What 'Kingdom Of The Planet Of The Apes' Understands About White Womanhood

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Director Wes Ball's new
Director Wes Ball's new "Planet of the Apes" film seems to have a whole lot to say about the white damsel in distress. 20th Century Studios

It’s been seven years since director Matt Reeves delivered the last installment in the decades-spanning, ever-political “Planet of the Apes” franchise. 2017 was the year after alleged misogynist Donald Trump was elected U.S. president and after exit polls showed that 53% of white women voted for him. And three years before “racial reckoning” entered the zeitgeist. 

But we’re only now getting to a film in the iconic sci-fi series that keys in on the selfish destruction and weaponized victimhood of white women. It couldn’t have come at a better time as we navigate yet another “very important election year.”

Director Wes Ball’s thrilling new movie, “The Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes,” is set between 2300 and 2400, when anthropomorphic apes have taken over the world from the formerly dominant humans who have intellectually and physically ebbed almost to the point of extinction. But the apes are in a tumultuous state.

After fleeing his clan’s near-decimation, a young ape named Noa (a fantastic Owen Teague) embarks on a vengeful journey where he encounters an elder, Raka (an equally great Peter Macon), a lone survivor living largely away from the dangers within the species. 

The older ape teaches Noa about their history and the nonviolent philosophy of Caesar, a name fans of the “Apes” franchise will recognize as the forgone leader of the apes from the more recent movies set in a past generation, and the pair become friends. One day, they spot a young white woman who’s revealed to be named Mae (Freya Allan) in distress: slovenly, clothes torn and starving. 

Freya Allan as Mae in
Freya Allan as Mae in "Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes." 20th Century Studios

Right away and despite historical evidence of turmoil and oppression on behalf of humankind, Raka offers Mae food and Noa’s own blanket for warmth. It’s a moment in the film that presumably signifies an extension of peace between the two species, in spite of Noa’s warranted misgivings. The two apes take her in as an ally.

Try as it might, “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes,” written by Josh Friedman, wants audiences to be just as trusting and benevolent of Mae as Raka is, though without giving us (or him, for that matter) any reason to be beyond the fact that she is in distress and, well, white. Oh, and that it was the Caesar way.

How audiences initially respond to Mae may determine how closely they identify with two types of oppressed beings: the charitable Raka, who’s willing to move through the wounds of history, and the scrutinizing Noa, who’s still entangled in generational trauma. 

(Fascinatingly, Teague is white and Macon is Black, which could imply that neither Ball nor Friedman took race into account. But within a franchise where each film has considered race and oppression in some way since the first one in 1968, which has a nearly all-white cast as “Kingdom” does, that would be unusual. Not impossible, but unusual just the same.)

It isn’t until about midway through “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes” when Mae’s veneer should come into question. A sacrifice is made on her behalf that in 2024 (or any year, but especially now) feels so unearned and worthy of an eye roll that it’s actually quite breathtaking to witness. To boot, the camera then cuts to Mae, whose eyes are filled with tears. 

(L-R): Raka (Peter Macon), Noa (Owen Teague) and Freya Allan as Mae in
(L-R): Raka (Peter Macon), Noa (Owen Teague) and Freya Allan as Mae in "Kingdom of the Planet pf the Apes." 20th Century Studios

They’re the same white woman tears we see throughout much of the rest of the film, which finds her increasingly deceitful, conniving and dangerous as the plot moves beyond a retaliatory excursion to inside the mouth of a terrifying war among apes. 

There is no obvious or concealed reason why anything should emotionally upset Mae. Nothing really actually happens to her. Actually, a substantial amount of the terror we see throughout the film’s latter half — alongside a brutal, power-tripping ape named Proximus Caesar (Kevin Durand), the villain “Kingdom” desperately wants us to see — happens because of something Mae does. 

A victim she is not, but that is a common facade white women like her have mastered for self-serving purposes since time immemorial. Still, they’re often considered credible by default.

Despite theories about how humanity has experienced cerebral decline in this fictional landscape (though in reality, that could very well be down the line for us), Mae is sharp as a tack. And she’s got her own agenda in mind above anyone else’s.   

“Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes” is thoughtful and horrifyingly accurate about how many young, independent white women move through a world they think has done them wrong somehow. It also shows how one presumably powerless young white woman somehow still has the potential to help bring an entire planet of apes to its knees.

Young Noa learns a fascinating lesson from Raka in
Young Noa learns a fascinating lesson from Raka in "Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes." 20th Century Studios

But it’s less mindful about how or why characters like Raka and Caesar and the rest of the apes, who the film insists are quite shrewd, wouldn’t be more discerning about Mae.

On several occasions, and without much provocation, Mae is saved. It begs the question whether Raka and, ultimately, Caesar have responded to Mae’s initial duress, and other perilous predicaments she gets herself into, had she been a young Black or brown woman.

The answer to that is harrowing to consider. Because maybe they wouldn’t, and maybe the ideas about “evolution” that the film consistently ponders are futile — and there’s brilliance in how it honestly portrays that false sense of hope. Maybe we are all doomed to repeat the same foolish, hateful mistakes we’ve made before that once again result in a grim reality.

But that may be giving “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes” too much credit. Perhaps it does wrongly assume its audience will be naturally on board with Mae, because her motivations are valid and uphold a default hierarchy of living beings — many of whom will likely watch this film. 

That brings us back to an earlier question that still weighs on the mind: What if Mae were Black or brown? Would she be the exception or the rule if we’re considering a potentially evolved species? If she would only be the exception, why is the character in the movie not met with the same concern?  

“Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes” opens in theaters Friday.