizable line drew guffaws in the movie theater where I watched Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Rupert Wyatt’s loose prequel to the sci-fi classic, which imagines how humans’ scientific experimentation on apes led to their world takeover. However, the campy line was soon followed by an impressive pause, in which our hero Caesar (a CGI ape humanized by Andy Serkis) stood upright, stared defiantly at his oppressor, and then spoke his very first words in the film while tightening his grip:

“No!”

And just like that, the giggling came to an abrupt end. The audience (myself included) reacted in stunned silence, give or take a few audible gasps. And slowly, ripples of applause made their way through the theater.

“No!”  A simple word transformed an ape character into a human being worthy of respect, the way an ape’s simple grasp of a bone signaled “evolution” in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which came out the same year as the original Planet–during a time of racial, political, and social unrest.

I have always watched the series of Planet of the Ape films like other black audiences: understanding subconsciously that these movies were metaphorically about “us” and our oppressed “condition,” understanding that our imagined “takeover” reflected white fears about the upending of racial hierarchies. After all, African-descended people and the apes from the same continent were constantly linked in racist scientific rhetoric and in popular culture (think King Kong and the fear of black masculine primitivism).

As Richard Von Busak notes in his essay, “Signifying Monkeys: Politics and Story-Telling in the Planet of the Apes series,” the original film may not have been intended as a racial metaphor, but the subsequent movies were much more blatant in their political allegory. And since Hollywood has yet to make an epic movie based on actual black slave uprisings in history–represented by the likes of Toussaint L’Ouverture in Haiti or Nat Turner and Harriet Tubman here in the U.S.–I will gladly take my sci-fi racial liberation metaphors where I find them. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is loaded with them.

I find it curious that this particular series from the sixties and seventies is presently receiving a re-boot at the same time a more “serious” drama, The Help, sanitizes the turbulent Civil Rights era. Give me Ape uprisings and racial symbolism over dishonest historic depictions any day of the week.

“Get down with your bad selves, my cousins!” I exclaimed at the screen, with fist in the air. “Power to the People–err Apes!”

The film fully embraces its parallels to African American history beginning with the very first shot: a camera pan over a group of chimps running wild and free in the “Motherland” that is the jungles of Africa. Then comes a scene right out of Alex Haley’s Roots, in which one of the ape members is captured like Kunta Kinte and later shipped to “civilization,” now represented by a scientific lab in San Francisco.

As the slavery metaphor continues, it’s fraught with racial and sexual allegories. The camera provides an extreme close-up on the brown eyes of our captured ape, then zooms out of the “blue eyes” of the relocated female chimp, known as “Bright Eyes.” We later learn that Bright Eyes has been given an experimental drug called AZL-112, developed by the scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) who is desperately seeking a cure for the Alzheimer’s that has ravaged the mind of his father (played brilliantly by John Lithgow). This drug has the effect of not only changing Bright Eyes’ natural brown eyes the color blue, but also enhancing her intelligence to equal that of with human beings. Thus blue eyes, often associated with Caucasians, are equated with higher intelligence. Her transformation also echoes the historical creation of the New World “mulatto,” especially since her “enhancement” via blue eyes recalls eugenicist arguments for the racial superiority of mixed-race subjects due to their “hybrid vigor.” Except in this case, gene technology, not eugenics or sexual exploitation, gave birth to a new hybrid.

Bright Eyes is extremely important to this “origin” story, for she will be gunned down when she suddenly goes “ape” in the lab, all the while hiding her newborn infant, thus contributing to a common sexist trope in liberation movies: The female body becomes the sacrificial vessel from which our hero springs.

If the origin myth hits some wrong notes, the liberation narrative that follows is surprisingly politically astute. The genetically enhanced baby ape, Caesar, is adopted by human scientist Will, and their vexed bond forms the heart and soul of the film. Despite Caesar’s displays of human intelligence, Will treats him more as a pet than a son. Caesar is later carted off to a prison-like animal sanctuary, where, in the grand tradition of “prison break” narratives, he comes of age and establishes his new role as revolutionary leader. His growing sense of solidarity with his fellow apes is dramatized when Will later confronts the upright-standing, talking Caesar and still treats him as though he were not his equal. When Caesar consciously chooses to reject his “father” (or master, if we’re going by the slave metaphor), his choice is one of asserting independence and freedom, which is far more significant than standing up to and defeating the prison guards and state troopers who get in his way.

As for Will, his lack of growth, in contrast to Caeser’s artificially accelerated development, is astounding in its canny illustration of white male power and privilege. It’s a heartbreaking parable about the need for the oppressed to resist such power at all costs for our own liberation, no matter how benevolent and loving the care we receive. The mental deterioration of Will’s father serves as a powerful metaphor for the loss of patriarchal, anthropomorphic and scientific control over nature–about which Caroline (Freida Pinto), Will’s partner and zoo veterinarian, forewarns him. (It’s unfortunate that her role is limited to Cassandra-like unheeded prophet).

Among the few major black characters is Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo), one of the movie villains, a corporate exec who greenlights the development of a newer strain of Will’s drug–not understanding that while it accelerates ape intelligence, it has a reverse effect on humans. However, I see Jacobs as someone who is cast to racially “neutralize” the story, along with the black men who carry out acts of violence, from the poachers in the African jungles to the security guard who kills Bright Eyes. If the audience is already inclined to cheer on our “blue-eyed” heroes (even though they are apes) while the villainous humans are aligned with these various “black brutes,” the racial hierarchy of the film remains in place even as it challenges the racial hierarchy in the story.

Despite these limitations in its gendered and racial representations, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is still a powerful recycled story of liberation, arriving at a crucial moment as our economic recession widens the racial wealth gap. It reminds us that the important steps toward mental and physical freedom often begins with a simple word of resistance: No.

Poster for Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

Comments

  1. Just a nit…

    Wasn’t resultant eye-color change green, not blue?

  2. Technically, it turns their eyes green but the metaphor is very apt that they go from brown/darker eyes to more Caucasianlly acceptable blue/green eyes. I have been a massive fan of the series since I was 2 years old. I, in fact, made my brother watch the film “Conquest for the Planet of the Apes,” which “Rise” is loosely inspired by last night. While “Rise” moves faster and has, of course 10x the budget and special effects, I can never decide which version speaks truer to me. Both have Caesar leading his people in an uprising, but somehow, there’s something a grittier about the 70s version, something about hearing Caesar (Roddy MacDowell) give voice to his thoughts and dialogue with McDonald, the one prominent African American character and his ally in the 70s film, that drives points home in a way this version still can’t quite. Both are good allegories of oppression, agreed, but different in their efficacy.

    Though I will admit that “Conquest” reflects what I still saw as a lingering fear in the 70s of a totalitarian government or one that would be radically oppressive by the state (or Fox’s Century City), whereas this really highlights in addition to racial issues the trouble with and the troubling nature of our latest scientific experiments and the fear that we are, like Will and the ALZ113, unleashing things we can’t possibly understand.

    • Janell Hobson says:

      Really good points! You’re reminding me that I really need to re-watch Conquest now that Rise is in theaters.

  3. Very nice, good deconstruction, except for one thing: the irises of apes who receive AZL-112 turn green, not blue. So the Caucasian/African parallel with regards to eye color isn’t there – but the concept that the drug expands “intelligence” can be explored as a theme of “civilizing” the primitives – though it’s clear Caesar’s compatriots are fairly smart on their own before being gassed.

    The apes are “gifted” with the concept of an ego – only apes that receive the virus have names. Caesar even wears clothes at first. They are brought “out of balance” in the wild by humans, who force on them the drug which gives them a concept of self apart from the whole – and makes them realize just how out of balance they are, as subservient creatures. The film foreshadows something of a return to balance as the apes head into the redwoods, even while we are shown the inevitable spread of a deadly virus across the globe (which only kills humans, therefor ensuring the primates ascendancy and the return of a ecological harmony).

    So, it’s not just the end of the patriarchy, or racial hierarchies, but the complete undoing of human “civilization” – which, ironically, leaves a seed in Caesar, as he assumes a role of authority (which we know evolves in a caste system for gorillas, apes, and orangutans in other films of the franchise). While one system of oppression is justly destroyed, another emerges. Returning to true balance means entropy is inevitable. Peace happens when the revolutions and uprisings end. Peace is when intelligence ends, and harmony and “the wild” returns.

  4. “The important steps toward mental and physical freedom often begins with a simple word of resistance: No.” – Janell Hobson

    I love this ending line. Thanks so much for the thoughtful analysis. This is what I hope my students will be able to produce. I have begun teaching a course titled “Media Studies,” and I want them to right reviews like yours.

  5. “No!” A simple word transformed an ape character into a human being worthy of respect…

    Are non-human beings unworthy of respect? Would like to see continued dialogue along the path Nathanael Bassett (comment timed August 14, 2011 at 3:51 pm) is taking: does the hierarchy shake-up here mean human culture and progress itself is being interrogated, and what are the implications of that on a planet pushed to the brink by human activities?

    Lee Hall – Friends of Animals and Primarily Primates, Inc.

    • Janell Hobson says:

      No, non-human beings are not “unworthy of respect,” but in the context of the movie, the way the line is delivered, it immediately called our attention to how respect between equals is achieved simply through the power of language.

  6. Lovely points Janelle, thanks. Let me also note that there are no adult white female characters at all, save a nurse character at the beginning who advocates for institutionalizing of the dementia dad. She is on screen for a minute or two at most. So this racial fantasy idealizes the white master’s possession of the female of color and dispenses entirely with white women as viable.

    • interesting observation. but while the movie did dispense with white females completely, it also did not have any note-worthy black women.

  7. “And since Hollywood has yet to make an epic movie based on actual black slave uprisings in history–represented by the likes of Toussaint L’Ouverture in Haiti or Nat Turner and Harriet Tubman here in the U.S.–I will gladly take my sci-fi racial liberation metaphors where I find them. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is loaded with them.”

    Steven Spielberg’s Amistad. This is not to say it’s not without it’s problems, though. :)

    • Janell Hobson says:

      Oh yeah, Spielberg’s Amistad. Not exactly what I had in mind in terms of liberation movies, but I guess it counts, right?

      Even though our revolutionary leader spent a huge chunk of the movie in chains, shouting “give us free!”, pleading to white men in a court of law for his freedom – yep, why didn’t I think of that movie?

      • Right, but it is a slave rebellion movie. Historical record versus political desires are always problematic in film, especially when Spielberg is involved, but that’s Political Economy 101. Then again, if they weren’t, those of us in literary and media studies wouldn’t have jobs!

        If I remember correctly, Danny Glover has been working on a film about L’Ouverture for some time now. Perhaps that will be more satisfactory, but historical films never quite can be.

        • Janell Hobson says:

          Yes, I did hear about Danny Glover’s project. I wonder how that’s going? I hope it would be more satisfactory.

    • I don’t know that I would call Amistad an uprising movie. yes the africans fought back and took over the ship, but then were captured again by whites and eventually “saved” by a white man who didn’t even care about their plight at first. not very liberating IMO

  8. I honestly never caught onto the racial themes in Planet of the Apes, I thought it was about religion supressing science. But was not aware that Apes and Africans were linked in racial propaganda until very recently. The first movie seemed to me to be more about the supression of knowledge and maybe the cast system that the apes employed.

    The one with the Atom Bomb I don’t get the racial themes in it either.

    Escape from the Planet of the Apes I guess I can see…

    I haven’t seen the new one yet, but very interesting.

  9. <>

    According to scientists, the human species, not just African Americans, originated in Africa. Moreover, some ancestor species of humans were arboreal.

    From my perspective, the apes weren’t running wild–they were interacting as a family. And Caesar’s speech was surprising because primates don’t have the physiology to speak like humans (hence, researchers teach primates sign language and Caesar’s signing was unsurprising.)

    <>

    What about the cruelest villains, the father and son managers of the “ape prison”? They’re white, and the son is played by the same actor who’s played Malfoy Draco, a pure-blood, in the Harry Potter series. The son also had a couple of white female friends who were unsympathetic towards the apes (related to Diana’s comment).

    As an Asian American who’s studied race, gender, etc., I was aware of Caroline’s symbolizing Asian and feminist philosophies in contrast to Will’s Western philosophies.

  10. Excellent piece! When I watched the film, I was also very much impressed with the focus on coalition building (between ape species); that “increased intelligence” in the apes predominantly manifested as an awakened political consciousness; and the (somewhat subtle) commentary on the use of violence in resistance movements seemed a touch more complex than is usual for Hollywood’s status quo machine.

    **SPOILERS**[To explain my last point: Caesar was often shown preventing killing, but I think this was to make him a broadly palatable hero. But the gorilla, Buck, is portrayed as much more prone to the use of violence (as shown in the film's attention to the history of his confinement and his physicality). Yet he is not dismissed (and so neither are his actions) as an overzealous follower who has only joined with Caesar to exercise his rage. He is, instead, brave and committed. And when he is killed, his death is tragic -- the battle (or rather, our view of it) pauses and we grieve the loss of a (albeit less central) hero.]

  11. Is it just me but it seems like Caesar was like the Peter Parker of the movie. He’s orphaned and taken care of Will (James Franco) and his father (John Lithgow), which for some reason, Lithgow is like the Ben Parker of the movie. And when Will takes Caesar to the Redwood forest and climbs the trees, he feels more alive than anywhere in the world (like Peter Parker first puts on his Spider-Man outfit and spins his first web and swinging to and fro).

    Doesn’t it have that Spider-Man element, despite the fact that James Franco (who was in the “Spider-Man” films), showing that mutated apes also have a place in the world? Now far as the green eye color being “caucasian”, that maybe grasping at straws to me. Now blue eyes maybe a “white” trait, however the green eye trait is a trait that all peoples of color have (including Europeans), albeit it’s a recessive trait for non-European people of color.

    However, it’s quite obvious from also a racial and historical POV, many of the characters were named after actors or producers from the original POTA film franchise of the ’60s and ’70s:

    Mr. Jacobs, the black executive, is also the last name of Albert P. Jacobs, the producer of the first five POTA films. “Bright Eyes” was also the nickname of Charleton Heston’s character Taylor (given by chimp scientists Zira and Cornelius) before they discovered his actual name is “Taylor.”

    And Maurice, the male orangutan who befriends Caesar (who ALSO knows sign language), was also the name of British actor Maurice Evans (of “Bewitched” fame as Samantha’s father), who played the orangutan scholar “Dr. Zaius” from the original 1968 “Planet of The Apes.”

    I think it was the best well written movie I’ve seen this year, period. Bar None. It practically goes full circle and also gives great homage to the previous POTA films, including the 2001 Tim Burton remake.

  12. az112 is black conciousness. the lab is the slave breeding plantation (yes there were such things esp. virginia). the plantation owners tried to breed the super slave for PROFIT. but, it backfired. it had affects of increased self awareness and curiosity and unity. it requires multiple doses (black folks is sleep- & consciousness does not always take). it does something to humans (yts) that it does not do to chimps (blacks) thus the white assistant is intolerant and dies. The master is a liberal/abolitionist…soon realizes he can not free the animal. when dr. (master) takes ceasar back to the lab and tells his origins (the truth of their relationship) that is what america never did (notwithstanding amdts 13,14 and 15. ceasar was a common slave name (classic greco/roman hero names was americas mockery of black folks like jesus’ crown of thorns). realizing the betrayal of ‘freedom’ after the first (reconstruction) and second (king etal) civil rights movements, is the frustration (north migration & panthers/riots) of ceasar erasing the chalk window. ceasar chooses to lead his people…not assimalte. he militarizes and checks the eyes of each to see if the ‘black’ consciousness has ‘taken’. the war strategy on the bridge = hannibal (afrikan) leader against heart of rome. The big gorillas are the thug niggas, finally united with the rest of the race and sacrificing so that we can get to freedom (the big trees). Yt supremacy can not help itself in letting its greatest fears manifest in story (hollywood). but funny enough ceasar is an endearing figure. but you can see infiltration and organization split in the sequal.

  13. The “liberated” black exists, he lives in Africa. Just go and see what kind of place the “Planet of the Apes” can be.

  14. Everytime I read something about this movie, I search for comments of references to the book. And I never find them. The original story is a book by Pierre Boulle, which I read a couple of weeks before watching this movie. And I could see that who wrote this movie read the book and chose to be faithful to it.
    I recommend it, it is an amazing book and it helps understand most of the things you see on screen. I won’t say the movie is just a copy, I’d say it’s a very good tribute. And concerning the reasons and motives, I believe the metaphor is more extended: it’s about uprising and social/political protest; all forms of it. (though of course it can and should be analysed regarding specific forms of uprising by specific groups and I loved reading the article)

  15. my previous article on mistakes parents make with kids and money part 1, I pointed out 3 crucial mistakes that parents make with their kids and money. 1. Parents use

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