Monday, August 4, 2014

Pocahontas: "Savages"

I did not particularly enjoy the 1995 Disney movie, Pocahontas.  I tend to agree with what one review said: “Pocahontas means well, and has moments of startling beauty, but it’s largely a bland, uninspired effort, with uneven plotting and an unfortunate lack of fun.”  The silliness of Mel Gibson’s depiction of Captain John Smith did not help matters, in my opinion.

Still, its music is fantastic.  Its “Colors in the Wind” won an Academy Award.  My favorite part of the movie, however, involves its most controversial song: “Savages.”  Captain John Smith has been captured by the Powhatan Tribe of Native Americans, and the white colonists are getting ready to free him by force, since he would do the same for any one of them.  The sinister Governor Radcliffe then whips up the mob by singing a song depicting the Native Americans as savages, heathens who are barely even human.  One of the men looks at his gun with reluctance, since he doesn’t want to fight, and he doesn’t really accept the Governor’s demagoguing and demonization of the Native Americans.

Meanwhile, people of the Powhatan Tribe are singing the same song, only their version is different.  They are saying that the white people are savages—-callous, greedy, barely even human.  “I wonder if they even bleed,” the song goes.  This stood out to me when I first watched the movie, for the movie was not just critiquing the bigotry of the white settlers.  It was also challenging the more politically-correct narratives, which depict the white man as evil.

In the midst of all this mutual bigotry, hatred, and mistrust, the Powhatan princess, Pocahontas, intercedes to save the life of Captain John Smith.  She tells her father that, if he kills Smith, then he will have to kill her, too.  In that act, she was challenging the prejudice of her tribe, but she was also challenging the prejudice of the whites, who were witnessing an act of great humanity from someone they’d call a “savage.”

Of course I don’t agree with the lyrics of the song: the whole purpose of the song is that bigotry is bad, that the lyrics are wrong.  One could undoubtedly point to atrocities and evils on both sides, but you cannot judge people or hate people for what group they’re in.  In the movie, Pocahontas taught that lesson.  And, whether or not the story reflects what actually happened, it is refreshing that the story became a part of American folklore.

See here for the song.

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