Apocalypto Racist? No duh!

Apocalypto-PosterGer1.jpgLooking to Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, set to open on Friday, as a source of historical accuracy regarding Maya culture makes as much sense as looking to this book for information about the Aztecs. Call me a judgemental, oversensitive woman of color (really, it wouldn’t be the first time) but I don’t need to see the movie to have a bad gut reaction, you know what I’m talking about Latinos, that something here just ain’t right. I sure am not gonna drop $10 plus to prove myself right and at least one group of indigenous activists in Guatemala, where a large population of Maya still live agrees.

“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 deserved, in fact, needed, rescue,” said Ignacio Ochoa, director of the Nahual Foundation that promotes Mayan culture.


And here lies a big part of the problem. What happens when a person of privilege, a white male Hollywood type, makes a film about a people who still exist? It’s not as if the film is about a culture that is dead. In fact the Maya people are a people who have been struggling to survive and resist.

More than half of Guatemala’s population is descended from the original Maya. They face frequent discrimination and most live in poverty with little access to education and social services.

Over 200,000 people, mostly Mayan, were killed during Guatemala’s 36-year civil war that ended a decade ago. Some rights groups say the army tried to wipe out the Maya.

So why are some Latino and Indigenous people praising Mel and the film? In my opinion because he is throwing the community crumbs. People of color are so deprived of positive images of ourselves in film that any portrayal is seen as a cause for celebration. It doesn’t matter if the Indigenous lead is of the same culture being portrayed. Hey at least he’s some sort of native? No?

The entire script is spoken in Yucatec Maya and the star is a Native American dancer named Rudy Youngblood. Gibson’s use of indigenous actors has won praise from Latino and Native American groups in the United States

.I wonder how much the Mayan extras were payed, or if they were played like so many of the extras were played like people say went down in the filming of Borat?And we all know that as long as a film is using a native language it has to be “authentic” no?
What’s next, Michael Richards making a film about slavery in the U.S.? Count Apocalypto as my big non-pick for the weekend.

Via / ABC News

Image Via / Filmstarts.de

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20 comments on “Apocalypto Racist? No duh!
  1. Are you really interested in the plight of indigneous people or are you just jumping on the Apocalypto band wagon? When was the last time you went to a Pow Wow or visted a Reservation? Why is it only in the states you see Viva la Raza, Aztec tee-shirts? Are you Indian only when it suits you or are you too busy still trying to fit some Euro/Spanish racist idea of self identity? If your promoting speaking Spanish(the language of the Euro conqueor over speaking Maya or Nahuatl)then exactly who are you? The next time you go south instead of visiting the tourist spots and acting like a typical gringos visit the areas of our ancestors. See the condition that they live in daily, not just make it a passing fancy because of this movie. Oh that’s right your SPANISH!! Excuse me then, this message is for Indios…! Viva los Primeros

  2. I’m glad that someone is showing the indigenous populations as the advanced civilizations they were, and not just a bunch of teepee inhabiting fools.

    Gibson showed the last stages of a civilization, in this case, when an unknown disease with a 90% mortality rate (smallpox, a spaniard carried plague) has on a nation. The Maya at this stage were fearful, willing to accept any solution. The local power structure, priest and leaders, used human sacrifice as the solution to save the nation.

    Is this any different than “kill then all, and let God sort them out”?

    The Maya were humans who laughed, loved, dreamed, planned, and feared. Humans who built an advanced civilization with cities larger than any in Europe.

    If our resident Spaniards can’t accept that, and want to believe in the ignorant indio, then that’s their racism… not Gibson’s.

  3. I’m not out to prove my cred among the indigenous population (although regular VL readers know that I have written many times about indigenous issues here) but rather to state an opinion. Are you saying then that Apocalypto is a positive for the larger Mayan community? How about for the Indigenous community as a whole?

  4. While I don’t necessarily believe that Apocalypto is racist, I do have a problem with the fact that so many cultures are misrepresented in the media with hardly a peep from anyone. Would a similar movie about African Americans go over as well? Probably not, because the African American population is organized in their protests. When something makes them uncomfortable, they let everyone know, unlike the Hispanic and Asian populations, which sit back and take it.

    A perfect example of this is the reaction (or should I say non-reaction to Rosie O’Donnell speaking “ching chong ching chong” Chinese on the View. When Michael Richards says the n word, everyone knows, but when Rosie O’Donnell uses a similarly offensive racist slur, no one cares!

  5. I don’t know if it’s so much a lack of organization on the part of other people of color communities as it is so much stereotypes about model minorities and who can get away saying what about whome, like the horrible Rosie O’Donnell on The View, which only seems to be getting play in the blogosphere and not in the mainstream media.

  6. Please…let’s all just admit that Mel is right. Native Americans were brutes and there wasn’t much else. True they did make advances in astronomy and agriculture but they also didn’t even have the engineering skill to invent the wheel. Pointing these things out is not racist, just accurate.

  7. Probably not, because the African American population is organized in their protests. When something makes them uncomfortable, they let everyone know, unlike the Hispanic and Asian populations, which sit back and take it.

    AA…your statement about all these communities of color is a bad generalization. The Black community is no more organized than any other, as any Black Katrina survivor can tell you. The Black freedom struggle just has the fortune (or misfortune) of being the most well-known people of color struggle in the US.

    Also, white folks aren’t perpetuating racism against Asian and Latin@ folk because these communities “sit back and take it.” White folks perpetuate racism because they can, and they’ll do it to all people of color given half the chance. To say that Asian and Latin@ folks silently “take” this racism is an insult to the people in those communities.

    As for comparisons of Rosie O’Donnell versus Michael Richards—the sheer violence of Richards’ racism is why it made front-page news. If he had made some joke about the African American lexicon or Black hip-hop slang, no one would have cared. Racist “jokes” about Africans and African Americans are a staple of popular comedy, just as “jokes” about Asian and Latin@ folk are.

    Now if O’Donnell had made violent threats against Asians, would there be an outcry? I don’t know. I seriously doubt it, given the general lack of awareness about anti-Asian racism in this society. Asian Americans are absolutely right in pointing out the hypocrisy here. But would there be an outcry if Rosie had made a “funny joke” about the way Black people talk? I think we can safely say: hell no.

  8. I think it is important to try to conceptualize what Mel is doing with his movie. I have not seen the movie, so I will give my opinion on whether it is an accurate or misrepresentation of indigenous peoples after I see the movie. Is he trying to portray the Maya as a people who ate each other and did all these other horrible acts against humanity? Does he want to try to show something new and exciting and exotic? Does he just want to make more money than Jews? I don’t know. What is known, and important to note, is that he did make this movie. His intentions, well, no one’s intentions are ever clear. That is the sheer nature of intention. Which also happens to be an essential component of humanity.

    However, as someone with indigenous Andean roots, I think it is a great step in the right direction. (Not necessarily crumbs.) Most Euro/American-centric textbooks will write about goldsmithing, woodwork, and stone carving and/or building as the only accomplishments of the various indigenous peoples of the Americas. As if the Incas, Mayas, Aztecs (and the rest of the American Indian peoples of North America) were only capable of making little disks of gold, beaded jewelry, and giant stone heads. Documented evidence proves that nothing could be further from the truth. See David E. Stannard’s, American Holocaust for more info.

    What I hope the movie shows, is how the creation of art, architecture, etc. can only occur in a well developed society that has developed complex systems of government, religion, economy, and social order. Societies such as our own.

    Mala, I think you are totally guilty of being “a judgmental oversensitive woman of (a lighter) color” here. Another representation of indigenous people (that might not necessarily be negative) other than that textbook shit? C’mon, that is a great move. Yucatec Maya being spoken on the silver screen. Millions of Americans, and non Americans alike, watching a narrative take place in a foreign language? (Sort of like artsy foreign films, except with mass appeal.) C’mon, awareness of a population that has suffered greatly from the conquest of the Spanish and subsequent racism? You especially understand the importance of awareness. So the lead wasn’t Maya. You’re acting like it’s Charlton Heston. Or Luke Perry playing the title role. Is it a perfect step in the right direction. No way.

    Ideally, a Maya makes billions doing something “indigenous” casts an all Maya cast and editorial crew. She (cause a Maya woman would be better than a Maya man) only shows her movie in theaters that serve indigenous snacks, beverages. And everyone who pays the price of admission is given accurate literature detailing the complex history of the Maya. And that Maya woman, with all the trillions of dollars made from her movie, invests in terraforming and creates a new independent Mayan state in the Caribbean.

    When the fuck do you think that’s going to happen? I really hope you see the movie and then pass judgment. I’m very interested in knowing what your “informed” opinion of the movie is.

  9. I don’t see why is it racist. I haven’t seen the movie but I kind of know what is it about… pero no where in it I see a racist issue. Es una movie como cualquier otra que trata de informar sobre nuestro pasado. If it’s going to be good or not, I don’t know, so why judge, if is not even out yet! or is it and I don’t know about it! :o HaHa

  10. Marco- how incredibly offensive and divisive of you to bring in what shade my color be. I am a Latina with roots in many races regardless of what shade I came out of my mother’s womb.

    As for me dropping money to pass judgement on the film. Don’t hold your breath. I’d rather wait for a worthy Latino filmmaker to throw my cash behind.

  11. Maegan, I think you’re great. And I love reading you. But you’re totally off here. This is not Daniel Day Lewis. See it. Get a bootleg, DL it, and then pass judgment. You have an acute eye for detail and understand narration (at least I hope).

    In something like Pirates of the Caribbean 2, I can see blatant racism in their portrayal of “darkies” as cannibals. It is Disney (no surprise at all) taking from its library of racist cartoon depictions of black savages as cannibals all over again. Mel Gibson too? I am really interested in seeing what you have to say.

    P.S. I always bug you on the “shade” that should be no biggie. (Tu ya me conoces…) Although I do think it plays a role in your assessment of his movie as automatically racist.

  12. This is ridiculous. I just saw the movie about an hour ago, and at no point did i feel that I witnessed a racist film. How can you give an opinion about something without experiencing it?
    I must say, I was actually truly offended by some of the ignorant comments I read from the feedback.
    The only quote I’ll argue is from the legit Ignacio Ochoa,

    “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 deserved, in fact, needed, rescue,”

    Did Mayans not perform human sacrifices? Did they not fight within one another? The European arrival was in no way depicted as a “rescue”. I’m surprised and saddened by his interpretation of Gibson’s work.
    What I recognized in this film, was what I’ve learned from other past civilizations, in present day civilzation, and definately future civilizations; the “powerful” one’s want to conquer/dominate all.
    I spent $10.50 on my ticket, and i’ll spend $10.50 over and over to support this movie.
    Great acting, great story, and great cinematography.
    Definately got more of my money’s worth out of this than out of “Borat”.

  13. How can you pass judgment on a film that you haven’t seen? If the film depicts slavery and human sacrifice as part of Mayan culture, what’s wrong with that if those are factually true? Should the only movies about Mayan culture be whitewashed films that pretend the culture was as gentle as Mayberry? That would be a disgrace and an affront to the Mayans.

    Also, shouldn’t you separate Latino culture from Indigenous culture given the horrible mistreatment that the Indigenous populations still suffer at the hands of the white elite? Pretending that there is such thing as there being one people throughout the Americas south of the USA ignores the facts.

    Most Latin American countries are run by a small, extraordinarily wealthy elite group of white and/or white-identifying mestizos. There is tremendous racism against and oppression of Indigenous and African people in those countries. In Mexico, the word “Indio” is used as an epithet. Furthermore, didn’t Mexico dismiss outrage against its celebration of a horrifically ugly, racist cartoon character that depicts a black man as coon–dark skin, big eyes, and thick red lips?

    Do you think Evo Morales thinks of himself as a Latino or Indigenous?

    The reality is that “Latino” is an identity that is created in the United States. In Latin America, a person is blanco, mestizo, indio, negro, moreno, pardo, mulatto, etc. Look at the histories of Mexico, Cuba, Chile, Peru or Puerto Rico. Those countries have equal or worse entrenched racism than exists in the U.S.

    I don’t like Mel Gibson. The guy is an anti-Semite. However, Gibson has in “Braveheart,” “The Passion of the Christ,” and “Apocalypto” depicted human beings committing terrible violence against each other.” So, jumping to the conclusion that Gibson suddenly is racist for showing violence in Mayan culture flies in the face of his cinematic history.

    But this brings me back to the first point I raised. By damning this movie without seeing it, you could go to a cheap matinée, you sound like some crazed Right-wingers or Maoist on a rampage to burn books or censor movies even though they’ve never read or seen the object of their ire.

    How is damning something without doing any real research a sign of intellectual honest and not slavish devotion to dogma?

    As for skin color, let’s be honest. In Latin America, skin color is social currency. All one has to do is to watch a telenovela and witness the love of white skin, European features, etc. How often have you seen a telenovela where the lovers are dark-skinned Indigenous/mestizo or African/mulatto? Cuba is a country with a majority black/mulatto population but the country’s leadership under Castro is still majority white. Right?

    See the movie and then make a judgment. Don’t just parrot someone else’s thoughts.

  14. Amen to this brad. I am Peruvian, and aware of what you just said. In the US, latinos all put themselves in that category, but remember that when Simon Bolivar held the independence celebrations in Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, etc, only the “blanquitos” (whites, or mestizo-criole) where invited. The liberation of South America by Simon Bolivar and San Martin from Spanish rule was never intended to be the liberation of the native americans, but a transfer of power to the priviledged elite, whom where ironically spanish decent.

  15. “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 deserved, in fact, needed, rescue,”

    I found this to be 100% true. Because of two things:

    1. The quote at the beginning of the movie, “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.”
    Regardles of the fact that pre-colonial Mayans were a particular violent bunch, and theorists have hypothesized that internal violence was ONE aspect of why they were conquered by the Spaniards (not sure how i feel about this), doesn’t anyone find it kind of offensive that a white man would start his supposedly non-political action movie in such a way? Notice how when the Spaniards come, everything is peaceful for our main character Jaguar Paw again? In the movie, those things are not explicitly linked, but just the fact that the movie concludes on a happy note, coincidentally (??) when the spaniards arrive.

    2. Mostly, I just believe that the movie has a lot of cultural and political significance that the filmmaker was ignorant to. I don’t think it really matters that the main actor was not Mayan, but when looking into a culture that you have no link to, you have to be careful. I’m glad the movie was in Mayan, i’m glad that he used mostly South and Central American actors, but i’m just not convinced about the cultural accuracy of this movie. I have heard that Mel Gibson had this idea for a film and once he did a little research found that the facts were surprisingly similar to the ones he thought up in his head! How convenient!

    I just think that besides the completely ridiculous amount of violence (which was at times laughable) and the simplistic plot line, Gibson just didn’t do enough homework and didn’t realize how culturally and politically significant this movie is.

    I would have liked to see this movie with a little more meaty plot, less violence, and a different director.

  16. As a person with Mayan heritage, I can say that I absolutely DID NOT see how this film was racist. I grew up reading as much as I could about my heritage and was lucky enough to visit Copan in Honduras and Tazumal in El Salvador. To me, Mel Gibson brought to life all the beauty of what I saw many years ago. Was brutality part of Mayan civilization? Yes, but also the bonds of family, of community and the strong relationship with the land. In our politically correct times, we’re ashamed of our dark histories despite the fact that they form the base for who we are now. This movie did not portray the Maya as barbaric, it is our Western perspective judges them as such.

    In regards to how the movie ends, I saw it more as an ominous end that allows Jaguar Paw to escape (for how long we don’t know). He also seems to know that his destiny is NOT to follow the white man, but to return to his forest. I definitely don’t think that the Europeans were portrayed as rescuers but as a more dangerous enemy than Jaguar Paw had ever encountered.

  17. First, let me state that Keith is a dumbass. The concept of a round object, a wheel, was known to Natives it just wasn’t ever applied for daily use in transportion, etc. Why would they if they got along fine with other devices? Second, I’d be the last person to label Native folks as brutes if I were of European ancestry. Whites have a pretty disgusting history of violence and bloodshed themselves, so using Keith’s logic, all white accomplishments should be declared null because of their overwhelming history of war and barbarism. Yeah, good one there, dumbass. Second, Natives have always been portrayed as uncivilized savages, heathens, take your pick. This flick really doesn’t help with discarding those stereotypes. I suppose unless you’re aware of Native portrayal in the media, you wouldn’t have known that. Third, Maya did sacrifice but I’ve seen clips of Apocalypto depicting that and in no way have I ever heard of tearing out hearts and beheading as a method of sacrifice in Maya sacrifical ceremonies. Bloodletting? Yeah. Tossed into ye olde well? Yes. Ripping out throbbing hearts? Umm, huh? Third, I would say that only Maya should have a proper say in this matter. Kudos to other Natives who also wish to add their two cents, but as far as Latinos or Hispanics go, keep out. You may be related to Natives by blood but y’all have long since discarded any semblance of Native identity when y’all traded it for the benefits of a European label courtesy of the Spanish social hierarchical system. Born Native, live Native and die Native. I wouldn’t trade my cultural identity for anything.

  18. That was “transportation” in that last post not “transportion”. Wtf kinda mood was I in? Btw, yupanqui, what part of Peru ya from? My dad’s fam is from Huancayo but they mostly reside in Huamantanga since my great-great grandparents. Yeah, like he/she/it’ll ever read this.

  19. As a full blooded Pocomam Maya of El Salvador, I can conclude that the movie Apocalypto was entertaining. It also, carried a message of how we become so obsessed with possesions that we always want more and more and then some. Our empire fell because our leaders became corrupt like those in Europe and the whole world. Is the film racist? far from it. As a Pocomam tribes man, I felt pleased that at least Mel Gybson chose my people (lighter Mayas and darker mayas) to perform. In Mexico he was a philanthropist to my northern Mayan brothers. It hurt me to hear some negative views among my people from Guatemala and Mexico. We are entitled to our opinions. It is true that Latinos, Ladinos, and Mestizos are racist especially when it comes to Native Americans, but it will soon come to an end. We will rise; the condor, Quetzal, and the Eagle are uniting for the first time and we will shed the light of truth to the Mestizo and white simpathizers who have been brain washed to believe they have a superior way of life.

    Yes, we did practice sacrifice, to a lesser extent than the Toltecs, Aztecs, and other world nations; However, we did not feed our enemies to the dogs and killed in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

    White simpathizers have tried to surpress the significant contributions we have made to the world; like, Agriculture, Science, Astronomy, Medicine, Sports, Mathematics, Democracy, Socialism, Nationalism, and the Culinary Arts.

    Lookout the Zapatistas are coming.

  20. I just saw this film (I notice the last comment was over a year ago, so who knows if this blog is still active), and I have some mixed feelings about it.

    On the one hand, my first impression of the film was that this was not meant to be taken as a ‘snapshot of day-to-day life of the Maya’. It was deliberately set as a cautionary tale, universally applicable to human civilization, about the fall of empires consumed by greed and oppression.

    Furthermore, it is always a bad idea to label a film/book as “racist” for simply admitting that the Mayans, like all civilizations in human history, have been guilty of the same sins as everyone else. European oppression and imperialism is so prevalent in the 21st century as the roots of today’s oppression system–the Europeans, by no virtue of their own, got lucky enough to have the right combination of germs and steel necessary to take over the world.
    But this too shall pass, eventually.
    Meanwhile, let’s not forget that, on a smaller scale, all other empires–Byzantine, Egyptian, Aztec, Mixtec, Mayan, Zapotec, Olmec–have also engaged in pillaging, conquest, enslavement and expansion.
    In fact, many Mexican scholars suggest that it was Aztec imperialism which paved the way for the Spanish conquest of Mesoamerica. The Aztecs’ neighboring nations–including the Purepecha, origin of the maligned “Malinche”–were so pissed off at them, they were ready to believe anything. Cortez just had to make the same promise that Hitler would 400 years later (and Dubya a bit later…): “I just want to liberate you from your oppressor. Then I’ll leave you alone.” Imagine…were it not for Aztec imperialism, the United States might today border a Nahuatl-speaking, fully indigenous nation.

    That being said…

    I can see two main causes for concern with this film:

    1. The film seems to imply that Indians “can’t do civilization”. The ‘good Indians’ are those who stick to the jungle, living simple, primitive lifestyles. It’s when they try to create cities that they become brutish, dirty and cruel. (Compare the Mayan city–I don’t know if this is supposed to be Palenque or a different one–to the depictions of Rome in ‘Gladiator’, and you’ll see what I mean. Rome is shown as cruel, yes…but clean and orderly.)

    Of course, you could say that Gibson’s statement is meant to apply to ALL humanity–that people, in general, should seek a more simple, nature-friendly existence. Be that as it may…

    2. The film appears to take all the brutalities committed by the Mayans over 1000 years and cram them into two hours. Imagine if we did the same thing with Europeans and portrayed it as “a film about white people”: show the Holocaust, Hiroshima bombings, KKK lynchings, enslavement of blacks, massacre of Indians, Grand Inquisition and European torture chambers all at once. As if they all happened on the same day.

    I will offer one more thought, however, as far as the manmade concept of ‘race’ is experienced:
    I find it interesting that, overwhelmingly, those who are actually indigenous were not nearly as offended by this film as those who self-identify as “Latin@” or “Chican@”. I think we should all have the humility to listen to the voices of the Indigenous peoples themselves, rather than pretending to speak for them, just because we may or may not share some elusive thread of common blood with them.

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