Thursday night, you will get to travel, once again, to the Planet of the Apes with the release of War for the Planet of the Apes. This is the final installment of a trilogy reboot of the series that has captured science-fiction fans since before many of us were born.
In the fictional world created by novelist Pierre Boulle, apes are superior beings who have subjugated humans under a system of inequality. Film and literary critics have interpreted this premise to represent a number of themes. Our treatment of animals sits at the forefront, with some suggesting that the role reversal of the primates puts a mirror to our own treatment of other species. However, race is the most common connection.
Given the immense popularity of the franchise, these ideas about the Planet of the Apes' undertones haven’t been isolated to those in the field of highbrow criticism. Many people have been able to identify the social discord between the humans and equally capable animals in the franchise as a stand-in for the real racial strife that plagues our culture. Some think it reflects the dominant group’s fear of integration and equality, while others believe it champions for the oppressed to have a reason to fight against injustices. Either way, these films mean way more to people than a couple of hours well spent at a movie theater.
Representing people of color, specifically Black people, as monkeys has its own muddled history that pre-dates even the 54-year-old novel. The idea that people of color are savage and uncivilized, like wild animals, has been used to justify the subjugation and violence used against them under colonialism, slavery, Jim Crow, etc. For those particularly sensitive to this imagery, the Planet of the Apes sits too close to that demoralizing trope to be consumed as entertainment.
In this way, it can be argued that the Planet of The Apes franchise is not so much racist, but racial. And this is an unavoidable reality for most content produced in the 20th and 21st centuries, because we are culture deeply embedded in race. It's unknown whether or not this was by design based on the views of creator Boulle himself. What we do know is that War for the Planet of the Apes is predicted to draw out huge crowds. Whether they leave feeling empowered or disenchanted remains yet to be seen.