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The paper will argue that the film “Malcolm X” is a fight against the demonization of an African American icon. In light of critics’ remarks in the book “The mistakes of Malcolm X”, the director went beyond propaganda and told the story of a society changer. It will argue that the prison scene in the movie was designed to illustrate the story of a man who freed himself from a self created prison.
In the prison, Malcolm Little and another black prisoner are reading a dictionary. Malcolm’s friend reads out the definition of black from the book; all definitions were synonymous to evil, dirt and wickedness. He also reads out the definition of white, which was synonymous to honesty, purity and fairness (Lee, 1992). In this instance, the signifier refers to the negative definitions of ‘black’ that are found in the white man’s dictionary.
The signified in this case is the oppression and inequality that those words represent in the eyes of the protagonist as well as members of the black race. When Malcolm’s prison mate reads those definitions, the ideas shock Malcolm. He explains that the ideas come from a white man’s dictionary. It is at this point that Malcolm X realizes that knowledge was one of the greatest tools that white men used to control and dominate society.
The dictionary definitions assisted Malcolm in his self consciousness because he now knew that not all written material was accurate. His colleague points out that society gives out propaganda, and it is one’s responsibility to look beyond that propaganda in order to get to the truth. Critics assert that Malcolm X read too much into the racial-domination ideology (Lavelle, 2011). They believe that he looked for trouble even where it did not exist.
However, I disagree with this viewpoint because Malcolm’s analytical approach to literature reflected how social structures worked. It is necessary to look beyond certain objects and words in order to understand the intrinsic meaning behind those words. Malcolm was simply analyzing a society that treated black people as second class citizens. He was trying to get to the root of the problem through this analysis.
Malcolm X spoke to white and black audiences alike; however, his message was designed for the poor black people. He was deeply suspicious of the white man even after taking a long trip to Mecca. Furthermore, he was a radical. He made demands concerning black people’s separation from the white population. He believed in a violent propaganda that demanded equality by any means necessary.
Malcolm asserted that one should only be non violent to people that are non violent. Therefore, physical violence was a weapon that Malcolm endorsed. In this regard, the revolutionary message that Malcolm preached scared white Americans deeply. This was an individual who made sense, yet he preached hate. He was a powerful orator that the white citizens did not know how to handle. In essence, one can understand why Malcolm X’s image was quite negative.
The director needed to counter his demonization by portraying an individual that audiences could relate to. Through the journey of self enlightenment that the director highlights in the prison scene, it is possible to understand where Malcolm’s notions of racial oppression came from.
This means that non-black audiences can then identify with his ideas. The scene was crucial in bringing out the sociological ideologies that dominant classes used in order to protect their positions; literature was one such avenue. The dictionary was designed in such a way that it did not recognise the rights and opinions of black people who were not all ‘wicked’ or ‘evil’.
These words brought out the fundamental struggles that people in that society had to confront in their daily lives. These dictionary definitions were designed to give film consumers a better grasp of the black man’s struggles, and thus minimize chances of racial stereotyping.
The dictionary may also be perceived in another way in this film. When in prison, Malcolm X was ashamed about his lack of literacy skills. He could barely express himself in prose (Lee, 1992). Furthermore, he became envious of other prison mates who had a great command of the English language.
Having realized that his only path to liberation was his own literacy, Malcolm decided to learn how to read and write. The dictionary became his greatest companion because he would write out all the words on a page; including the punctuation marks. As he practiced this, his vocabulary kept improving.
When his command of the language increased, Malcolm became a book fanatic. The dictionary can also be seen as a signifier in this case. Critics, on the other hand, would explain that the dictionary represents someone who took responsibility for his actions (Lavelle, 2011). Such critics assert that many minorities failed to take responsibility for their own lives.
I disagree with this viewpoint because it does not recognize the importance of social and economic constructions in Malcolm’s society. ‘The signified’ refers to the journey of self discovery and emancipation. The dictionary was Malcolm’s tool out of the entrapment that others felt in the prison.
In fact, Malcolm explains that when he learnt how to read, he finally felt free. This dictionary signified the protagonists’ ability to become self made. He did not accept his circumstances passively; Malcolm knew that he was disadvantaged, and his only way out was through an education. The dictionary came to represent liberation.
He chose to curve out a different path for himself. He would never have become the great leader that society recognizes today if he never took the time to teach himself the English language. In this regard, I disagree with the critics because the dictionary shows the drive and determination of the protagonist.
Other non black races did not have to make that choice. Teachers, parents and other individuals could always teach white children how to read and write. They did not have to struggle or fight the same battles that Malcolm fought, because they were already liberated. The dictionary was symptomatic of this journey.
Economically damaged people can identify with these struggles because a number of them still confront similar challenges to Malcolm’s. Some of them may not know how to read and write so self expression is indeed a great mystery. The dictionary can represent the same thing that it represented to Malcolm in their views.
As Malcolm X started to improve his vocabulary, he also started to learn about the idea of the Nation of Islam, as taught by Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm interpreted books about history in a different light. He started looking at the depictions of great men and women in the past from a different lens.
At the time, he believed that there was a whitening process at play that undermined black people’s accomplishments. In this regard, one may interpret the history books as an instrument of white propaganda. Critics assert that Malcolm’s reading of these books was tainted by the unfounded philosophies of the Nation of Islam (Lavelle, 2011). However, I disagree with this viewpoint because, true to Malcolm’s assertions, there was no mention of blacks in the history books. Malcolm found that explanation through the use of racial discourses.
As this paper has demonstrated, the film was a fight against the demonization of Malcolm X in relation to critic’s attempts to downplay his accomplishments. Through the library scene, it is possible to see how self enlightenment, self consciousness and liberation were realised through this protagonist’s efforts.
Lavelle, D. (2011). The many mistakes of Malcolm X. NY: AMZ
Malcolm X. 1992 [DVD] Spike Lee USA: Largo International