ByBen Tobin Johnson, writer at
I memorized Jurassic Park and wrote a book about it.
Ben Tobin Johnson

You might have recently noticed that the animal rights movement has been gaining traction in the mainstream, and not just because SeaWorld continues to flounder in its efforts to combat the backlash generated by 2013's Blackfish.

Last year, the NIH announced it would be retiring the majority of its chimpanzees in an attempt to scale back its animal testing programs. The School of Medicine at Johns Hopkins has officially ended live animal testing altogether.

But for animal rights lawyer Steven Wise and The Nonhuman Rights Project, the real work is only beginning. To quote Ari Phillips: "Chimpanzees are about to have their Blackfish moment."

Unlocking the Cage follows Wise as he attempts the unprecedented: legal recognition of chimpanzees (and other animals) as people, thus conferring the right to bodily liberty and protection from abuse.

As a supporter of this kind of litigation, I'm the choir to which it preaches. I will watch just about anything that involves primates, especially chimps, so I confess I'm hopelessly biased in my assessment of this film. That said, I'm certainly not the only one singing its praises, calling for more buzz, or optimistic about its prospects despite flaws.

"Well, that's great and all," you shrug, shifting your weight to the other leg probably, "but what about us non-animal rights activists? Why should we care about this movie?"

Excellent question!

Does the name D.A. Pennebaker ring a bell? How about Chris Hegedus?

Oh - - No?

OK - - how about that iconic, black and white shot of Bob Dylan standing in an alley while sorting through a series of flash cards?

Dont Look Back (1967)
Dont Look Back (1967)

You have Donn Alan Pennebaker to thank for this oft-parodied scene, which helped establish him as a pivotal figure in the Cinéma vérité movement. He is also known - albeit more infamously - as the man who chronicled David Bowie's final performance as Ziggy Stardust in Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

Hegedus' partnership with Pennebaker began with Town Bloody Hall, a riveting account of the irreverent clash between Norman Mailer and a panel of feminists which you can still watch on YouTube.

The pair would go on to marry and collaborate on a number of other acclaimed documentaries most of us haven't seen, including the Oscar-nominated The War Room, (for which Hegedus took home a Directors Guild Award), and Kings of Pastry.

In short, the only reason these two aren't household names is that we don't watch enough documentaries. When we do, it's usually because the film in question is controversial (re: Michael Moore's filmography) or effecting change in a significant way (re: Blackfish).

Fortunately for humans and nonhumans alike, Unlocking the Cage promises a bit of both. And if all that name-dropping didn't impress you, HBO has lent the prestige of their name and distribution apparatuses to the film.

Unlocking the Cage goes into limited release May 27, with additional network distribution following a few months after.

In the meantime, check out the trailer!

What do you think?

Is Unlocking the Cage the next Blackfish or merely another strange footnote in the history of the animal rights movement?


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