More “Fuck You” to Mel Gibson’s rampant racism
I got this in my email from the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective, and I thought I would post it here. I read another really good article on Apocalypto from a Mayan Scholar, but I don’t remember where it is. If I find it I’ll link it.
(This first commentary is written by Prof. Gerardo Aldana of UCSB. He is a Maya specialist and a good Mexica brother. The second, below, is from Indian Country Today.)
Having viewed a screening of *Apocalypto *at UCSB on December 3rd, I walked away recognizing three main points within Mel Gibson’s movie. This first colors the entire story, seemingly as a kind of guiding moral: “the good Indian is the savage one in the forest.” There is absolutely nothing appealing about Maya city-life in this movie—no indication that Maya urban centers flourished in the region for hundreds of years. Instead, religious figures are depicted as fraudulent or heavily drugged; political figures are fat and passive (both of these characterizations having been lifted straight from *The Road to El Dorado*); and everyone else seems to be living a nightmare of hard labor, servitude, famine, and/or disease. The “Maya” living in the forest village, on the other hand, are fantasized animations of National Geographic
photos of Amazonian tribes. These “hidden” Indians provide the audience the only possibility for sympathy—and this perhaps restricted to puerile humor or one family’s role as (surprise!) the underdog. For Gibson, it appears, the “noble savage” remains a valid ideal.
Second, for having a completely clean slate upon which to write, the story is pathetically unoriginal. From his decidedly Western constructions of masculinity, gender, and sexuality, to the use of a baseball move in a critical hand-to-hand combat scene, to lifting an escape scene from Harrison Ford’s character in *The Fugitive*, one gets the sense that all of his creative energy was invested in discovering ways to depict (previously) unimaginable gore. In fact, I would be ready to write off the entire movie as nothing more than a continuation of Gibson’s hyper-violent mental masturbation, except for the real-world implications.
This leads me to the third point, and the real crime, which is Gibson’s interpretive shift in his representation of horrific behaviors. Specifically, four of five
viscerally repugnant cultural practices that are here attributed to Maya culture are actually “borrowed” from the West. The raid on the protagonist’s village constitutes the first interpretive shift viewed by the audience.
The brutality and method of this raid directly replicate the documented activities of
representatives of the British Rubber Company in the Amazon Basin during the
late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the Amazon case, those perpetuating
the human rights violations were European or European-descendents against indigenous
communities; the raiding of villages for human sacrifice is undocumented for Maya cultures.
Next, the slave market depicted in the city constitutes a mirror image of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade in the pre-Civil War United States. In that case, the “sellers” of African slaves were Europeans or European-Americans, dehumanizing Other peoples by treating them as commodities. While slavery is documented for Maya cultures (and Greek, and Roman, etc.), there is nothing that attests to their having been bought and/or sold in public market contexts.
A third objectionable attribution is that of decapitated human heads placed on stakes within the city center. Documented examples of this practice come from Cortes’s entrada into Central Mexico committed by Spanish conquistadors against their
Depictions of “skull racks” do exist, but there is no evidence that these
resulted from mass murder or even that they still had flesh on them when they were hung. Finally, the escape portal for the protagonist—the releasing of captives to run toward freedom while being shot at—is straight from ancient Rome (or at least Hollywood’s depictions of Roman coliseum “sports”) and finds no corroboration in records concerning Maya peoples.
Heart sacrifice is the only practice that scholars have “read” from ancient Maya cultural remains—although the scale and performance is Gibson’s fantasy alone.
The attribution of heart sacrifice to the Maya is largely anchored to Spanish accounts of Aztec practices, which raises two additional issues: *i) *Mathew Restall’s recent *Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest *gives a good overview of how unreliable Spanish accounts may be; and *ii) *Mel Gibson clearly could not have substituted the Aztec capital for his “Maya” city given the same Spanish accounts of it (e.g. Bernal Diaz del Castillo on approaching Tenochtitlan: “With such wonderful
sights to gaze on we did not know what to say, or if this was real that we saw before our eyes. On the land side there were great cities, and on the lake many more…”)
In any event, these perversions of the historical record appear to be Gibson’s alone and cause me to wonder if they reflect an agenda. Whether he meant to claim that
all cultures have been as grotesquely violent or inhumane as the West (and so in some
twisted way, making such behavior “ok”), or if there is a more nefarious attempt at disparaging Mesoamerican cultures in some sort of justification of their “conquest” (implied by the pristine representation of the Spaniards)—this is a question Gibson alone can answer.
Whatever his response, my assessment is that—apart from its “artistic” license—because it takes the worst of the West and “reads” it into one or two days of
“Maya” civilization, this movie comprises an extreme disservice to Maya (and Mesoamerican)cultures past and present, and to indigenous people of the Western Hemisphere. The case is so extreme, I wonder if it might constitute a legally actionable hate crime against Maya people. At the very least, though,with this movie, Gibson has performed a tremendous disservice to scholars who aim at accurate
representations of the past, and to the audiences who will have their perspectives of Maya culture tainted by the agenda of one man with too much money.
Prof. Gerardo Aldana y V
University of California, Santa Barbara
Indian Country Today December 08, 2006. *All Rights Reserved* Mel
”Apocalypto,” a movie about human sacrifice among the ancient Maya, premiered Dec. 1 at Chickasaw Nation’s Riverwind Casino amidst Hollywood-style hoopla. Oklahoma Indian actors have been wooed by director Mel Gibson and are about to make a big splash on the big screen with the potential for even bigger and better roles for Natives in film. I understand Gibson’s claim that the movie is about a society’s
excesses and the costs of war (the movie has been billed as an anti-war film). I can
stand with him on those aspects. But what message is ”Apocalypto” really sending about the Native peoples of Mexico and Central America? This is but one thing we Indian people in the North must consider and question before we jump on Gibson’s bandwagon.
I have been to Central America. I have visited the Maya in their homes where
I saw mountains of beautiful fruits and vegetables being grown, not for Mayan consumption, but for export, most likely to the United States. The Maya could not eat those fruits of their labor. They cannot afford to. In the village I visited, the Maya shared a communal kitchen where most days the women cooked meals of beans and tortillas because that is what the family’s hard labor in the fields afford them.
I heard the cries of women whose husbands had been ”disappeared” and murdered by government troops or by paramilitaries. In Guatemala they are struggling to recover after almost 40 years of civil war incited by the 1954 CIA overthrow of a democratic government, subsequently wiping from the face of the earth 140 Mayan villages. The Maya fled to bordering countries and some were held in death camps for removal, much like our own ancestors’ Trails of Tears. This is contemporary history.
The extreme, impoverished lives most Mayans live are not due to the ”excesses of their ancestors,” as stated in a recent ”20/20” special on ABC. It is due rather to the institutionalized racism of the church, military and government, which could not recognize our own Indian ancestors as human, justifying their wholesale slaughter, Christian conversion via boarding schools and the taking of our lands.
Before we rush to pat Gibson on the back we should understand that the same religious, government, military and corporate institutions that systematically conspired to take our lands and destroy our culture here in the North also had a hand in the demise of the ancient and contemporary Maya people. When the Spaniards invaded Central America in the 16th century, ancient Maya texts were burned so that the people would forget their history and a new history, more palatable to Europeans, could replace it.
Because my community work gives me the opportunity to occasionally network with indigenous peoples from below the U.S.-imposed border with Mexico, I am aware that some Maya people are not happy with this film. This pretty much answers the question why Gibson chose to hire North American Indians, making it necessary to teach them a Mayan language. If the film was welcomed by the Maya, he could have hired Maya people, since the film was made in their territories.
How will a film, which depicts the Maya as bloodthirsty primitives, impact their work, their lives, their image and our perception of them? What impacts will that portrayal have on the people in power who have an obligation to make policy for the Maya in Mexico or Guatemala, or elsewhere in Central America, where most policy is implemented at the business end of a gun?
Because we have a genetic, cultural and historical relationship with all the peoples of Turtle Island, we have an obligation to view this film with discerning eyes and a critical mind. The movie opened nationally on Dec. 8. We can use this as an opportunity for raising consciousness and educating about our commonalities with the indigenous peoples from below the border.
For instance, do you know that in some of those countries indigenous peoples
comprise 40 percent to 80 percent of the population? In the case of the Maya, a lot, if not most, speak Maya as their first language. The women still dress in the traditional huipil. In Chiapas, where the Maya communities are occupied by the Mexican government (with aid from the United States), a large part of the region’s resources are sucked out from under the Mayas’ feet to generate electrical power for the rest of the country while the Chiapas Maya live without running water or electricity.
We should remember that some of the brown people coming across the lower border as ”illegals” are probably Maya, or descendants of other Native nations. To justify atrocities against Native peoples (and to manipulate the citizenry into looking the other way), the elite have historically sought ways to portray us as less than human.
Let’s make this an opportunity to learn more about contemporary Mayan struggles as well as the current struggles of Indian communities throughout the Americas. They are among the thousands of indigenous peoples who are going to the international community to seek redress for their grievances.
As we watch this new movie, we are obligated to do so with an informed mind. Our history is the Mayan history.
*J.K. Dowell, Quapaw/Cherokee, is founder and director of the Eagle and
Condor Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance and lives in Tahlequah, Okla.*
Please visit the Indian Country Today
I’m always baffled when people are still surprised that Maya people still exist. I have a friend who’s Mayan and he saw his family murdered by a US sponsored totalitarian government. People like to think of Indigenous people as living way back in the past, out of sight, out of mind. Maybe Gibson was hoping he could be racist again by singling out a group he thought was extinct. By the way, there are also still Beothuks out there.
I’m also embarrassed that the lead role was played by a Cree actor. I know it’s really amazing to get a major role if you’re aboriginal, but still, it’s important to be ethical in your choices. I would say it’s amazing to be well paid for a film role and be aboriginal, but Mel was very proud of the fact that he could pay First Nations actors less than the going wage. Either way, ethics people. I’m reminded of when Gordon Tootoosis turned down that Jackie Chan movie because it was racist, another Aboriginal actor took it on and has been getting flak from the community ever since, and rightly so. Aboriginal actors should unite somehow in boycotting roles or films which promote racist attitudes towards our people, or anyone really. Let Mel Gibson direct a bunch of white folks in red face. Why should we be puppets to valorize colonization?
Aboriginals in the film industry get fucked over all the time. I know because I’m in there!! I could go off on the Industry’s treatment of brown people, but I won’t in this post. All I’ll say is it’s sad to hear an Aboriginal actor get excited because he finally has a role where he doesn’t have to ride a horse.