by David Schmidt
“I have seen much of the rest of the world. It is brutal and cruel and dark. Rome is the light.”
-Maximus Aurelius, Gladiator
-Maximus Aurelius, Gladiator
North American drug dealers are noble, altruistic men with chiseled abs and beautiful hair. They develop personal relationships with the ill people who need their medical marijuana. They spend their free time setting up water purification systems in sub-Saharan Africa. They are sensitive souls, pained by the violence implicit in their trade.
Mexican drug dealers are brutal sadists who torture people, rape women, set men on fire, and chop civilians’ heads off.
At least, this is what Oliver Stone’s film Savages would have us believe.
Savages centers on a love triangle between two southern California weed dealers, Ben (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch), and their shared girlfriend, Ophelia (Blake Lively). Chon is a hardened war veteran; while rough around the edges, he has a steely sense of duty to the people who are close to him. His partner Ben is a dreadlock-wearing Buddhist who, when not working in the hydroponics lab, conducts development projects in the Developing World. Ben and Chon have managed to produce a highly potent strain of marijuana with THC levels of 30 percent and higher. When the Baja Cartel catches wind of their success, the Mexican narcos makes a business proposition to the boys. The gringos reject it and, in order to urge them to reconsider, the cartel kidnaps their girlfriend Ophelia.
Savages is narrated by the blasé character Ophelia, a shapely So Cal girl who has all the personality of a bag of sawdust. After she is kidnapped, viewers are left to wonder why on earth two able-bodied young men would risk their lives to save Ophelia, when she could be easily replaced with a cardboard cutout of Kathy Ireland. The story of Savages jerks along haltingly and uncertainly, featuring long stretches of insufferable dialogue punctuated by horrific violence. Conversations between Ben and Chon flow with the forced, disingenuous tone of a high school play; you can practically see the actors’ eyes scanning the cue cards.
The moral of Savages, as the film’s name implies, is that violence makes savages of us all; by participating in violence we lose the moral grounding from which to criticize it. If this were the film’s sole focus, it would be a largely innocuous morality tale. This ostensibly primary message is overpowered, however, by a much stronger subtext: that of violence as a foreign [read: Mexican] phenomenon. The lovable North American drug dealers are dragged into the world of murder, torture and kidnapping, but only out of loyalty to their curvaceous blonde lover. The film implies, with all the subtlety of a flaming school bus, that brutality is second nature for Mexican (not North American) drug dealers. When the Mexican narcos commit horrific atrocities, they do so because it is “in their nature”. When gringos do the same thing, it is because the poor, tortured souls have been forced to take drastic measures for a higher cause.
While both sides refer to each other as “savages” in the film, this assessment is lopsided. Ben and Chon call the Baja Cartel “savages” for chopping off heads and maiming other humans; the Mexicans call the gringos “savages” for sharing the same girlfriend. It’s clear who we, the viewers, are meant to side with.
In addition to being blatantly xenophobic and ethnocentric, the mentality present in this film goes hand-in-hand with much of the anti-immigrant discourse that has been tossed around for centuries. Immigration is described as being bad for the country receiving immigrants because, according to the conventional wisdom, “those people” are savage, brutal, backwards, etc. Arizona State Senator Steve Smith expressed it well when he said:
“If…you wanna bring your language with you, your gangfare with you, stay where you were! Or face the consequences.”
(Feel free to read my open letter to Steve Smith on this subject.)
The myth of “violence as a foreign phenomenon” is a powerful one. It is also blatantly false. It is a lie that has backed up two contradictory, yet intricately linked, policies throughout history—(1) Invasion and intervention in other countries, and (2) rejection of immigrants from those countries. We invade their lands because “they are savage, and must be taught how to live”. Then when they come here because we’ve bled their nations of their wealth, we reject them at the gate, “because they’ll negatively affect our society with their savagery”.
The same belief in the “inherently violent nature” of other nations and cultures leads us to pass the buck when it comes to the reasons people migrate. When the talking heads discuss the causes of immigration, it is often to suggest that “they should fix their own countries”. Or that “they” don’t know how to run their own countries to begin with. There is no consideration of the possibility that our own economic, trade, military, and political policies could have a hand in forcing people to leave their own homelands in the first place. This—along with a whole host of other myths—lets us continue to comfortably blame immigrants for their own problems.
In spite of its half-hearted overtures towards a progressive critique of violence, Oliver Stone’s film Savages essentially toes the line of most of Western discourse: the “savages” are “those people out there”.
David Schmidt is a freelance writer and multi-lingual translator in San Diego, CA. He is a volunteer at World Relief Garden Grove, proponent of immigrants' rights and fair trade, and works with worker-owned coops in Mexico to help them develop alternative, fair sources of income. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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