How do you differentiate yourself from an ape, chimpanzee or elephant? What, in your mind, makes you different than they? Aside from the obvious external differences, internally our brains all work on a very similar level, as repeatedly proven by science. Yet at the end of the day, we call ourselves humans while they remain animals, a term that has a barbaric connotation. But what if we tried to level the rhetorical playing field? What if, instead, we became known as human animals while they became known as non-human animals?
In Unlocking the Cage, opening Friday at the Capitol Theatre, what it means to be a person with rights is deeply explored. "Should an animal be given the same legal rights as a human?" is the core question of the film. Some compelling evidence would lead you to answer, "Yes." But at other times, you'll want to say, "No." It is this back-and-forth battle that makes Unlocking the Cage so fascinating.
Directors Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker craft a compelling documentary that follows the infamous lawsuit brought by animal rights lawyer Steven Wise. In an attempt to break down the legal barrier that differentiates humans from animals, the film maps out the struggle of the Nonhuman Rights Project to transform an animal from a thing with no rights to a recognized person with legal protections.
At first, the concept of animals like chimpanzees and apes being given human rights seems ridiculous. After all, non-human animals can't hold a job or contribute to society in the same way that human animals can, a point illustrated by several judges when they shredded Wise's case to pieces (a highlight of the film). However, as Wise and the documentary illustrate, these non-human animals are extremely smart. They have emotions, they understand language and they can perform tasks like untying and taking off someone's shoe. Though the evidence wasn't abundant, Unlocking the Cage did point to several instances when non-human animals resembled humans in several capacities.
At times Wise and his colleagues seem ridiculous for fighting an unprecedented battle that sometimes appears to rest on groundless claims. Then again, you could point to many groundbreaking cases in their early stages and say the same thing. Unlocking the Cage, though it only scratches the surface of Wise's campaign for animal rights, presents a crucial story and updates us on the current state of animal rights. The film's ability to subtly weave together multiple perspectives on such profound philosophical questions makes watching this documentary both entertaining, informative and deeply thought-provoking. It never feels like a fight for animal rights, but rather the beginning of a successful journey to fair and just treatment of all animals.