This movie is one of my favorite of all time. Malcolm X has been one of the most demonized members of the Civil Rights Movement by white America and K-12 education. Unless you’re black or interested in that era, you do not know much about Malcolm X. I grew up in a suburban, conservative, extremely religious community and I did not know much of anything about Malcolm X. He was always portrayed as the more aggressive counterpart of MLK and less liked among people in general.

When I saw this movie for the first time it was one of the most humanizing moments for Malcolm X. The choice of Denzel Washington to portray Malcolm was a big one. He is one of the most prominent black actors in American history and chose a possibly very controversial role during a time of high racial tension (during the Rodney King Riots). However, Denzel and the movie did a lot of justice for Malcolm X and his legacy. They showed how his ideology was more than justified by the events of his life. The film also showed how he became more enlightened throughout time, instead of the common story that he “mellowed out” as he became more influenced by MLK. The film ended by showing how he was admired, loved, and respected by members of the black community and on an international stage.

Before watching this film, I knew very little about Malcolm X. In school when learning about the Civil Rights Movement, there was a lot of attention on MLK and less on Malcolm X. However, he is still a very important figure to the movement. This movie served as an explanation for all audience members. Black people watching the film will understand the experiences and the racism he lived through. White people may expect Malcolm X to attack them and violence, but the movie didn’t create those feelings. I think it was important for the movie to start early in his life to understand and witness experiences he went through which motivated him to stand up for his rights. Malcolm X has a connotation of being violent, but really watching and learning what issues he faced and grew up with puts into perspective how he reacted during the Civil Rights Movement. 

This was my first time watching Malcolm X. Prior to the movie, I was really only aware of what I had been taught in school. The majority of my learning about the Civil Rights Movement centered around Martin Luther King Jr. and they skimmed over Malcolm X because he was deemed a controversial figure. The two individuals were framed almost as opposites yet they were both fighting for the same thing. I think this movie brought that to light and gave me clarity. With that being said, I really enjoyed watching the movie and being able to start from the beginning of his life to learn about his history and understand who he was. In the beginning we learned that Malcolm’s mother was more fare skinned because her mother was raped by a white man. She hated her complexion and married Malcolm’s father because he was very dark. Laster in the movie we learned why he changed his name from Malcolm Little to Malcolm X, because Little was given by the slave master and X means unknown. I think these little details about his life built a narrative that people understand. I thought a common question that surfaced was “who are you?” I think this is a question many of us ask for different reasons. The movie was very long and it needed to be in order to cover his true journey and growth. I found it fascinating to see how his life changed course many times — growing up being told he was a thief, being in prison, following Elijah Muhammad, and standing on his own. Overall, I thought the movie captured so much and did a great job depicting his story.

I have a special place in my heart for movies that tell stories about people’s lives- I guess biographical movies in general. I knew very little about Malcolm X or his life story. As some people have already mentioned, whenever I learned about Civil Rights Leaders in middle school or high school it was always “MLK, MLK, MLK, oh ya a Malcolm X was a guy too, but MLK!”. As with many unit lessons, we always had “a pristine” figurehead to tie to it- Paul Revere with the Revolutionary War, Abraham Lincoln with the Civil War, MLK with Civil Rights. Of course figureheads cannot paint the whole picture, especially when they are washed of all of their “bad traits” to make it easier to teach younger students.

This is all to say this movie definitely changed my perspective on Malcolm X as a person and as a leader. I was always taught he was MLK’s evil twin so-to-speak. While MLK was more of a pacifist overall, Malcolm X was not the uber violent, instigator of violence he was made out to be. Although the movie was a bit long (the only other movie I have watched that wa this long was Avenger’s End Game) I thought the movie did a good job at telling as much as they could about his life with a combination of flashbacks, group scenes and individual scenes which really let you inside Malcolm’s thoughts. I can’t help but think this movie was a first in-depth look into Malcolm X’s story for many viewers, including myself. The production of this movie defintiely came with a lot of responsibility to get his story right, and I think it did a good job of showing the good, the bad and the ugly, and the power of his leadership during the 50 and 60’s.

Prior to this movie I only knew the basics about Malcolm X, so it was powerful to watch the movie and see the full extent of his life in one sitting. Seeing the span of his life allowed me as the viewer to grow and develop with him. What was masterful about the movie was that while it was really long, it still had a cohesive feel. Despite covering many years and phases of life the artistic sectioning of his life allowed the viewer to have breaks in time that acted as landmarks. Each phase of his life had a specific theme and energy to it which creates continuity throughout the various time periods. The artistry of jumping between time periods was beautiful, and the movie seemed to flow throughout time in a smooth manner. Particularly in the scene when they director contrasted when the Klu Klux Klan burned Malcolm’s childhood home, with the burning of his family’s home after he left the Nation of Islam. It reminded me of our class discussion about sempiternity, where time exists outside of the linear realm. 

All of this came together to inform the viewer about another perspective within the Civil Rights Movement. Obviously this movie does not act as a replacement for actually studying the history of the 1950’s and onward, but the diversity of perspective was helpful. Growing up I was regularly taught about Martin Luther King Jr, and the work he was a representative of, but I rarely had the opportunity to learn about other leaders during that time period.

Watching Malcolm X was a completely eye opening experience for me. I knew before watching the movie how controversial Malcolm X was during and following the civil rights movement in the 1960s and how he was labeled as hateful and violent by many, but I never knew the intricacy and complexity of his journey and beliefs. In school when we learned about leaders of the civil rights movement we read about Martin Luther King Jr. and his call of nonviolence and unity. But I only remember hearing Malcolm X’s name briefly and in a very pointed way. Whenever I heard conversations of Malcolm X, it was always accompanied by a contrast to Martin Luther King Jr. – them being the antithesis of each other when it came to methods and foundational beliefs. I thought it was interesting how even occasionally in the movie Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. were contrasted – however, through Malcolm’s different stages and self-critique, the lines blurred quite a bit between Dr. King and Malcolm’s central purpose (even though the focus of this movie was not at all about the comparison between the two, it was just something I picked up on). Malcolm’s beliefs, preachings, and purpose were clearly significantly shaped by his experiences growing up in the era of the Ku Klux Klan, being in prison, and his changing relationship with the religion of Islam and the Black Muslim movement. I think the last monologue following Malcom’s assassination was extremely important because it presented Malcolm X for who he was and in a way that is extremely contrasting to his legacy in our textbooks. He had a significant influence that spread outside of America and through generations. And I liked how the movie partly ended with Nelson Mandela teaching Malcolm’s words and children in schools saying his name because it spoke to how Malcolm’s fight for the liberation of Black people is one that is ongoing. The movie doesn’t end with Malcolm’s death just as his purpose didn’t.

I had never seen Malcolm X before and I absolutely loved it. I mean, how good was Denzel Washington? In high school, I read Malcolm X’s autobiography, which the movie is based upon, and both read and listened to some of his speeches, so I had a general background and understanding of what the movie was going to be like, but it still blew me away. Three and a half hours is certainly a long movie, but I actually didn’t think it took away from the experience at all. In fact, the long time frame allowed for plenty of time to see the whole trajectory of Malcolm X’s life and to get a deep dive into him as a person, which is really what makes this movie great.

I have always thought that Malcolm X was one of the most interesting and misunderstood people I learned about in high school. While his opinions and policies could be argued against, I always thought they made sense for him, and I’m sure many others, given his life experiences. His childhood and young adulthood were marred by the murder of his father by KKK members, the destruction of his family as child services took him and his siblings away from his mother, and daily racist interactions with white employers, police officers, and others. He was forced to live on the streets and he eventually was put in prison but through it all he was able to turn his life around. If anyone had a reason to be cynical about society and the world, it would have been Malcolm X. But instead he became one of the great and inspiring leaders and speakers of the 20th century. His life is tragic and disheartening, but it is also triumphant and inspiring. He was able to overcome all the people trying to bring him down and inspired generations of black people to fight for themselves and lift each other up. Malcolm X is simultaneously the victim of the racism and hatred that has plagued the United States’ existence while embodying the “American Dream” by lifting himself out of poverty and overcoming all the horrors he had to endure during his life. I thought the movie really did a great job of capturing all of the different high and low points of his life and really did justice to Malcolm X’s legacy. I think he is a truly inspirational person and I hope that one day the majority of people will see him as such.

By far, the most interesting part of Desdemona is the inclusion of music. Much like the Shakespeare in the Park production of Much Ado About Nothing, songs added a new element to the production. It almost feels like an allegory for the conservative, buttoned-up culture of traditional Western Europe being influenced by the vibrant African music. This, I’m sure, was intentional, as Shakespeare’s Othello seemed to only use Othello’s race as a plot device rather than a character development. Instead, Morrison approaches race and gender as only she can: together.

Othello does not consider what it means for Desdemona, a white woman, to marry a black man. The union is only seen from the eyes of the male characters. Desdemona is less of a character than a prop, and Morrison changes that. We see Othello through Desdemona’s eyes, which only exacerbates the feeling that Othello is half a play at best. It makes me think about all of the other Shakespeare plays that were missing key perspectives. How could they be adapted to include those perspectives? How many perspectives are missing from Shakespeare’s plays that would add a fuller understanding of race and gender?

I feel like Desdemona’s strongest message is that perspective is important to understanding stories, of all kinds. They help understand fiction, but they also help understand our own history. Considering all the angles is important. For Shakespeare’s plays for example, we consider the author, the audience, and the time period, but we have never discussed the actors themselves. How did their lives and perspectives factor into their performances?

Desdemona – Global Literatures at the University of York

Desdemona and Emilia

 

Toni Morrison did not simply adapt Othello but instead retold it in her play, Desdemona. In her retelling, Morrison has the character of Desdemona tell of her story and her mind to other female characters within the story. While Shakespeare had female characters in his own play, he did not have a conversation between the women be as powerful as those that Morrison had. Othello is meant to make you see the story of Othello’s rise and fall, with Desdemona one of the unfortunate victims. Desdemona asks that you listen to the story of Desdemona as she speaks about her life, her husband, her gender, and her death. One of the main flaws of Othello is that it seems to put the death of Desdemona in the back seat in favor of focusing on the issues of race and trust. Not to say that these two issues are unimportant, it does seem to focus less on the gender issue than some of Shakespeare’s other plays. Morrison is instead able to not only further the conversation related to gender, but also continue to focus on the issue of race. This is put on the forefront when Desdemona begins talking to Sa’ran (Barbary). Desdemona says “you were my best friend'” to which Sa’ran responds “I was your slave. (pg 45) They go on to discuss how Desdemona never truly knew Sa’ran, did not understand her experiences, and simply because she married a Moor, that does not mean that she understood the experiences of those around her. What Morrison does best in her play is that she does not ignore any facet of the difficult story that was found in Othello, and she also gives the women a place to speak. Oftentimes the experiences of women in a story are forgotten, but can also be just as important as those of the heroes and villains.

Wow! Reading Toni Morrison’s masterful use of language touched my soul. Not only did she reveal more “truths” about each character, but in the meantime, her Desdemona taught us that no character here is infallible. From the conversation between the mothers of Desdemona and Othello and their deep love and sadness towards their children’s demise, to Desdemona and Othello’s conversations about why the other really believed they desired the other, to Desdemona’s conversation with Barbary which took a turn when we could hear Barbary’s side… all of these characters were inherently flawed; they all had blind spots. That was, in many ways, encouraging to me because it made it more difficult to pinpoint a “winner” or “loser”, “hero” or “villain”.

I particularly enjoyed Morrison’s use of poetry throughout the script. It was honestly difficult for me to understand at first but it helped narrate the emotions and experiences she elaborated on in the prose sections. Sometimes though I was a bit confused why certain characters shared in verse when they did, but this is something I’d love to hear more about in class tomorrow.

Finally, the words that Morrison used to describe what the women in the play felt it was like to be a woman were painful to hear but expressed in a way that I hope all people could understand. The following bullet points are some of the words/phrases she used to discuss womanhood/femininity throughout the text… I feel like I could write a full essay on just these words alone!

  • “Perhaps being a girl gave them all they needed to know of what my life would be.” (p. 13)
  • “Womanhood never imagined itself as an obstacle. ‘Girl’ does not know how to be less than ‘boy’. Together, they were chosen to give meaning to life.”  (p. 15)
  • “Constraint was the theme of behavior. Duty was its plot.” (p. 17)
  • “Today, I aspire to self-esteem. Papa, will you forgive me?” (p. 29)