‘Unlocking the Cage’ Is a Uniquely Hairy Courtroom Drama


The most successful animal rights documentaries of recent years have often leaned into the sensational. The Cove uses the stylistic conventions of the spy movie to tell its dangerous narrative of investigative journalism and dolphin protection. Virunga has the dramatic climax of an action film. And then of course there’s Blackfish, likely the ultimate example of a documentary’s sensational pursuit of “impact.” We’ve become used to this approach, which both tugs at our heartstrings and overwhelms our sense of urgency.

Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s Unlocking the Cage is a very different beast. They get all of their blatant tugging out of the way at the very beginning, with a breathless wildlife montage. We see primates, elephants and dolphins at their most independent and majestic. It is only later that we learn that these exact animals are the foundation of a growing legal effort to forever alter the way that our judicial system defines what it means to be a legal person.

Frankly, the introduction almost feels like an obligatory nod toward the genre that many will accuse Hegedus and Pennebacker of occupying. Blackfish, The Cove, and Virunga, for all their differences, can fairly be called “issue films.” They push their message as far as possible and they end with a call to action. Unlocking the Cage, on the other hand, is essentially a nerdy procedural documentary. The fact that their subject is a group of activists with an environmentalist cause is secondary to the story. That may seem like splitting hairs, but it makes all the difference.

Their protagonist is Steven M. Wise, a longtime animal rights lawyer and the founder of the Nonhuman Rights Project. Initially turned on by Peter Singer’s landmark 1975 book, Animal Liberation, he has dedicated his life and his legal career to the issue. He taught the first-ever law school class on the subject back in 1990, and now he has moved from years of defending abused pets to the active legal battle for animal personhood.

His strategy involves the handful of animals in that initial montage, all of which have been proven by scientists to have a remarkable degree of self-awareness and cognition. What seemed like an abstract ode to nature turns out to have been a very specific argument. Wise’s plan is to sue on behalf of one or more individuals from these species, either from a zoo or some other place of potentially illegal confinement. The NhRP eventually decides to pursue the case in New York State, where they will select one of a handful of currently captive chimpanzees.

Hegedus and Pennebaker track the building of the case, which consists of two parallel tracks. First is the scientific project, for which the NhRP visits research labs and primate sanctuaries, places where researchers are training the animals to communicate in ways that most of us probably never thought possible. In one facility in Iowa, a chimpanzee is able to understand human speech and respond with the help of images on a touchscreen. Yet just presenting a stack of scientific evidence in front of a judge won’t be enough. Wise must take this information and work it into a common law case. Unlocking the Cage isn’t an argument in montage form, but rather a chronicle of this legal process.

The second piece, however, is a lot more risky and tragic. It is, in a sense, an act of casting. The NhRP travels across New York State, searching for the right plaintiff. They need to find a chimpanzee held in less-than-ideal conditions, but without allowing this to turn into an animal welfare case. Yet these lawyers keep losing chimps. Either they can’t find them or they pass away too quickly. Like the cetaceans in Blackfish, these primates can be severely psychologically damaged by captivity. Yet unlike that film, Hegedus and Pennebaker don’t exert themselves by playing and replaying the evidence of tragedy before the audience. Instead, they show how these developments impact the commitment of the lawyers, triggering them to expedite the entire endeavor.

And then, finally, Unlocking the Cage is able to really embrace the nerdiest bits of legal procedure. The best moments in the film come in the context of a mock trial, in which Wise and his colleagues argue over the finer points of habeas corpus and animal welfare law. Particularly interesting is the necessity of using precedent, despite how little of it there is. They can either explore weird cases from around the world in which objects and rivers were declared persons, or they can try to argue that this is legally similar to the end of slavery. The former might be too silly, the latter potentially offensive.

Either way, however, it’s thought-provoking. And even though it may be a very, very long time before the NhRP gets the ruling it wants, their ideas have begun to percolate. Hegedus and Pennebaker don’t go out of their way to manipulate the argument in order to defend it. Instead, they capture its essence by focusing on its many small, nerdy details. Does that make it an “issue film”? It’s about an issue, certainly, but it isn’t necessarily an act of advocacy. Like many documentaries, it is primarily an act of interest.

Daniel is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, The Brooklyn Rail, Indiewire, and Dok.Revue.