Julia Guernsey: 'Apocalypto' is an insult to Maya culture, historian says

Historians in the News

As we stagger out of a sneak peek of Mel Gibson's Maya historical thriller "Apocalypto," Julia Guernsey is visibly shaken. She's upset and not a little angry. She barely can contain her disgust, but she also can barely speak. I'm a little worried.

Guernsey is an assistant professor in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Texas. Given her emphasis on pre-Columbian Mesoamerican art and culture, we invited Guernsey along to the preview last week so she could illuminate where Gibson got his history right and where he got it wrong.

The upshot: Boy, did he ever get it wrong.

Caution: The following interview with Guernsey contains spoilers.

Austin American-Statesman: You looked truly disturbed after the movie.

Julia Guernsey: My first reaction was to the extraordinary, gratuitous violence. And the ending with the arrival of the Spanish (conquistadors) underscored the film's message that this culture is doomed because of its own brutality. The implied message is that it's Christianity that saves these brutal savages. I think that's part of Gibson's agenda, sort of, "We got the Jews last time (in 'The Passion of the Christ'), now we'll get the Maya." And to highlight that point there's a lot of really offensive racial stereotyping. They're shown as these extremely barbaric people, when in fact, the Maya were a very sophisticated culture.

Yet he goes out of his way in the first third of the movie to depict how peaceful and human at least some of them are.

Yes, they're shown as wonderful, but ignorant. They're wonderful and they get along great and they've got this rip-roaring humor, but they don't know what's going on a day and a half's walk away, where this massive city, this metropolis, is being constructed. They haven't gotten wind of that because they are in their forest, the forest of their fathers, the forest of their sons. I can feel my heart beating faster talking about this.

You just hate this movie.

I hate it. I despise it. I think it's despicable. It's offensive to Maya people. It's offensive to those of us who try to teach cultural sensitivity and alternative world views that might not match our own 21st-century Western ones but are nonetheless valid....

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