Monday, February 12, 2007
Is Mel Gibson’s Epoch Film “Apocalypto” Racist?
By Allan Wall
Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto,” a thriller
dealing with the Mayan civilization, opened in Mexican theaters on January 25th. (Pirated
DVDs, of course, had been available on the streets before then.)
The movie has been criticized for inaccuracies, and
for misrepresenting the Mayan culture. Ricardo Cajas, “Racism Commissioner”
for the Guatemalan government, has blasted the movie as racist.
To summarize the movie, without giving it away for
those who haven’t seen it (I hate it when people do that!), Apocalypto deals with the downfall of the Mayan civilization.
The protagonist is a Mayan hunter named “Jaguar Paw,” portrayed by actor Rudy Youngblood. The movie was filmed
in the state of Veracruz on the Gulf Coast of Mexico, where six pyramids were constructed for filming.
Gibson’s previous blockbuster, “The Passion
of the Christ,” was in Aramaic and Latin with subtitles. Mel follows up
in Apocalypto with all dialogue in Yucatec Maya, with subtitles.
The history of the Mayan culture spans millennia.
They peopled a large geographical area, in present-day eastern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and Honduras.
The Mayan Civilization was never a unified empire
as was that of the Aztecs. Another difference is that the Spaniards (and their Indian allies) overthrew the Aztecs when their
empire was at its height. In contrast, the Mayan culture had various rises and falls in different regions. Historically, there was much diversity within the Mayan culture itself.
Apocalypto is fuzzy about this. The art, architecture and setting of the movie mix aspects of different epochs and regions within the Mayan
civilization. Though set in the early 1500s, the actors speak the Mayan language
of today’s Yucatan Peninsula, which nobody spoke in the 1500s. And it’s
hard to locate the film’s setting, geographically.
That’s all true but not particularly surprising. Some of Gibson’s earlier movies, “Braveheart,” which he directed
and starred in, and “The Patriot,” which he starred in, were filled with historical inaccuracies. As a matter of fact, historical howlers are quite common in historical movies. Besides, Apocalypto’s plot is admittedly fiction — historical fiction, but fiction nonetheless.
What about the racism charge?
The bad guys in Apocalypto are Mayan — but
then, so are the protagonists. An action movie nearly always requires bad guys,
and in this film all the significant characters — both villains and heroes — are Mayan.
Critics have charged that Apocalypto presents the
Maya as uncivilized savages. But Mayan civilization was complex and multi-layered. All Mayans didn’t live in the ceremonial centers visited by tourists. The Mayan
culture had its diverse regions and social classes.
An earlier belief that Mayan culture was peaceful
has been debunked by archaeology, including the decipherment in recent decades of Mayan hieroglyphs. The Maya civilization had its great accomplishments in architecture, mathematics and astronomy. It also
had war, imperialism, torture and human sacrifice.
The movie does not, as some critics have charged,
portray the Mayan culture as being ignorant of eclipses. The Mayan elite understood eclipses, but not necessarily the Mayan
Don’t forget that Apocalypto is, above all,
an action movie. Although historical fiction in an exotic locale, it still follows
the basic canons of an action movie, and the jungle chase scene is a cinematic tour de force.
The movie deals with universal themes that people
of any culture can relate to: the struggle to survive, infertility, the urban/rural divide, and even the stock comic figure
of the meddling mother-in-law. Mayans too are members of the human race.
Apocalypto focuses on a family, and the struggle
of a man to return to his wife and children. That’s a universal theme,
at least as old as Homer’s Odyssey.
Mexicans are avid moviegoers, and they choose movies
based on the appeal of a movie itself, not “politically correct” notions of what movies they should see.
I recall in the 1990s, for example, somebody in Mexico
attempted to organize a boycott against Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. It failed
As for Apocalypto, Mexican movie viewers don’t
care much about what the critics and activists say about it, and they have been flocking to see Apocalypto. In fact, the first
weekend established a box office record for Mexico, beating out “Titanic” and “Lord of the Rings.” Apocalypto has done well at Mexican cinemas.
And, despite the condemnation of the country’s
“racism commissioner,” I predict it will do good box office in Guatemala also, where it’s scheduled to premiere
Allan Wall, a MexiData.info columnist, recently
returned from a tour of duty in Iraq. He currently resides in Mexico, where he
has lived since 1991. He can be reached
via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.