Apes and White Femininity In Movies

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Luca (Michael Adamthwaite) and Nova (Amiah Miller) in ‘War for the Planet of the Apes

While watching the sublime War for the Planet of the Apes, I was naturally reminded of King Kong during the sweet scene where Luca, Caesar’s gorilla lieutenant, gives a cherry flower to Nova, the mute girl they found. He’s a gorilla and she’s white and blonde, just like Fay Wray in the original 1933 King Kong, Jessica Lange in the 1976 version, Naomi Watts in the 2005 remake, or Brie Larson in this year’s Kong: Skull Island.

King Kong always had racial undertones, the implication that the black beast’s infatuation with white blonde beauty being what led to his downfall. The original film by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack had a strongly sexual undercurrent: Skull Island’s black natives refer to Fay Wray’s Ann Darrow as a “golden woman” worth six of their own. Given this version of Kong wasn’t a herbivore, it’s likely he ate them, and the natives were hoping a blonde offering would stop him coming back for more. Ann winds up being subjected to the indignity of the giant gorilla peeling off her clothes:

That scene was retained in the 1976 version, but not the 2005 remake. There (as pointed out on the film’s commentary), Kong doesn’t kill Ann because the pursuit of SS Venture crew’s pursuit disrupts his usual act of tossing his offerings to death, which Kong actor Andy Serkis explained was due to his character’s frustration at being unable to mate with them. Ann stabs the ape’s thumb with the bone necklace placed on her by the natives, further prompting him to just flee until dawn, gaining her the opportunity to bond with him when he’s calmed down.

That maternal take on Kong and Ann’s relationship is more akin to the relationship in Schoedsack and Cooper’s 1949 follow-up Mighty Joe Young, about an oversized gorilla raised by an American woman — Jill Young (Terry Moore) — on a ranch in Africa. Unlike the tragic Kong, Joe gets to play hero, and gets to live out the rest of his days as a free ape. The 1998 remake cast Charlize Theron, who happens to be a white South African, as Jill.

Similarly, the Planet of the Apes films have always been a metaphor for race relations: released in 1968 (during the Civil Rights movement), the original film asked white audiences to imagine what it would be like to be chased by armed hunters, riding on horseback through a cornfield. It could’ve only been less subtle if the hunting scene had taken place at night, with the gorillas wielding torches and wearing white cloth masks.

Taylor (Charlton Heston) realising what a lynch mob must have felt like during the original film

In the prequel films begun by Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), the metaphor of apes as black people is played straight: Dawn and War director Matt Reeves repeatedly compared Caesar to Moses, that most famous of African Jews, and the whole trilogy plays out as a story of slave rebellion. The apes are repeatedly subjected to medical experiments or torture, recalling exploitation of African-Americans like the Tuskegee syphilis study.

We see non-white humans, but many of them, like British-Nigerian actor David Oyelowo’s pharmaceutical executive in Rise or Latino-American Gabriel Chavarria’s soldier in War, were assimilated into white supremacy. Caesar’s only meaningful relationship with a non-white woman in the prequel trilogy was with his foster mother, the Indian-American vet Caroline, played by Mumbai-born actress Freida Pinto in Rise (incidentally, Pinto was caught up in a colourism controversy when she cast as the lead in the British civil rights drama Guerrilla.)

I couldn’t help but imagine if Nova had been black. Perhaps Reeves felt it would’ve made the film’s subtext, where a patriarchal, imperialist world gives way after its self-inflicted demise to a more egalitarian one, too blatant. Yet it’s also possible it just didn’t cross his mind: he, like many, may just too strongly associate the features of white children with innocence and vulnerability.

Time and again it’s been demonstrated people do not see black girls and women as beautiful or feminine. The Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality published a report last month on how from age 5, black girls are perceived by American adults as being older than their white counterparts. Rebecca Epstein, primary author of the report, commented, “The more general confirmation that black girls are adultified was not surprising. Scholars and researchers have observed this phenomenon for years.”

Yet you don’t have to be a scholar to notice it. Black girls are more likely to be treated disproportionately worse by authority figures. Do you recall theSpring Valley High assault? Or the incident in Texas when a cop threatened a black girl at a pool party? They are even mistaken for men. Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o gave a moving speech about how bullying over her dark skin resulted in self-loathing:

“I put on the TV and only saw pale skin, I got teased and taunted about my night-shaded skin and my one prayer to God the miracle-worker is that I would wake up light skinned … I tried to negotiate with God, I told him I would stop stealing sugar cubes at night if he gave me what I wanted.”

This fallacy of humanising gorillas and chimpanzees over black humans isn’t just a problem in cinema: it can extend to real life too. Dian Fossey, who was portrayed by Sigourney Weaver in 1988’s Gorillas in the Mist, was allegedly contemptuous towards locals. She waged war on the Batwa pygmy hunters whose traps endangered her beloved gorillas, and she even tortured one of them. Vanity Fairdescribed her as being of an older generation than ecologists who brought “an openness to the local people, a willingness to learn their language, to include their needs and point of view in his conservation strategies.”

Fossey’s colleagues Kelly Stewart and Sandy Harcourt painted a less-than-flattering colonialist image of her, with Stewart saying of her murder that, “She always fantasized about a final confrontation. She viewed herself as a warrior fighting this enemy who was out to get her. It was a perfect ending. She got what she wanted. It was exactly how she would have ended the script.”

War concludes a trilogy, but there will be more Planet of the Apes filmsMatt Reeves, who is moving onto the Batman films, confirmed Bad Ape was meant to open the possibility to spin-off films about other evolved apes around the world. According to Empire magazine, the character came about when a French journalist asked if the simian flu gave the apes in French zoos intelligence. Imagine a film set in the banlieues!

I for one, really hope the Apes franchise can keep going avant-garde by doing a different film about the simian flu in every country: and so we can explore the apes’ relationship with Africans, South Americans, Europeans, and Asians of all colours and genders. Representation matters, and I hope in this way that for once we can see a movie depicting a black or brown girl bonding with an animal. So on that note: has Lassie ever had a black owner?

Author: Christopher Chiu-Tabet

Editor: Precious Mayowa Agbabiaka

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