The Mortification of Malcolm Little

In Malcolm X, Lee displays Mr. X’s difficulty in acclimating to the prison. Lee imbues the Mr. X’s incarceration with realism as it appears to relate to Erving Goffman’s mortification process, as described in Asylums.

Goffman states, “upon admission to a total institution….the individual is likely to be stripped of his usual appearance…thus suffering a personal defacement” and the individual receives the institution’s standard issue attire (Goffman 20-21). In the film, the mortification of the self has already begun for Mr. X as he is first shown in his prison uniform, as he tries to defy full personal defacement by not calling out his number (1:01:34).

X1The presence of prison bars represents another part of this through “contaminative exposure”, removing “the boundary the individual places between his being and the environment” (Goffman 23). Mr. X and the inmates have no privacy and wear the institution’s clothes, resulting in a loss of the self.

Mr. X rejecting to call out his number displays further evidence of Goffman’s mortification process. As he denies to call out, one of the guards grab Mr. X by the head to show him his number, but he does not defend himself (1:01:44).x2 This is because in a total institution (prisons, asylums, military camps), “the individual finds that his protective response to an assault upon self is collapsed into the situation” (Goffman 36). Mr. X denies to call out, but he does not defend himself from the guard, showing that he has already begun to acclimate, even in his insubordination.

However, by continuing to reject the call out, Mr. X undergoes further self-mortification. Goffman describes this as the looping effect: “the inmate’s reaction to his own situation is collapsed back into the situation itself” often resulting in “tyrannization” (Goffman 37). Mr. X rejects the call out and is carried away to solitary confinement (1:01:54).x3 Through trying to reject the mortification process, he ends up allowing a “tyrannization” by the guards. This looping effect is shown by him emerging from solitary confinement ready to adhere to the regulations of the prison. His rejection of the mortification process did not protect him. It resulted in an escalation of the process.

Lee’s deliberate effort to make prison as real as possible is shown through relating the initial scene to Goffman’s mortification process. This does not mean he studied Goffman in developing this scene, but it does show that he took great care in realistically portraying incarceration.

Source: Goffman, Erving. Asylums; Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1961. Print.

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