Yuri Kochiyama & Malcolm X

After Malcolm X’s trip to Mecca, he started to view race differently in that people of different races can work together to reach a common goal. In his letter letter from Mecca he states:

“There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over the world. They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blondes to black-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and non-white.” -Malcom X

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His exposure to unprejudiced white people during his trip allowed him to become more open to other races from that point on. Although this period is less than a year (his trip to Mecca was on April 1964, and he was assassinated on February 1965), he extended his relationships beyond the black community and befriended Latinx and Asian-American leaders of the civil rights movement.

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Yuri Kochiyama was one of his friends. Kochiyama, a civil rights activist and a WWII internee, met Malcolm X after she and her 16 year-old son were arrested in an October 1963 Brooklyn protest. As they were waiting for their hearing on civil disobedience charges, Malcolm X enters the packed courthouse to show solidarity and give the people his support. Recollecting this event in an interview, she stated, “I felt so bad that I wasn’t black, that this should be just a black thing. But the more I see them all so happily shaking his hands and Malcolm so happy, I said, ‘Gosh, darn it! I’m going to try to meet him somehow.'” (Wang 2013). This was the beginning of their relationship.

My knowledge of Yuri Kochiyama began with the following song by Blue Scholars aptly named Yuri Kochiyama. A friend showed it to me when we were talking about Asian Americans in the Civil Rights Movement.

The second verse goes

I see the picture up in Life magazine
You were sittin’ front seat for Malcolm’s last speech
Saw the first man with the shotgun (Boom)
Two more came to get the job done
Now who would’ve thought that it’d be you holding him?
I wonder what you felt when his eyes were going dim

As the second verse describes, Kochiyama was with Malcolm X during his final speech in the Audubon Hotel and held him as he died. Listening to this song made me realize that Malcolm X although he spoke primarily and predominately to a black audience, he also gained support and spoke to a wider audience.

Lee represents Malcolm X within a black/white binary, which is the primary historical and institutional mark of racism that stems from slavery; however, similar to Lee’s treatment of women, he downplays the role of different races in Malcolm X’s life through omittance.

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I originally thought that with this 2.5 hourlong film, the idea of bringing in other groups would complicate the film, and in adding this subplot would dilute the films original message. I personally disagree with this because it would have been easy to show a change in Malcolm X’s perceptions of race through representation of other groups in his audience. In Malcolm X Lee uses a shot-reverse shot structure to show Malcolm X giving a speech and give the audience a look at the audience X is speaking to. It would have been easy to show a diverse group in the audience without giving them a place in the film beyond this.

What do you think? Do you think that it would be easy for him to diversify the audience? Or do you think that the disruption of continuity in representation would have created more questions from the audience? And more broadly, do you think that Lee should have incorporated women and other racial groups into Malcolm X? Or do you think that it is unnecessary or “fine” the way it is?


May 20, 2016 Edit:

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May 19th marks Yuri Kochiyama’s 95th birthday. To commemorate this day, Google drew this iconic photo of Kochiyama.

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