Essays and Criticism
Malcolm X’s Search for a Father Figure
Despite the fact that James Baldwin stated that he felt it was his duty to write the screenplay One Day, When I Was Lost: A Scenario as a writer and not an interpreter of Malcolm X’s life, when the screenplay is compared to Alex Haley’s Autobiography of Malcolm X (from which it was adapted), it is easy to point out incidents of Baldwin’s use of poetic license. For this reason, this essay will examine Baldwin’s screenplay not as a biography of Malcolm X but as a work of dramatic fiction, a work of Baldwin’s creative intelligence.
Shortly after the opening moments of his screenplay, Baldwin develops a flashback to a scene of Malcolm X’s father. This same scene, or a slight variation, is woven throughout the play, emphasizing the influence of Earl Little, Malcolm’s father, on his son. The use of flashback is a creative device that cinematically demonstrates that Earl is forever present in Malcolm’s life in spite of the fact that he died when Malcolm was quite young. The flashback also acts as a window into Malcolm’s mind, making it appear as if the audience could see into Malcolm’s thoughts.
By continually referring back to Earl, Baldwin also creates an obvious theme—an almost mythological search for a father figure. Since the screenplay is written more like a work of fiction than as a documentary, it is not known whether this quest for the father is a reflection of Baldwin’s own deep psychological need or is a passion that Baldwin perceived in the real life of Malcolm. It is not crucial to know the reason why Baldwin established this theme but rather to use the theme in order to grasp a more complex meaning of the play.
In Baldwin’s script, two developments occur. First, he has events in Malcolm’s life that appear to mimic, or mirror, his father’s life; and second, he has Malcolm experience significant encounters with adult men who want to take Malcolm under their wing as a father figure might do. In reference to the first development, Baldwin’s supposition is that a boy who never knew his father might foster a sense of void as he is growing up. Subconsciously, that young child, in an attempt to define who his father was, might take upon himself to live out parts of the father’s life as he remembers it, or as his mother might have related it to him in the form of stories. To this end, Baldwin inserts numerous flashbacks of Earl being harassed by the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan is angry with him because he preaches the philosophy of Marcus Garvey, the leader of the socalled Back to Africa Movement. This aspect of Earl’s life mirrors Malcolm’s life as a preacher of the Nation of Islam, which also causes Malcolm to be harassed because he also believes in creating a separate nation for African Americans. Whereas Earl is harassed by the KKK, Malcolm is harassed by the white press and eventually by the leaders of the Black Muslims.
Another incident that the father and son share is the fire that destroys their homes, and the firefighters who, in the father’s case, stand by and watch the house burn down; and in the son’s situation, never show up. The third, more dramatic similarity is the fact that both men are murdered for their beliefs.
The parallels between the two men’s lives are interesting, but it is the creation of the father figures in Baldwin’s script that is more fascinating, because by following the development of Malcolm’s supposed search for a father, as Baldwin dramatizes it, the reader can surmise that Malcolm might have fully realized the answers he was seeking.
The first substitute father that Malcolm finds, or more literally, who finds Malcolm, is Archie. Baldwin even spells out the relationship by having Archie refer to Malcolm, upon first seeing him, as being about the same age that Archie’s son would be. Archie feels sorry for Malcolm, who is obviously dressed as a man newly arrived to the city from the country would be. Archie immediately (and somewhat unnaturally, given the short span of time between their initial meeting and Archie’s summation) senses Malcolm’s potential and takes him into his care. He teaches Malcolm how to make a living in the city without having to humble himself to white people. Under Archie’s directions, Malcolm becomes more street-wise and more independent. He becomes so good, as a matter of fact, that he eventually challenges Archie, something that a son might do in order to progress from the role of a child to that of an adult.
The challenge, although somewhat convoluted, reflects the psychological relationship between a father and a son. Malcolm beats Archie at his own game, that of numbers running. Archie,...
(The entire section is 1915 words.)