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Race Identity Evaluation in the Film “Malcolm X” Essay

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Updated: May 26th, 2020

Introduction

Despite the fact that a number of people consider that racism is no longer experienced in the 20th and 21st century America, some people claim that the racial segregation still takes place in the United States, which is a reason for concern (Omi). Such statement is, however, contrary to the views of renowned comparative ethnic studies professor, Michael Omi. Omi emphasizes that against all odds, racism is pervasive in the lives of Americans.

According to Omi, people usually judge other individuals’ capabilities based on their racial orientations. Basing his survey on American music, film and television programs, Omi reveals how deeply racism is rooted in the American society. This essay uses Omi’s findings as the critical framework to evaluate Americans’ perception of racial identity and relations as portrayed in Malcolm X screenplay. Considering the points at which Omi’s work crosses the plot of the movie and marking the differences between the two, one can track the slightest implementations of racism in the modern American society, which is extremely essential for the well-being of the people and the entire state.

Plot of the screenplay Malcolm X

Description

Malcolm X screenplay heavily borrows from the book ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm’ written by Alex Haley. The screenplay commences with burning American flag which eventually becomes an ‘X’. It is important to mark that, unlike the previous movies involving Black actors, as Omi claims, the given film introduces a non-clichéd character with complex personality and shows the stages of his development. As the screenplay begins, Malcolm reacts angrily that they are only experiencing American nightmares instead of the promised American dreams. The screenplay progresses with Malcolm and his friend Shorty taking to criminal activities to earn money.

Later, Malcolm gets involved in criminal activities with another gangster called Archie. After several criminal activities, Malcolm and Archie eventually fall out over struggle for money. On returning to Boston, Malcolm gets re-united with Shorty, and falls into a romantic relationship with some white woman. When the duo robs a white couple in Boston, they are caught and sentenced to ten years in jail (Malcolm X DVD, 1992). It must be admitted that the given part of the movie confirms Omi’s ideas concerning the discrimination issues in the motion pictures sphere.

Concerning the details

As a newcomer in prison, Malcolm is over-defiant to the prison guards and chaplain, which is a sign that the movie is going to introduce a character that is different from the biased type depicted by Omi. Baines, a fellow inmate is passionately interested in helping Malcolm to withdraw from cocaine addiction. At first, Malcolm is skeptical about Baines help, but he later develops trust for him. Baines slowly introduces Malcolm Little to Islam faith.

Apart from informing Malcolm that God is a black, he also tells him that the blacks belong to the ‘Tribe of Shabazz’, and that they are not meant to be in North America. He goes ahead to tell him that whites are devilish, and only Elijah Muhammad can rescue them from death. Initially, Malcolm accepts this but finds it hard to kneel and pray. Later in his prison cubicle, Malcolm has epiphany, where Elijah Muhammad visits him to give him sense of self-worth. Immediately after this epiphany stops, Malcolm kneels down for prayers. On his release from the prison, the fully converted Malcolm takes to Islam and adopts the letter X to his name, which signifies unknown (Malcolm X).

It is important to emphasize that at the first stage of his moral and spiritual change, Malcolm chooses a rather bellicose way to prove his point and achieve the goals that he sets for himself. Weirdly enough, at the beginning of the fight that Malcolm started he was eager to crush the obstacles that stood in his way and used his power to harm the ones that did not consent with his point of view. As the lead character of the movie mentioned himself, “Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery” (Malcolm X, 1992).

It is important to mark that Malcolm does change his opinion in due course of time, yet the change of mind that Malcolm has was enhanced by a number of transformations that the character had to undergo. Hence, the movie points to the fact that the key to overcoming racial discrimination and defeating it is in defeating the racist within one’s own mind. It is quite peculiar that the film both contradicts and confirms the traditional image of a Black man as a character possessing doubtlessly negative features, which surprisingly enough is close to the ideas expressed by Michael Omi. However, it is necessary to mention that there is certain complexity in Malcolm’s character, which contradicts Omi’s idea concerning the traditional image of a Black man in cinema. Omi claims that there is certain “one-dimensionality of these images,” whereas it is evident that Malcolm as a character is much more complex and comprises both the positive and the negative, which creates a conflict within him.

Outside prison, Malcolm becomes a prominent Muslim preacher, who, under instructions of Muhammad opens mosques across the country, which is also rather unusual succession of events that bursts the bubbles of Omi’s theory. Malcolm gets married to Betty and they bear three kids. He also meets his former friend Shorty, and vows to help Archie who is succumbing to effects of the drugs. Malcolm is astonished when he gets to know about Muhammad’s infidelity.

He learns that Muhammad had fathered eight children with teenage girls. Slowly falling out with Muhammad and Baines, Malcolm is later suspended for ninety days from the organization for misconducts, which he bears. When he eventually falls out with the Nation of Islam, he embarks on a pilgrimage to Mecca. While in Mecca, Malcolm writes to his wife informing her that he was being followed by some white men, and that he had worshipped in Mecca with people of all races, including whites. The pilgrimage changes his perception, so that he accepts to work with civil rights organizations that he had initially criticized (Malcolm X DVD, 1992). Thus, the movie redefines the American perception of Black people, providing a striking contrast to the typical character Omi depicts.

It is important to mention the numerous attempts to kill Malcolm and his family undertaken by Nation of Muslim members, which adds the movie the prejudice-redefining force. On February 1965, Malcolm is finally assassinated after a crowed unrest in Manhattan that he was trying to quench. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. condemns this attack, terming those who solve disagreements through murder as unlearning. A eulogy quoted by Ossie Davis hails Malcolm X as having had ditched Negro orientation for Afro-American. He therefore urges the rest of the blacks to emulate Malcolm X and shun Negro perception. As the screenplay ends, a black female teacher standing next to a blackboard convinces her students to identify with Malcolm (Malcolm X DVD, 1992), which provides one of the most striking contrasts to the traditional image of a Black person and, thus, redefining the traditional American attitude to Black people radically.

Evaluation of screenplay Malcolm X based on Michael Omi’s ideas on racial relations

Malcolm X implications

In his essay, Omi writes about inferential racism which he terms as fictional or factual situations that perpetuate racism. Inferential racism is not easily visible to those who perpetuate it (Omi, 551). This is what happens as Lee Spikes writes his screenplay Malcolm X. He largely portrays blacks as a suffering race that is rooted in drugs and poverty. Though he includes in his screenplay that God is of black race (which is rare in many racial screenplays), the depicted God has a number shortcomings such as infidelity. Therefore, in his efforts to build a noble anti-racism theme, he unknowingly develops racially undermining perceptions. ‘Race is paradoxical, both invisible and obvious’, Omi’s statement that is proved in Malcolm X screenplay (Omi, 551).

Michael Omi’s ideas

Omi also writes that people’s ways of thinking, talking and behaviour towards individuals of different races is shaped majorly by racial prejudices and perceptions. He explains that people feel uncomfortable and disoriented when individual do not act as they are racially perceived. If a black man acts contrary to what is perceived of blacks, or when a white man acts contrary to what is expected of him, then uncomfortable feelings are created in audiences (Omi, 552). This is what happens in the screenplay Malcolm X that led to the death of Malcolm X. Being a black, and perceived Negro, Malcolm X is not expected by the organization Nation of Islam to act in oneness with the whites. On the contrary, he worships with the whites in Mecca and works with the civil rights that promote racial unity with the whites. As a result, a negative perception is created against him, which finally led to his assassination.

Omi also describes how television programs and films have been used to expose wrong perceptions of minority races. He says that for a long time, screenplay directors have depicted blacks as drug addicts and gangsters who are riddled with poverty. Whites are portrayed as wealthy and manipulating, with dominancy over others. Asians on the other hand are perceived to be cunning and evil. In short, Omi puts it that whites portray other races as lesser human beings in their film productions and television programs (Omi, 554).

The ideas and opinions of Omi are reflected in Malcolm X screen play where Malcolm Little, Shorty and Archie are portrayed as drug addicts and gangsters right from the beginning of the play. Blacks are also depicted as defiant and unruly people in the prison. The whites, who Malcolm and Shorty rob to end them up in prison are a representation of how the whites are wealthy and dominative in the American society. The two whites whom Malcolm claims are tracking him concurs with Omi’s claims that whites are mostly depicted as manipulative and authoritative (Omi, 554).

Looking for the racial identity: The evaluation of the problem in the light of Malcolm X

Racial identity issue

It cannot be denied that there is an element of looking for one’s own identity and searching for one’s belonging. In a nutshell, racism is a vice that has been perpetuated to date, especially by television programs and films. Knowingly or unknowingly, works of creativity fuels racism as Omi’s essay confirms. Affirming Omi’s opinions, Malcolm X depicts how screenplays are used to create wrong perception and prejudices about other races.

The film therefore reflects what Americans perceive of the black race, which may not be wholly true. In addition, the movie also concerns the aspect of racial identity, the search for the place where one belongs completely. As Malcolm (1992) says, “The only way we’ll get freedom for ourselves is to identify ourselves with every op pressed people in the world. We are blood brothers to the people of Brazil, Venezuela, Haiti,… Cuba – yes, Cuba too.”

Conclusion

To sum up, the given movie does not redefine the attitude towards the racial minorities in the USA, but provides certain basis for the further reconsideration of the treatment of the racial minorities. It cannot be denied that with the help of portraying the lead character in the unconventional and almost daring way, allowing the Black actor to perform a complex role, the creators of the movie broke new grounds in the sphere of the racial minorities’ treatment.

Works Cited

Malcolm X. Dir. Spike Lee. Perf. Denzel Washington, Christopher Plummer, Spike Lee, Angela Bassett. Box Office Mojo, 1992. Web.

Omi, Michael. In Living Color. Race and American Culture. Thousand Oaks, CA: Berkeley. 1994. Print.

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IvyPanda. 2020. "Race Identity Evaluation in the Film "Malcolm X"." May 26, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/race-identity-evaluation-in-the-film-malcolm-x/.

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IvyPanda. (2020) 'Race Identity Evaluation in the Film "Malcolm X"'. 26 May.

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