3 Movies and a Book to Get You Thinking Critically about Columbus Day

in Non-Fiction by

Today is Columbus Day, that special day where, once a year, some people get to take off work and school to celebrate the “discovery” of North and South America by a man from Genoa who had no qualms about torturing indigenous peoples to get what he wanted.

If the idea of celebrating Columbus’s landing in the Bahamas disturbs you, you’re not alone —Alaska, South Dakota and Oregon actually don’t recognize Columbus Day anymore. Seattle, Albuquerque, and Portland, Oregon, have even replaced Columbus Day with another holiday: Indigenous People’s Day, which celebrates the people who were living on this continent before Columbus’s landing triggered the imperialism and genocide that elementary school lessons often overlook. It’s such a weird holiday that John Oliver even did a segment about how pointless it is on Last Week Tonight this time last year.

Maybe getting the day off work is the only real reason to be thankful for Columbus sailing the ocean blue in 1942. In that spirit, here are three movies and a book that’ll get you thinking about Columbus Day from a new (and hopefully critical) perspective.

Apocalypto (2006)

Despite how many of us feel about Mel Gibson, the 2006 film Apocalypto is pretty fantastic. It follows the story of a young man, captured from his home by Mayans, who escapes and is chased by them all the way back to his village. It has some of the most exhilarating foot-chase sequences you can find in a movie made in the last 10 years and was filmed entirely in the Yucatec Maya language. The movie is controversial for its depiction of human sacrifice, but when you get right down to it, Apocalypto is an exciting chase movie with interesting, complex characters and an unexpected, thought-provoking ending. For all the thrilling and provocative scenes, this is really a movie about realizing that, on the eve of colonization, everything is about to change.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)

This violent, painful classic, directed by Werner Herzog, follows a homicidal, megalomaniacal conquistador as he searches for the lost city of El Dorado, killing and enslaving every chance he gets. It’s not an easy movie to watch, but then again, any movie about the Spanish conquest of the Americas shouldn’t be easily digestible. To give you an idea of what this movie is like, Francis Ford Coppola cites it as one of his major influences for Apocalypse Now. Despite it being largely historical fiction, many historians have noted it for being surprisingly accurate in its portrayal of the real-life historical figures in the movie and the way they treated indigenous peoples.

The Road to El Dorado (2000)

This animated movie, about two men who essentially stow away with Cortez and go on their own journey in search of El Dorado, features two European characters actually attempting to masquerade as gods to group of indigenous people. That’s only the tip of the awkward cultural iceberg at the center of this story, which attempts to tell a light-hearted tale against the backdrop of genocidal colonialism. If you need an on-theme holiday movie to watch with your kids, then watch this one—but please explain every historical inaccuracy, sweeping generalization, and problematic plot point along the way. Consider it a teachable opportunity.

The Columbus Affair by Steve Berry (Random House, 2012)

steve-berry-the-columbus-affairWhat secret connected to Christopher Columbus hides in Jamaica? This edge-of-your-seat thriller follows journalist Tom Sagan as he races to find the key to a 500-year-old mystery that will save his kidnapped daughter. Columbus doesn’t get off easy in this novel and the colony of descendents of escaped slaves, the Maroons of Jamaica, are given a respectful and well-researched role in the story. If you’re looking for something Columbus-themed that’s actually enjoyable, this is your book.


Katie Hires is a book lover, pop culture nerd, and graphic designer. When she's not researching Game of Thrones fan theories, she's either reading or at home making pasta.

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