To the many scholars around the country who are familiar with the intricate and complex legacy of the Maya, Mel Gibson's new film is an affront and embarrassment to that history. Gerardo Aldana is Professor of Ancient Mesoamerica in the Department of Chicana Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
To my great disappointment (and this is tough since I had little hope for the movie to begin with) Mel Gibson has gone beyond depriving the Maya of voice in Apocalypto, one of the first (nominally) Maya representations to hit the big screen. Gibson has created a monstrosity of his own limited imagination, and then painted it with a Maya Veneer.
This is no idle observation, particularly since the product consists of a misrepresentation of some of the movie's most horrific behaviors. After viewing an early screening of the film, three points struck me.
The 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 and 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, the animated Dreamworks film about two colonial Spaniards looking for an ancient city of gold in the New World); 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-backed) Peruvian Amazon (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 indigenous enemies. 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: Mathew Restall's recent Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest gives a good overview of how unreliable Spanish accounts may be; and 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.
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