Beyond The Surface: Unpacking Allegory in The X-Men, Avatar, and The Planet Of The Apes
Allegory is usually defined as a literary device or a metaphor that is often symbolic in nature and is used to convey a deeper truth or meaning. Allegory is sometimes used to disguise an unpopular message without the fear of unwanted criticism, retribution, or attack. Two literary works that are excellent examples for the way they utilized allegory are George Orwell's Animal Farm and Arthur Miller's The Crucible both of which are classics. On the surface Animal Farm is a story about an oppressive farmer who was deposed of his power by a group of revolutionary pigs, who upon seizing power become oppressive in their own right. The book's warning is that "power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely." But was this all about angry farm animals I think not.
In fact Orwell's message has nothing whatsoever to do with farm animals. His book was a critique of communism. Lenin and Stalin overthrew an oppressive Russian Czar only to become oppressive once they came to power. Stalin would go on to have a record for being one of the worst murders and human rights abusers in history. Arthur Miller employs the tactic of allegory in his novel The Crucible to much the same affect as Orwell did. The Crucible seemingly is a story about the now famous ill conceived witch-hunt that occurred in Salem Massachusetts that left 40 people killed. For Miller the story had very little to do with witches and more to do with the era of "McCarthyism" that swept through the United States in the 1950s. Joseph McCarthy was a Senator who made a name for himself as a paranoid fear monger that was so concerned about a communist takeover that his suspicions got the best of him as he went on a "witch-hunts" targeting many innocent people as communist conspirators.
Allegory is a literary tool but because so many films are based on literature it is easily transferable to other mediums. What I have attempted to do here is to unveil how allegory has been used in film and popular culture as a powerful teaching tool. I primarily wanted to narrow my focus on three films or series which are X-Men, Avatar, and The Planet of The Apes. The X-men for those that are not aware are a group of comic book super heroes that were created in the 1960s by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
The fact that the X-Men were created in the 1960s is very telling because of the culture, politics, and current events of that time period clearly influenced them, and we must never lose sight of that. That both Stan Lee and Jack Kirby are Jewish also can not be ignored, as their experience and heritage as Jews would most definitely inform their comic book's storyline. What separates the X-Men from other traditional comic book heroes like Spider-Man, Hulk, and The Fantastic Four is that the X-Men are mutants. Mutants don't get their powers from a rare accident like; for example, getting bit by a radioactive spider or being exposed to gamma rays, quite the contrary mutants are born with their powers, and this is what makes them different from both humans and other superheroes. It is because of these differences that they are hated, discriminated against, and even hunted down and killed.
One can instantly see the parallels between the X-Men and other oppressed alienated groups like Blacks and Jews, and this is no accident.
In the X-men's storyline there are two particular mutants with two very different opposing views when it comes to the future of mutants and survival. These two leaders are none other than Charles Xavier otherwise known as Professor X and Magneto. Xavier believes that the future safety for mutants will only be realized when mankind and mutantkind unite. Magneto on the other hand believes that mutant survival will only be secured once the humans are defeated, for him there is no redemption for humankind they are inherently wicked. As others have pointed out it is quite possible that Civil Rights leaders Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were all but certainly the inspiration for Xavier and Magneto. In fact in the first X-Men film titled "X-Men" Magneto utters to Xavier Malcolm X's famous line "By any means necessary."
This is too much to be a coincidence. Magneto is a universal symbol; however, as he is a Holocaust survivor representing the suffering of many groups of people.
In the X-men film First Class the racial allegory is even more obvious especially with the mutant known as Mystique.
Mystique has the power of a shape shifter able to take the face of whoever she chooses; however, in her natural state she stands out with her striking blue skin tone. Her skin color because it stands out when compared to both humans and many mutants becomes a source for her insecurity.
Even professor Xavier earnestly but naively advises her to simply change her skin color in order to fit in. On the other hand Magneto who is unapologetic about his mutant powers tells her she looks fine the way she is. Later in the film Mystique being inspired by Magneto's words declares that she is " A mutant and proud." Her declaration has a double meaning because not only does it affirm that she embraces who she is, but it also pulls from soul singer James Browns song "I'm Black and I'm Proud" overtly driving home the allegorical message buried in the X-Men story.
The movie Avatar is also a film that is loaded with many allegorical messages about race, imperialism, and the environment. Afrocentric scholar Anthony Browder wrote an interesting analysis on the movie Avatar that is as enlightening as it is jarring. Avatar was directed by none other than James Cameron who is famous for his Terminator movies and Titanic. Much like Stan Lee, Cameron is a child of the 60s. This is so very important because not only were the 60s a time for The Civil Rights Movement and race consciousness it also was a time that saw the Anti-War Movement brought on by the United States invasion of Vietnam. In Avatar Cameron will address both race and imperialism using the power of allegory like he is wielding a double edged sword. The film centers on a planet called Pandora that is home to an alien civilization called the Na'vi. All of that is well and good until
corporations on Earth backed by the Marines discover a valuable natural resource on Pandora called unobtanium located under the Na'vi's sacred grove.
This storyline instantly draws comparison to our wars in the Middle East and the valuable oil there, or oil discovered in the sacred Black Hills of the Sioux, conquistadors lust for the gold of the Inca and Aztec, and we must not forget the rubber trees and diamond fields of Africa that made the European powers scramble.
Of course the Na'vi are brilliantly racialized by Cameron as the Marines refer to them by the racial epithets of "savages" and "blue monkeys." When Avatar was released in the theatres employees from the popular show TMZ approached James Cameron in the airport and playfully asked him how come there were no black people in his movie? Cameron responded back that "They are, but their blue." The video has since been pulled down probably out of fear that it could be misinterpreted and offend. Upon further review indeed all of the Na'vi that are the main characters in the movie are both voiced over and acted out by people of color.
The Na'vi are played by Zoe Saldana, C.C. H. Pounder, Wes Studi, Laz Alonso, and Peter Mensah. This cant be coincidental. It is a brilliant casting decision that he utilized to highlight the nature of colonialism. It was usually European nations doing the colonization and the darker nations bearing the brunt. Of course there is the character of Jake the white Avatar from which the title gets its name. An Avatar is a way to transmit ones human consciousness into the body of a Na'vi. Jakes presence in the movie may annoy some who are familiar with the "white savior"motif. Excusing that for a moment though Jake represents for many white viewers the power of the individual to break free from "groupthink." That power resides in all of us, to not be a part of the collective. If one harken back you are reminded of John Brown the white abolitionist who took up guns against slavery going against his own people at Harpers Ferry Virginia. It just so happens that at the 2010 Academy Awards Avatar the anti-war movie would go head to head against the "patriotic" movie The Hurt Locker. To add to the drama James Cameron was going up against his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow for best director. It goes without saying that Avatar would not take home the Oscar as it was too antithetical for the times.
This all brings us to the summer blockbuster and film series The Planet of the Apes. One can not possibly begin to understand the Planet of the Apes without first taking a serious look at the original. The current Planet of the Apes series actually is a remake of the original series that appeared in the late 60s and early 70s and that was actually based on a French science fiction novel. Again we have to look at what was going on during the late 60s because as with the lives of Stan Lee and James Cameron this period of time would prove crucial for artistic development, as people turned to art as a form of protest. Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968 and you had subsequent riots breaking out all across America as black youth felt angry and frustrated at racism, poverty, and being disenfranchised. In fact the United States government was so alarmed that it created what became known as the Kerner Commission to investigate the cause of the Riots. No riot would symbolize the bent up frustration and powerlessness blacks felt the way the Watts Riots did.
It would be the Watts riots that would then influence the Apes series the most. There are five original Planet of the Apes movies in all, which are Planet of the Apes (1968), Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), and The Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973). It is Conquest that draws its inspiration from the Watts Riots and Black Power the most, and this is not mere conjecture the writers actually admitted it. The director of Conquest J Lee Thompson says it was "absolutely based on the Watts riots." In fact in the gang documentary Bastards of the Party the Watts Riots represented the first time the black gangs of Los Angeles stopped killing each other to unite around a common oppressor the way the Apes did when Caesar became the Alpha.
The writer of Conquest Paul Dehn says this "It's a very curious thing that the Apes series has always been tremendously popular with Negroes who identify themselves with the apes. They are Black Power just as the apes are Ape Power and they enjoy it greatly." Some folks in the black community have recently said that The Planet of the Apes is racist because it refers to black people as apes in fact this was voiced by Black Lives Matter activist Deray McKesson, but this really misses the point. Author Eric Greene points out in his book Planet of the Apes as American Myth"the Apes series implied that blacks and whites were so alienated from each other that they required symbolic representation as entirely different species."
When the Watts Riots broke out racist Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker referred to black rioters as "monkeys in a zoo." During the early history of the United States some white pseudo-scientist believed blacks to be subhuman a missing link of sorts in the evolutionary chain, not even a whole man but three-fifths of a man. "Ape" or "monkey" was a racial slur or epithet that was used against blacks, so it is all but fitting that it was employed in the film series. The Ape movies are not racist in fact quite the opposite they are a critique on racism. The protagonist of Conquest is an ape named Caesar. When a disease kills household pets like cats and dogs apes become replacements as Caesar is captured and sold as a slave, and is even whipped. The poor treatment of Caesar radicalizes him as he goes on to teach the other Apes to resist.
The current Apes series pulls heavily from the original allegory but also adds and takes away some things while still essentially being true to the theme of race, oppression, and revolution. In the first installment of the remake titled Rise of the Planet of the Apes Caesar rescues a powerful caged gorilla who was given the name "Buck." Buck alludes to a name given specifically to black males during slavery, as writer MK Asante Jr. points out in his memoir titled Buck. We were called black bucks, slave bucks, and more recently referred to as buck wild and young buck. It is all so apparent, and yet illusive at the same time. Allegory is tricky in that its usually right in front of your face, as plain as day, but only if you know what to look for.
Sean Howe. Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. 2013. Harper Collins-Publishers.
Anthony Browder. Avatar Revisited: A Historical And Cultural Analysis. 2010. IKG.
Eric Greene. Planet of the Apes as American Myth: Race and Politics in the Films and Television Series. 1996. McFarland & Company Publishers.
MK Asante. BUCK. 2013. Spiegel & Grau.