“The Rise of Planet of the Apes” came out in theaters this month. Entertainment is never just entertainment; it is always feeding into the zeitgeist of the time. So, I started to think about the use of monkeys and apes in media, especially film, and their social and even racial symbolism. Is it a coincidence that as revolts and revolutions are taking place that producers decided to release this film? Colored people, especially Black people, have often been portrayed as apes or monkeys (which is funny because they have straight hair and thin lips, only the nose would be comparable). Looking back in film history, these types of films often were popular during times of major social unrest, especially racial tension in the country.
For example, one of the first was the 1933 “King Kong” film. This film was released during the Great Depression, during the height of the second formation of the Klu Klux Klan and during the Scottsboro Boys case. Often during times of economic hardship, people tend to scapegoat those who are considered “the other” in a society. Moreover, this was not a long time after WWI (and their scramble for Africa), abolition of slavery and reconstruction, the start of Jim Crow laws, and the migration of Black people to major cities in the US. Hence, the reasons why this movie came out during that time.
Within the film, there are racial undertones and several racial references. It starts out with a film crew going to an exotic land, Skull Island (exploration?) and they come across a tribe of black people dressed in gorilla arms (black people are like apes), whose king is a big black ape (hmmm). King Kong (whose name is similar to Congo) wants a bride (but not a female ape, a female human) and ends up wanting Ann, the white woman on the film crew (aka black man wants white woman meme). After he runs off with Ann, he is eventually captured, put in chains, taken to the ship and taken to New York City. In the city, he is put on display on stage, still in chains (kind of like an auction block), and becomes angry enough that he breaks free and escapes into the city (runaways, abolition, migration to the city). He goes looking for Ann and takes her away (once again, the fear of white men that black men will take their white women). King Kong ends up going up the Empire State building (the tallest building of the world at that time, represented the height of America’s power and a phallic symbol aka Kong has a big one) with Ann and is then shot down by airplanes (police and military attacks on colored people). Supposedly at the end of the film at the premiere was a sign that said Kill King Kong, the initials of which are KKK.
This use of apes, gorillas and monkeys to suggest that certain people are primal and barbaric was not knew either (and often plays on the “Beauty and the Beast” tale). H.R. Hopps 1917 poster, “Destroy This Mad Brute, Enlist U.S. Army,” was used during World War I to get young men to enlist by instilling a fear of foreign nations, such as Germany. This is the description of it on this website: “In this recruiting poster, a King Kong-type gorilla wears a German World War I helmet and holds a bloody club with the word “Kultur” inscribed on its shaft. The ape carries a fainting young maiden in its arms as it steps onto the American shore. The ruins of Europe in the background suggest that the same fate awaits the United States if no action is taken. This dehumanized figure left a lasting impression on the German public. The ape image would reappear later in a Nazi poster as a symbol of Allied intolerance.” And this image continues to today, such as with the Vogue cover with Lebron James and Gisele Bundchen in April 2008.
After King Kong, there was 1949’s “Mighty Joe Young,” which came out after World War II, when Blacks began to demand their rights after coming home from war. The film was made by the same people who did King Kong. However, this was not as popular as 1968’s “The Planet of the Apes,” which came out during the Civil Rights Movement and the beginning of the Black Power movement. An astronaut crew lands on a strange planet (exploration theme again) and they come across a land of apes who evolved to have human-like characteristics (like the tribe on Skull Island) and have dominated over the humans on the planet (fear of “the others” taking over).
The 2001 remake of “Planet of the Apes” did make several racial references, too, such as to Rodney King. Now we come to the remake of “King Kong” in 2005, which is during the War on Terrorism and the War in Iraq. This is when fear of Muslims, illegal immigrants and other brown-skinned people received more coverage in the media. Fear of “the exotic other” gained attention and expanded to other people of color, culminating into the release of “The Rise of the Planet of the Apes” this month at a time where most of the revolutions that are gaining media attention are in Africa and Middle East. Although, there are many complaints about how lackluster this film is, it probably still has some of the same undertones that other ape and monkey films have had in the past. As you have read, the art that connects the most with people is often grounded in what is going on at that time and what is going on at the time often cannot be avoided.