I am a graduate of New York University, with a major in History and a minor in Anthropology. This does not in any way make me an expert in either field, but I will say that I have studied with some of the most radical professors in both, and went to see Gibson's film "Apocalypto" fully anticipating to be embarassed or disgusted by his lack of historical knowledge and either overt or latent racism.
I came out of the movie, however, with a completely different opinion than that of the author of this article. One of the most popular and frustrating trends among American films when it comes to depicting indigenous peoples of North and South America is blatant Exoticism--making the "native" seem either savage and unhuman or other-worldly and hyper-spiritual, with a culture and self-awareness that is completely different than ours.
Gibson's movie not only strays from making the Mayan another exotic Other in the history books; rather, he does the complete opposite, and makes a main character in Rudy Youngblood's Jaguar Paw that is utterly relatable, sympathetic, and admirable (but not in that tragic "noble savage" way). Even the elite Mayan classes who are responsible for the bloody sacrifices in the film are not portrayed as evil--they are politicians who seek to quiet an increasingly unhappy public, women who sit by in silence, and children who have been raised in luxury at the expense of others. Ultimately, Gibson does not portray the Mayan civilization as either backward or superior; instead, he draws political and cultural parallels between today and "back then" that do not remove the Mayan from modern criticism (which historically, is problematic at best, but certainly not racist). In fact, it is by treating the Mayans as cultural equals not beyond or above interpretation and criticism that Gibson gives the Mayan civilization more respect than any other movie portraying ancient peoples that I have seen.
Did Gibson screw up some facts? Yes. (Though less than people like to assert--see the National Geographic article entitled "Apocalypto Tortures the Facts", in which the reader discovers through close reading that in fact, he wasn't that far off most of the time). Did he bypass actual Mayan people for actors that fit the "Native American-looking" stereotype? Yes, though he didn't go and cast a Hollywood star by any means. (Youngblood was a virtual unknown--a risk from the start--and from watching this film, has incredible talent not easily found in any actor). Did he make some classic "white man tells Indian story to say something about white culture" mistakes? Absolutely. (Clearly he has some feelings about the alleged moral decay of American culture and the Iraq War). But overall, he made an engrossing (while violent) film that followed the harrowing tale of an individual and the larger fall of a civilization that for once, did not reek of exotic "Otherness" and distance from its subject.
The problem of overgeneralizing cultures, races, neighborhoods, wars, etc. is a trend of not just Hollywood, but journalism as well. The author seems too quick to judge (prejudge?) Gibson and his criticisms of racism are transparent at best.
New York, New York
Apr 18 2007 - 4:53pm