Twisting our spines patting ourselves on the back

I attended both “The Help” and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” this week and am surprised no culture writers have noted the important plot similarities between the two.

On the surface these two movies have little in common. “The Help” is a “serious” drama contrasting the lives of female African-American domestic servants in Jackson Mississippi in the early 1960’s with that of their nominally genteel employers.  “Rise” is a summer popcorn science fiction flick set in the present or the near future which delineates the beginning of a great ape uprising against human oppression.  Guess which one is more emotionally honest and disturbing: it ain’t “The Help.”

Both movies are really about the moment in which an oppressed class finally achieves sufficient in-group solidarity to begin organizing and actively resisting its own oppression. Both movies focus on the beginning of this process but not its eventual triumph.  In both films the catalyst for the resistance is a member of the oppressor class who is disturbed by the oppression, resulting in his or her support of and eventual identification with the oppressed.

While “The Help” is a nice movie, it is much too genteel to be genuinely cathartic.  The conflicts faced by the protagonist, Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan (Emma Stone), a recent Old-Miss graduate striving for a career in journalism, have little to do with the central conflict within the plot.  Skeeter begins the movie with enlightened racial attitudes, so there’s no drama of her overcoming racist or privileged attitudes as she develops solidarity with the domestic servants.  Further, by making Skeeter the central protagonist, the film allows the audience to identify with the one of the few white persons in the film who’s not a racist.

If told from the viewpoint of Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), the domestic servant who overcomes her fear and develops an understanding that her history is worthy of preservation, and that she is capable of writing it herself, this story would make for a less pat movie.  If told from the viewpoint of Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), the white-trash bride of one of Jackson’s elite, this story might have made an interesting movie about the cross-currents of racial struggle and class struggle.  But the movie we get simply allows us to congratulate ourselves on how enlightened we are as compared to those privileged 1960’s Junior Leaguers with their horrifically demeaning racial attitudes.

In contrast, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is genuinely disturbing work of dystopian fiction: will unconstrained scientific experiments eventually cause global pandemics or give rise to other species of such intelligence that we can no longer deny them “human” rights?  In “Rise” the protagonist, Will Rodman (James Franco), is a scientist experimenting through the genetic manipulation of chimpanzees as part of his search for a cure for Alzheimer’s, a disease that is slowing killing his father.  He raises an infant chimpanzee Caesar (a CGI Andy Serkis) as his own child after Caesar’s mother, a victim of Will’s experiments, is brutally killed when her aggressive acts in protection of her son are mistakenly perceived by humans as acts of unprovoked violence.

Much of “Rise”’s plot flows from the ethical issues that occur when Will and Caesar (who as a result of the experiments on his mother has human-level plus intelligence) consider how to raise Caesar in a culture that does not afford him “human” rights.  Further plot development arise as Caesar struggles with whether his solidarity should be with humans (with whom he shares intellectual capacity) or with great apes (with whom he shares oppression and genetic lineage–at least with his fellow chimps). In contrast to Skeeter, Will’s conflicts and growth during the film are central to the plot.  The film begins with his being more sympathetic to the “decent” treatment of chimps than are many of his colleagues but still very willing to subject these animals to confinement, pain, fear and, ultimately, death, in the pursuit of human health and longevity.  The film ends with Will just beginning to realize the enormity of the horror he has both caused and is unleashing, while Caesar spares his life without providing him absolution.  To the extent the audience is expected to identify with Will, we are treated as complicit in human hubris and mistreatment of animals.

While in law school I read Peter Singer’s “Animal Liberation,” a seminal work in developing a theory of animal rights.  Singer starts from an analytical framework first espoused by Jeremy Bentham that the correct benchmark for applying moral reasoning to another being is not “can it reason?” but, instead, “can it suffer?”  From this, he develops a theory of animal rights that implicates our own culture as being guilty of gross moral violations in our indifference to the suffering of these animals and our outright abuse of them.  When I attended law school in the late 1980’s few law schools had classes on animal rights.  Now such classes are offered at many law schools, including my own alma mater, Temple University School of Law.

Our culture often looks back at the slavery or Jim Crow era and questions how our ancestors could be so morally blind to, and frequently complicit in, the obvious evil in their midst.  Movies like “The Help” allow us to feel morally superior to those benighted forebearers.  Watching such movies we twist our spines patting ourselves on the back.

Yet I often wonder how our 23rd Century history books will consider our era.  I suspect they will see our treatment of animals–our use of animals in scientific experiments; our industrial farming practices that treat animals as inanimate objects whose suffering is of no moral consequence; our use of animal protein and fat in our diet when plant-based protein and fat is less expensive, less environmentally destructive and doesn’t cause needless death and cruelty–as a moral blind spot as large and as evil as slavery or Jim Crow.  Every bite of meat I take may be an act just as evil as, and possibly more evil than, the Jackson elites’ treatment of their domestic servants.  On the surface “Rise” may be a summer popcorn movie but by posing these questions and implicating its own audience, it is greater, more challenging art than “The Help.”

“The Help” encourages us to feel good about ourselves for past oppression overcome. “Rise” should disturb our precious sleep in its implication that we are responsible for participating in and perpetuating our own forms of evil.

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