by Carmen Van Kerckhove
There’s an excellent article in Archaeology Magazine about Mel Gibson’s new film, Apocalypto. Traci Ardren, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Miami, argues that the film resurrects racist notions about Mayan culture that have long been disproved by scholars.
Ardren also points out that the same racist notions were used as justification for the genocide of the Mayans at the hands of the Guatemalan army from the 1970s to the 1990s. (I have to admit that I had never heard of their civil war until reading this article.)
Before anyone thinks I have forgotten my Metamucil this morning, I am not a compulsively politically correct type who sees the Maya as the epitome of goodness and light. I know the Maya practiced brutal violence upon one another, and I have studied child sacrifice during the Classic period. But in “Apocalypto,” no mention is made of the achievements in science and art, the profound spirituality and connection to agricultural cycles, or the engineering feats of Maya cities. Instead, Gibson replays, in glorious big-budget technicolor, an offensive and racist notion that Maya people were brutal to one another long before the arrival of Europeans and thus they deserve, in fact they needed, rescue. This same idea was used for 500 years to justify the subjugation of Maya people and it has been thoroughly deconstructed and rejected by Maya intellectuals and community leaders throughout the Maya area today. In fact, Maya intellectuals have demonstrated convincingly that such ideas were manipulated by the Guatemalan army to justify the genocidal civil war of the 1970-1990s. To see this same trope about who indigenous people were (and are today?) used as the basis for entertainment (and I use the term loosely) is truly embarrassing. How can we continue to produce such one-sided and clearly exploitative messages about the indigenous people of the New World?
I loved Gibson’s film “Braveheart,” I really did. But there is something very different about portraying a group of people, who are now recovering from 500 years of colonization, as violent and brutal. These are people who are living with the very real effects of persistent racism that at its heart sees them as less than human. To think that a movie about the 1,000 ways a Maya can kill a Maya–when only 10 years ago Maya people were systematically being exterminated in Guatemala just for being Maya–is in any way okay, entertaining, or helpful is the epitome of a Western fantasy of supremacy that I find sad and ultimately pornographic. It is surely no surprise that “Apolcalypto” has very little to do with Maya culture and instead is Gibson’s comment on the excesses he perceives in modern Western society. I just wish he had been honest enough to say this. Instead he has created a beautiful and disturbing portrait that satisfies his need for comment but does violence to one of the most impressive of Native American cultures.