Eric Greene is a civil rights activist and the regional director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance & Jewish Funds for Justice. But I didn’t first meet him as a result of my job at the Jewish Journal. Rather, it was the late 1990s and Eric was lecturing on the original five “Planet of the Apes” films at the Midnight Special book store in Santa Monica. My husband, Ron Magid, is an “Apes” and sci-fi aficionado, and we had arrived to hear Eric speak about his 1998 book, “Planet of the Apes as American Myth:” “Race, Politics and Popular culture (Wesleyan University Press). His 187-page tome is an analysis of the original films—made in the 1960s and 70s—as an allegory of racial strife during that time.
Eric was both an engaging and erudite speaker, and afterwards he was not above geeking out a bit by transforming himself into an “Apes” chimpanzee via a cool makeup demonstration.
As Ron and I got to know him over the years, I was surprised that Eric was also quite involved in his Judaism, and even saw some Jewish values in “Apes.” The character of Caesar from the fourth film, for example, is a kind of Moses figure; and the chimpanzee class itself (compared to the gorillas and orangutans) embodies a liberal Jewish perspective, mirroring the Tribe’s participation in the civil rights movement.
Eventually, Eric went off to Stanford law school, then became a senior policy advisor at the ACLU of Southern California, where he worked on liberal social justice issues such as opposing the death penalty. About a year ago, he accepted his current job at the Progressive Jewish Alliance & Jewish Funds for Justice.
The Journal last wrote about Eric and “Apes” in 2001, when we asked him about Tim Burton’s adaptation, starring Mark Wahlberg, Paul Giamatti and Helena Bonham Carter. Even if it was not the most successful movie, it demonstrated how the Apes myth can be adapted to comment on the changing socio-political landscape, Eric said. In Burton’s version, it’s possible to see lingering concerns stemming from the beating of Rodney King by LAPD officers, and the ensuing Los Angeles riots, in the 1990s.
“The sense of putting yourself at risk for your principles isn’t only a very Jewish principle, it’s a very ‘Planet of the Apes’ principle, and I’m proud to embrace both,” he said last week, when we approached him for some modern Midrash about the latest “Apes” saga, Rupert Wyatt’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” which opened on Aug. 5.
The new film stars James Franco, Freida Pinto and John Lithgow, as well as Andy Serkis in a motion capture performance as Caesar, a chimpanzee born super-intelligent as the result of experimental drug testing. This new movie uses the “Apes” myth to reflect current anxieties about animal cruelty and scientific experimentation, among other issues. Here’s what Eric had to say after viewing the film for the second time.
And here are excerpts from our videotaped interview:
You can purchase “Planet of the Apes as American Myth” at http://www.upne.com/0-8195-6329-3.html.