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New, star-studded documentary 'Unity' rails against speciesism

Filmmaker Shaun Monson claims our focus on inequality related to race, gender, or sexuality is narrow-minded and itself a terrible form of prejudice.

Black Lives Matter has become the social movement of our time, a protest of such power that even presidential candidates can’t side step it. If they insist that all lives matter, as several have, they are booed and pilloried, and ultimately forced to apologize to an outraged nation.

All of which is to say that it’s an awkward time for filmmaker Shaun Monson — and his 100-person cast of A-list celebrity narrators — to debut a new documentary called "Unity." The film, which opened Aug. 12, goes beyond all black lives or even all human lives. It argues instead that all forms of life matter -- and all forms of life deserve our empathy, compassion and love.

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On the website for “Unity the Movement,” a child spells this out on a chalkboard: “Human + Animal + Tree = Unity.” In the film itself, the actress Jennifer Aniston intones the line that Monson hopes will become a new organizing ethos for life on earth: “Not the same, but equal.”  

This is “the only way to heaven, or to whatever comes next,” according to an interview Monson posted to promote the film.

He points to the Creation story, arguing that in the beginning “there was no separation between God and human beings, between male and female, or between predator and prey animals.”

In an interview with msnbc, he pined for a return to that halcyon time. “The point of the film is really about perceptions, and why we cultivate compassion and empathy and love for some beings – the inner circle, you might say – while in the same breathe cultivate an attitude of aggression toward others, the outer circle,” Monson said. “This is behavior modification and a hard thing to get across.”  

It’s also a pretty far out idea. 

Monson is arguing that our focus on inequality related to race, gender, or sexuality is narrow-minded and itself a terrible form of prejudice. The academics call it “speciesism,” the belief that people are worthy of rights but other living things are not. Monson calls it “a separation based on form,” which he wars against when it comes to distinctions based on sex or skin color but also fur, feathers, or leaves.

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That’s his deep-down golden rule: Be kind to everything. Before you discount it as the outer rim of New Age insanity, consider some of the people that Monson has recruited to narrate his film: Dr. Dre, Helen Mirren, Kevin Spacey, Kristen Wiig, Joaquin Phoenix, Marion Cotillard, Martin Sheen, Minnie Driver—and on and on.

It’s a film meant to entertain and inspire, a two hour compilation of some of the most powerful footage of the 20th century, overlaid with a “We are the World” style script. Each narrator reads only a line or two. Although a disclaimer at the beginning of the film protects the talent from the political ideas that follow, Monson says they all support the “spirit” of the project.

None have so far commented on the film or come out to help promote Monson’s work.

Monson’s first laid out his vision in the 2005 documentary, “Earthlings.” It exposed the horrors of factory farming and turned thousands of people away from meat. It also earned Monson a nickname: “the vegan maker.” If only a fraction of the anecdotes are true, he really is the vegan converter in chief.

The number of vegans — people who consume no animal products — has quintupled in the last decade, rising to more than 16 million people, according to data by Harris Interactive. Such popularity was unfathomable 70 years ago, when Vegan Society founder Donald Watson first created the term.

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But Monson’s vision is broader in "Unity." His ultimate goal is nothing short of societal change, exactly the goal of the Black Lives Matter movement. With opening weekend here, he realizes the political timing might be poor for his idea that “All Expressions of Life Matter.”

He knows the fight for inter-species love and appreciation will be a long one, and he’s ready for it.

“You just start planting seeds, and seeing where people open up, and people do open up.” he told msnbc. “They want to protect the harbor seals. They want to protect the dolphins. They want to protect the whales.”

“I mean, they’re passionate about it,” he said, pausing for a moment. “Cows, chickens, pigs — maybe not quite those.”

Just not yet.