The Planet of the Apes franchise was constructed on the backs of two cheery thematic tortoises:

  • bigotry may be unsolvable,
  • and humanity will always devolve into chaos.

This is a deeply nihilistic franchise, all the way through Matt Reeves’ brutal contemporary reimagining. The original films, however, have a hardness to them that modern film can’t quite appropriate: their budgets and limited toolset forced on them a minimalist claustrophobia that the expansive new films can’t touch. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, as Rupert Giles might say, makes the subtext text. By foregrounding race and violence in a contemporary American city, Conquest is perhaps the most vicious and socially relevant of them all.

Starting with the first film, the franchise deliberately establishes uneasy parallels to racial tensions in Western countries. Planet of the Apes was created in the raging heart of the 1960s civil rights movement, and was unafraid to portray via metaphor what literal dramatization would not yet touch: the inevitable cycles of cruelty and enslavement that a modicum of genetic difference can inspire. When we first discover the planet of the apes after the humans of our earth have fallen, human remnants have somehow devolved into unclothed mutes. Apes round them up and sell them at auction. They are animals. In the original film, apes are loosely correlated to white slave-owners in pre-Civil War America, and the feral humans the black slaves. As with human society, apes are not unanimously accepting of slavery and actively protest it.

Free the humans

The metaphor is obvious, and quickly becomes troubling if we extend it past its peel. Humans, of course, differ from each other on very minute spectrums. Species do not. Apes are not to humans as whites are to blacks. Nor does it help much to fully embrace the absurdity of cross-speciesism as metaphor: regarding racism as somehow comparable to the ancient war between cats and dogs is off-putting at best, and offensively reductive at worst.

The metaphor is further strained by the more literal racial divides within the ape community. This is an inevitable trap that persists through the original films and to the new films. Such extensive readings may seem like a stretch but the films invite us to adopt a literary eye, to raise our monocles and regard them as an allegory for human archetypes. If we are meant to sympathize with the apes as a proxy for oppressed humans, then we also must read into the extension of the metaphor to the primate sub-species. In Conquest the revolutionary, Caesar, is a light-skinned chimp. The most violent of his henchmen are very dark-skinned gorillas. Although Caesar himself certainly wields weapons of revolution, he is the general and his dark-skinned platoons his inarticulate soldiers. The same is true in the recent films, where gorillas and dark-skinned bonobos are the more primal, more aggressive, least articulate of the ape genomes.

Koba in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Koba, Caesar’s rival in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, is unable to manage his anger, losing himself in violent rages. He is the animal half of the film’s central conflict: organized, peaceful civilization, modeled after human society versus lawless, primal, tribal life. Cooperation versus competition. Koba is also a muscular, dark-skinned bonobo. Again, the film attempts to hew to nature, but this is the danger of following through on an extended speculative metaphor. True as these dynamics may be to nature, there is no avoiding the fact that they mimic vile racist stereotypes.

In addition to the questionable establishment of apes as human proxy in these films we must contend with the truly troubling comparative dynamic of human-to-ape to slaver-to-slave. Even after the United States declared emancipation for all humans, Southern states negotiated the horrific “3/5s” compromise, a legislative writ asserting an enforceable ratio of measurable humanity. Whites rate 5 out of 5, blacks rate 3. White America is (and always will be) poisoned by this legacy of thought. Are these films asserting that the human-to-ape is comparable to our human-to-human equations? Perhaps if we decide that indeed, all God’s creatures are equal, we easily solve this equation. It is nevertheless troubling to watch Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and have to accept that, in this film, humans are white slave owners, and apes are black slaves. I don’t think a biblical platitude solves this particular math.

(American black slavery is of course not the sole instance of human trafficking, but these are American films about American societies, and given that the Union as it stands today was mapped in blood from a war entirely motivated by the inability of Southern states to let go their slaves, it’s fair to read them in these terms.)

These films mean well and were an important milestone in Hollywood political discourse. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is the boldest cry for racial equality of all of these films. It is the story of the origin of the planet we first encounter in the original film. The catalyst of the ape revolution that would overturn humanity’s rule is Caesar, The child of Cornelius and Zira, the beloved survivors of the original future earth’s destruction who, with the help of some magical movie science, slingshot back in time to the 1960s. An orphan at the end of the previous film, Caesar is raised by kind-hearted circus manager Armando (Ricardo Montalban) who is able to hide his talking adoptee until his late teens.

Armando and Caesar

Caesar is overheard talking by a public official and forcefully abducted into servitude. In the 1990s of Conquest, apes are indentured servants, they are our waiters and dishwashers, our day laborers and house-keepers. They are, in essence, a new slave class, abused and chastised by their masters with chains and whips. The setting is horrific, as any animal abuse is, and particularly in a film that asks us to regard the apes as we would regard human slaves.

We are meant to accept that these apes are essentially human in order to relieve us of having to parse the equation. Caesar himself bears human intelligence, and somehow the rest of the world’s apes are evolving at an unbelievable pace, with IQs skyrocketing with each generation. Well, thank goodness, it’s okay to compare them to human slaves because they are magically as intelligent as humans.  It’s a strange justification, but it works: as with the new series, our empathy increases significantly once we recognize that the apes are our intellectual equals. In case we weren’t clear on how we are meant to perceive the apes, Caesar at one point declares to his single human ally, a black man called Mr. McDonald (Hari Rhodes), that “you, of all people” should empathize. As Caesar is our proxy in this film, we too expect Mr. McDonald to support the ape uprising because it, in some way, corresponds to the plight of black Americans.

Ceasar, Mr. MacDonald, and the ape army

This film asks a lot of its audience.

Director J. Lee Thompson stated that he intended very specifically to mimic the violent imagery from protests against racism that white America was watching at the time on their televisions. The apes are filmed with handheld cameras, wielding bats, climbing over the backs of their oppressors, receiving bullets from fascist police. Thompson accomplishes his objective, and we feel deeply for these apes, an oppressed servant class finally taking arms against their masters and overturning a fascist society.

As seen on TV

To ensure that we are clear just where our sympathies should lie, the human law enforcers wear uniforms clearly designed to emulate Nazi Germany.

Science Fiction often deploys gimmicky metaphors and concepts that are meant to rewire our perception of social issues. Planet of the Apes has always erred on the side of social justice, but the original series over-extended its conceit. They are nevertheless landmarks of progressive, even activist film, smuggled into g-rated blockbuster wrappers. Their heart always overcomes their clumsy devices.