If you’ve ever wondered why Charlton Heston damned us all to hell in the original Planet of the Apes film, it’s because we learn (over the course of some movies of…questionable quality?) that humans ultimately destroyed each other in escalating nuclear conflicts. Eventually the other great apes came to rule the earth. But, back when humans were still in charge, we did awful things like enslave apes to perform our menial labor. This came after a long history of encroaching upon and ultimately appropriating their habitats for profit industries, locking them into zoos and performing medical experiments on them for human benefit.
[Spoilers Alert for [Dawn of the Planet of the Apes](movie:322904)]
This might all sound depressingly familiar given the ways in which humans still treat great apes, but it might also ring a bell because the original films (particularly from Escape from The Planet of the Apes and on) draw explicit allegories between the experiences of Indigenous and/or Black peoples and apes, among the Cold War allegories. There’s no arguing that Indigenous and/or Black folk have suffered similar actions at the hands of colonizing, imperialistic powers that did (and, in some cases, continue to do) things like display Indigenous peoples in human zoos, perform unethical medical experiments and procedures such as the infamous Tuskegee experiment (among many, many others), grab as much land as possible while violently removing the original occupants of that land and, of course, enslave people.
In the reboot series, while humans never go so far as using apes for slave labor in any systematic way, they suffer all of the other indignities the apes in the original films suffer. In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the writers don’t particularly shy away from the noble savage set up with the apes living in “primitive” villages, complete with vague tribal paint, spiritual healers, and so forth. The apes, like many of the real, living peoples they represent, must confront mostly white humans encroaching upon their lands, in this instance to power a dam and, hopefully, harness the electricity for their own ends.
This wouldn’t be the first time speculative fictional narratives have appropriated the histories and contemporary experiences of people of color for their mutants, or their aliens resisting their extermination, or stories about internalized colonization, or their apes. Junot Díaz made the excellent observation that these stories simply couldn’t exist without us. And, yet, they exist without us, without ever meaningfully incorporating us into the narrative besides a few token characters that rarely take center stage. In this particular film, relatively few people of color exist, yet alone do anything of any consequence, and our stand-ins are apes (a metaphor not without tremendous, racialized implications). At the very least, the film does ask the audience to identify with and root for the apes rather than the humans. But, it also asks the audience to do so while figuratively and literally dehumanizing the real life inspirations for this story arc.
Read more about the social issues raised in the film at shallowgraves.org.