What is similar in both films is that they deal with historically marginalized figures whose names might disappear from the public consciousness without these films having been made about them. Malcolm X’s murder does not have the same historical importance as say, the murder of J.F. Kennedy. And giving identity to “black as beautiful” has been a long, slow and arduous struggle as many political activists, poets and writers can attest. The name of Erin Brokovich would not be a household word, without having this film made about her. Historically, biopics were made about people who were already famous. In the case of these two figures, their achievements became points of national and international discussion and have been embedded into national consciousness because films were made about them2. How do the films measure up when it comes to striking a balance between Hollywood assimilation and genre appropriation?
The balance struck between Hollywood assimilation and genre appropriation is striking in the case of Brokovich. He old Hollywood has a female stock character who wears stiletto heels, who has a potty mouth and whose breasts tumble out of her dress: the whore. We get that figure in Brokovich and expect to see the story line of a rise and fall, or at least of a rise, fall and rehabilitation into the arms of a strong man. The appropriation of this whore figure into a Madonna/social activist who gets justice for 600 people who have been drinking poison water. But the genre has been appropriated. Her figure has no fall, and while her love interest comes back into the picture, he does not get the credit for her activism, but is only a figure who looks on to see his part in her investment of energy.3. Which is the more ‘subversive’ biopic of a marginalized historical subject? Why?
Malcolm X is similarily assimilated into the Hollywood script: the activist who is martyred. The genre appropriation in this instance because the figure is a lesser known one, and because he is an activist railing against the mainstream beliefs and codes that Hollywood has used for 80 years of film making.
Malcolm X is about the politics of race and calls for American blacks to remember that their people have lived with 400 years of racism. Malcolm X is a call to identify that racism and to turn it around. This is done overtly in Malcolm X: the call to be a Muslim that he hears in prison; the preaching he does to convert others to the cause; the greater calling after his Hadjj experience; the voice over of Martin Luther King, extolling his life. All of these segments are overtly political, challenging the audience to hear and act on the same message that changed Malcolm X’s outlook.
The Erin Brokovich subversion is about the politics of gender and more subtle than the overt proselytizing heard in Malcolm X. The historical subject that has been marginalized is women and Brokovich stands as an alternative path available for women to take as opposed to their more traditional role (in her case of being a single mom with three kids, no job and massive debit), but her case is only a marker of one woman who refused to “take it anymore”. There is no overt message that other women en masse should follow her example.
And the message about raising children is somewhat confused in this instance. When Erin loses her baby sisters and George begins to tend the children, he stands in for her “place”. Now he is seen as having no job (she taunts him about that); he is waiting for compliments on taking care of the kids (the earrings as a thank-you from him, never get given to her); he has the joy of hearing a child’s first words (she feels some sadness at having missed this, but the chance is make social change about poisoned water takes precedence for her).
Erin is a message for more people – one half of the world. But I think the Malcolm X film is more effective. Erin Brokovich leaves one with a sweet, warm feeling. Malcolm X leaves the audience thinking, there is something wrong here, and I might be part of it.