Black people have had a contentious relationship with film since the advent of the medium. One of the earliest feature length productions, D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film Birth of a Nation is notable for its depiction of the Klu Klux Klan as heroes of the post-Civil War Reconstruction era and black men (or rather white men in blackface) as unintelligent and sexually violent toward white women.
Throughout Hollywood’s golden years, black people were relegated to mostly background and service roles, the most famous of which is Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar-winning turn as a Mammy in 1939’s Gone with the Wind.
As W.E.B. DuBois said in his “Criteria of Negro Art” speech: “We can go on the stage; we can be just as funny as white Americans wish us to be; we can play all the sordid parts that America likes to assign to Negroes; but for any thing else there is still small place for us.”
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The struggle for accurate portrayal of African-American life is one that continues today. The ways in which we are portrayed in film is often used as a barometer for the status of race relations in this country. Even when it’s not necessarily images of actual black people.
Take for instance the jive-talking, singing, dancing, lazy, shiftless black crows in the 1941 animated Disney film Dumbo. At times, animals have been used as stand ins for black people and have exhibited all the racial stereotypes and fantasies that are regularly circulated. This is not an uncommon cinematic tool.
The original Planet of the Apes, starring screen legend Charlton Heston, released in 1968, served as sort of a cinematic version of John Howard Griffin’s 1961 book Black Like Me, where Griffin experienced life as a black man by darkening his skin and reported back on his findings. It’s a “what if the shoe was on the other foot?” type scenario where white men experience the type of discrimination usually reserved for black people.
Apes imagined a fictional world 2,000 years in the future where monkeys, gorillas, and other primates take on human features including the sort of racism that the Civil Rights Movement was addressing at the time, only directed at human beings. It’s about how power corrupts and can be used unjustly but one isn’t always aware of the injustice until they experience it for themselves. Though it was intended to be show support for black people’s fight for human rights, it relies on the racist notion of black people being not being fully human, choosing monkeys of all animals as stand ins for black people. It also played into the issues of skin-color hierarchy, making lighter apes more intelligent than their darker, more uncivilized counterparts.
A “re-imagining” of this film was produced in 2001, directed by Tim Burton and starring Mark Wahlberg, and it ran into some of the same issues. An orangutan, played by Paul Giamatti, actually says “can’t we all just get along?” in an obvious and not easily digested nod to Rodney King and the phrase he made popular during the 1992 L.A. riots, which were a response the acquittal of the officers responsible for his vicious beating. Once again, issues of race and racism were introduced via monkeys.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes, starring James Franco and Freida Pinto, is the latest addition to this franchise, but serves more as a reboot than a remake or prequel. The focus of this film is the origin story. Franco plays a scientist working on a cure for Alzheimer’s disease whose first test subject, a chimpanzee named Caesar, experiences unintended and unanticipated side-effects, acquiring human-like intelligence and feelings.
It’s as de-racialized as it can be, choosing to focus more on the scientific aspects of the story, though it is still very much a story of revolution. In a way, it’s 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.
In the aforementioned speech, DuBois also said “all Art is propaganda and ever must be.” The question becomes, what message is that propaganda spreading? What does it mean when we’ve taken something as racially encoded as the Planet of the Apes films and tried to strip the issue of race from them? It could be read as progress, if you don’t care to see black people compared to monkeys any longer, or perhaps disingenuous, if you would rather the film honor the original intent.
Either way, the issue of race on film is just as contentious as ever, and the debate will not relent any time soon, monkeys or not.