Masculinity, Rage, and Racism: Some Thoughts on War for the Planet of the Apes

War for the Planet of the Apes may be the least subtle film I have ever seen. Of course, not every film has to be subtle, but at a certain point, enduring a movie that repeatedly bludgeons you with sledgehammers of obvious meaning becomes a numbing experience. War crosses that mark within its opening 15 minutes, practically screaming at viewers, “Look at all the Vietnam war imagery we’re so meaningfully replicating!” It then continues on for another two hours of unmitigated heavy-handedness before finally, mercifully reaching its conclusion.

This is a film replete with scenes of noble slow-motion sacrifice and superficial symbolism, and one that, despite all its clunky efforts to tell a story that makes viewers sympathize with the oppressed and root against the people and systems that oppress them, is so clumsy and cliche-ridden that it undermines all its own efforts, and wades right into replicating deeply racist images of white supremacy. Such images are inextricable from this film, from its very premise and from the cinematic legacy on which it draws, and its reliance on apes as a stand-in for those oppressed, at this troubling moment in American history, makes it a deeply racist film no matter how loudly it declares its intentions as the opposite.

Let’s start with the two male figures who head up the film’s two warring factions, neither of whom have any real character development beyond the age-old male motivation of personal loss: Caesar (Andy Serkis), leader of the apes who, at the film’s beginning, hopes for a peaceful end to the violent persecution of apes by the humans, and Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), the living embodiment of hypermasculine fervor and rage leading a group of surviving humans in efforts to crush the apes once and for all. Caesar’s struggle for peace turns into a quest for vengeance after McCullough murders his wife and son in the film’s first act. Thus, one of the film’s two female ape characters is promptly dispatched to fuel the story arc of the male hero. (Both of them wear beads in their hair because how else are we gonna know they’re female without some good old-fashioned gendered signifiers, right?!) The other female ape, Lake, serves little purpose in the story but to be designated the caretaker of Caesar’s surviving son. War, it seems, is man’s work, no matter your species.

For McCullough and his soldiers, making America great again means subjugating the apes entirely

Meanwhile, what’s McCullough’s motivation for seeking an end to the apes? He, too, has lost a child. Because of course he has. See? He and Caesar are basically two sides of the same really tropey coin! The circumstances of McCullough’s particular loss are a bit different, revealing just how hateful and misguided his vision is: he’s a die-hard human supremacist, and won’t hesitate to slaughter his fellow humans under any circumstances if he believes they somehow compromise that inherent “superiority.” The presence of qualities like love and compassion are meaningless in his evaluation of whether any individual, human or otherwise, deserves to live, when they should be paramount.

The colonel’s hatred for the apes is as contagious as the virus he fears will end humanity’s rule over the Earth; at one point, he riles up his soldiers into a frothing mass of blind nationalism and hatred of the apes just by standing on a platform above them and shaving his head while blasting the national anthem from tinny speakers. (Again, this is not a subtle film.) Moments later, he has the gates opened to a pen where imprisoned apes are held so that his soldiers can vent their hatred with brutal physical violence. For McCullough and his soldiers, making America great again means subjugating the apes entirely, and eradicating those who won’t bow to human rule.

Clearly the film wants to pretend that it is siding with the oppressed, the apes who so clearly represent any group that the dominant culture fears, exploits and oppresses. However, given the long, disgusting history of racial slurs and racist imagery that liken black people to apes, the more explicit the film makes its use of the apes as a stand-in for an oppressed group, the more uncomfortable things get. By casting the apes in the role of the oppressed against human enemies led by a white leader who, with his showy, head-shaving shtick, is blatantly intended to suggest neo-Nazism, and whose cruelty to the apes recalls the Southern slave master of Civil War films, War charges full-force into reinforcing this particular, deeply racist notion of the otherness and inferiority of black people.  As Audre Lorde so wisely put it, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” and you cannot use imagery so steeped in racism to criticize and challenge racism. War spends so long dwelling on imagery of apes being beaten and abused that it crosses over into the realm of the white power fantasy.

It’s also frustrating that, like other mainstream blockbusters that on the surface purport to be critical of violence, War is incapable of imagining an alternative, or presenting us with a vision of a way out. Time and again throughout the film, violence begets violence. The death of Caesar’s family sets him on a path toward revenge. A man the apes encounter loses his life because his fear and hatred of them leads him to respond to their presence by attempting to kill them. And on and on.

The film seems to shake its head regretfully at this state of affairs, but still builds up to a climax in which rocket launchers are fired and helicopters explode in spectacular fashion for our enjoyment. The only hope of the cycle ending, it seems to say, is if one side is all but completely wiped out, and though the film repeatedly acknowledges the ways in which racism, nationalism, and a certain strain of violent, virulent masculinity are so often linked, it offers no hope of escape from this particular gender knot, which lends these specific toxic masculinities, damaging as they are, the appearance of being natural and inevitable. What would be truly radical and wonderful would be to someday see a blockbuster that asserts that understanding, compassion, and cooperation can overcome, and that we can happily share the world with those who are different from us, though not so different as we may have once thought.

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