Spoiler Alert: There are major spoilers ahead for X-Men: Days of Future Past (and all of the other X-Men films).
I never liked the comparisons that significant comic book writers, filmmakers, actors, and even some fans make between Magneto and Malcolm X, as well as between Professor Xavier and Martin Luther King Jr. At the end of the first X-Men film (2000), Magneto delivers the line, “By any means necessary,” one of Malcolm’s most famous quotes. Prior to the release of X-Men: First Class (2011), Michael Fassbender, who plays the younger Magneto/Erik Lehnsherr, stated in an interview that the lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. directly influenced the film and the relationship between Magneto and Charles Xavier. “It came up early on in the rehearsal period and that was the path we took,” Fassbender confirmed.
I ranted about how inaccurate, offensive, and racist these comparisons are on my Facebook wall and then shared a blog post that expressed similar sentiments, “By Any Means” (and later, a more recent post, “Professor X isn’t Martin Luther King, and Magneto isn’t Malcolm X, either”). This would be a conversation I would have with fellow people of color, especially those who are X-Men/comic book fans as well. Despite the serious lack of mutants of color, the frequent racist and sexist representations of people of color (e.g. racist, sexist depictions of Japanese women and men in The Wolverine), and the problematic appropriation of anti-racist and civil rights struggles, I still considered myself an X-Men fan. Like many, I was looking forward to X-Men: Days of Future Past, which was always one of my favorite storylines in the comic books and the acclaimed animated series. While I enjoyed the movie, I could not help but feel annoyed by the way the X-Men films ironically fail to address the issues they claim to be challenging. In fact, Neil Shyminsky argues in his essay “Mutant Readers, Reading Mutants: Appropriation, Assimilation, and the X-Men,” that, “While its stated mission is to promote the acceptance of minorities of all kinds, X-Men has not only failed to adequately redress issues of inequality – it actually reinforces inequality.” For the record, I don’t expect anything radical from Hollywood (and mainstream comic books), but I also find it upsetting that people of color are always expected to “look past” things like offensive and racist depictions of their communities, and to simply “enjoy the movie” uncritically. Given the powerful influence of media (on society, perceptions, attitudes, social norms, etc.), I don’t think it is meaningless to raise such critiques.
After seeing X-Men: Days of Future Past, I watched a new interview with Michael Fassbender and Ian McKellen (the latter plays Magneto from the original timeline of the series). About 11 minutes into the interview, McKellen drew the parallel between Magneto and Malcolm X yet again. McKellen states:
“In the history of all the civil rights movements, and I’ve been involved in the gay civil rights movement, there’s always a divide, there’s always an argument between how we go about making our lives better. Do you do Professor X’s way, which I rather approve of: standing up for yourself, but explaining yourself, wanting to be part of society. Or do you rather withdraw and get rather violent as, say, a Malcolm X figure would be.”
Fassbender replied in agreement, “Absolutely.”
These comparisons and characterizations of Malcolm X as “violent” are not just wrong and inaccurate, but incredibly offensive and racist. They reinforce a simplistic and harmful binary between Malcolm and MLK Jr. – one that vilifies the former, and de-radicalizes/co-opts the latter. I would also argue that a Christian (MLK Jr.) vs. Muslim (Malcolm X) narrative may also be present here, though perhaps not as pronounced as the “Good Black/Bad Black” binary. I know I should not be surprised by the sheer ignorance and irresponsibility of white actors and filmmakers, but I honestly felt that enough people have spoken out against these analogies that Bryan Singer, Ian McKellen, and Michael Fassbender would adopt a different approach to Magneto. Perhaps I was too optimistic in thinking that Hollywood would learn something for a change.
First, let’s get the obvious out of the way. Professor Xavier and Magneto are both white, not Black. Even if the philosophies of MLK Jr. and Malcolm X aligned accurately with Professor Xavier and Magneto, it’s still racist appropriation. In fact, this is one of the major problems with X-Men: it draws its influence from the civil rights movement in the 1960s, but replaces people of color with mostly white people. In other words, the experiences of people of color and their struggle against racist oppression are appropriated by white and mostly male mutant characters. As argued by Shyminsky, this allows white male audiences to “appropriate the struggles of marginalized peoples.” In his excellent post, “What if the X-Men were Black?” Orion Martin cites an interview with Stan Lee who said the civil rights movement allegory existed from the beginning. “It not only made them different, but it was a good metaphor for what was happening with the civil rights movement in the country at that time,” Lee said. In 1982, long-time X-Men writer Chris Claremont explained, “The X-Men are hated, feared, and despised collectively by humanity for no other reason than that they are mutants. So what we have here, intended or not, is a book that is about racism, bigotry, and prejudice.”
Yet, like many others, I’ve always felt the X-Men films failed in exploring mutant identity/positionality in conjunction with the complex and intersecting dynamics of race, gender, class, religion, sexual orientation, ability, and so on. Instead, the experiences of mutants, irrespective of their race and gender, are depicted within a flawed understanding of “all oppression is the same,” or “shared oppression.” Overlooked are the opportunities to explore how racism, sexism, along with anti-mutant sentiment, impacted mutant women of color differently than white male mutants, for instance. Or, what would the experiences of a Muslim mutant character look like in a hostile climate of anti-mutant oppression and Islamophobia within a white supremacist, capitalist, heteropatriarchal society? As Martin writes:
What’s disturbing about the series is that is that all of these issues are played out by a cast of characters dominated by wealthy, straight, cisgender, Christian, able-bodied, white men. The X-Men are the victims of discrimination for their mutant identity, with little or no mention of the huge privileges they enjoy.
One of the major criticisms of X-Men: First Class was its glaring omission of the civil rights movement and how, as Seth Freed Wessler stated, the “racial justice allegory was thrown out with the bathwater of history.” Ta-Nehisi Coates noted that the film takes place in 1962, the same year when South Carolina “marked the Civil War centennial by returning the Confederate Flag to the State Capitol” and the year when “the University of Mississippi greeted its first black student, James Meredith, with a lethal race riot.” He argued that the film “appeals to an insidious suspension of disbelief; the heroic mutants of America, bravely opposing bigotry and fear, are revealed as not so much a spectrum of humankind, but as Eagle Scouts from Mayfield.” Furthermore, he described the film as a “period piece for our postracial times — in the era of Ella Baker and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the most powerful adversaries of spectacular apartheid are a team of enlightened white dudes.” And we all remember what happened to Darwin and how he was the first mutant to be killed (and the racist editing just made it worse). Despite the fact Sebastian Shaw tells Emma Frost earlier in the film that “we don’t hurt our own kind,” what he really meant was, “we don’t hurt our own kind unless its a Black mutant.”
X-Men: Days of Future Past doesn’t improve much in this regard. The mutants I was excited to see, namely Bishop, Blink, Warpath, and Sunspot (all characters of color) had some excellent action scenes, but very limited dialogue and screentime. Oh, and THEY ALL DIE. BRUTALLY. Some of them DIE TWICE (once at the beginning of the film and once at the end). Yes, by the end of the film, the dystopian future is prevented and the timeline is fixed, which means these mutants are now alive again, but the only mutant of color that we see at the end is Storm. Bishop, Blink, Warpath, and Sunspot are alive, but they were nowhere to be found and this on-screen absence is significant. I know they’re not part of the X-Men (they were part of Bishop’s Free Mutants Resistance Force in the future), but there are ways the filmmakers could have shown them (that is, if they really cared for these characters). Also, I’m aware that Iceman and Colossus were also killed viciously by the Sentinels, but the majority of the mutant characters killed off were people of color, including Storm. Some may argue, “No, they died honorably,” or, “They were selfless heroes because of their sacrifice,” but how often do we see this pattern in the way people of color are depicted? What this boils down to is, people of color need to die so that the white heroes can fix things in the past and save the whole world. Because it’s always up to white men to save humanity.
Ok, I’m getting off track. My second point: Magneto is not Malcolm X because the former murders people and the latter did not. It is ironic that Ian McKellen believes it is “simplistic” to label Magneto a “villain,” yet he resorts to a simplistic and incorrect understanding of Malcolm X. I am not an advocate of “non-violent” resistance, but when McKellen refers to Malcolm as a “violent” figure, I wonder if anyone bothered to ask him to name a time when Malcolm was violent. Malcolm X advocated for self-defense, which is extremely different than the ruthless violence Magneto carries out. It seems obvious that neither McKellen nor Fassbender bothered to read Malcolm’s autobiography (Fassbender admits he “didn’t study any Malcolm X videos” for the role).
In one of the aforementioned posts, David Brothers calls the likening of Magneto to Malcolm “both disrespectful and part of the ongoing demonization of Malcolm X.” The latter statement especially rings true because it was only one semester ago when I heard a professor pit Malcolm X against Martin Luther King Jr., relying on the same dichotomy that depicts the former as “violent,” “anti-white/reverse racist” and the latter as the “peaceful” one. Brothers continues:
Magneto is a charismatic man who talks a good game, but won’t hesitate to kill a gang of people if it suits his purposes. This is the Malcolm X figure in Marvel Comics? A killer? That isn’t what “By any means necessary” is about… It isn’t as simple as Malcolm X bad, Martin Luther King good. That’s a false dichotomy that is practically taught in schools nowadays. It’s untrue. Magneto is Magneto. He is a killer, sometimes a sympathetic one, but a killer nonetheless.
In his 2013 post, Brothers elaborates further and argues that “America likes to place them [Malcolm X and MLK Jr.] in conflict with each other” while ignoring how “the truth was much more nuanced.” He also explains why Professor Xavier is not MLK Jr. either:
Professor X drafted children into a paramilitary unit under the guise of educating them, and then sent them out to fight other mutants. They’re essentially a self-police force for the mutant people… Magneto is the other side of the fence. Where Xavier wants mutants to coexist with humans, Magneto is a mutant supremacist and terrorist. He murders humans, he brutalizes mutants, and anyone who stands in his way is found wanting and considered a traitor. Magneto is a murderer with ideals, when you boil it down.
Neither character bears any resemblance to Martin or Malcolm, outside of a short-sighted and frankly ignorant idea of what Martin or Malcolm represent. People have said it, but that doesn’t make it true.
Lastly, it needs to be understood that these comparisons are harmful. In addition to demonizing Malcolm X and de-radicalizing MLK Jr., the binary maintains racist thinking that attempts to divide African-Americans into two, simplistic categories. It distorts history and insults the legacy of both Malcolm X and MLK Jr. Claiming that two super-powered white men are stand-ins for two civil rights leaders fighting for the liberation of Black people and then appropriating and exploiting their struggles does the opposite of challenging oppression. In films where men and women of color characters are marginalized, and where the realities of racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, etc. are never given mention, these forces might as well not exist in the world the characters inhabit. As a result, this erasure perpetuates a harmful “colorblind” and “post-racial” myth. If there is any analogy to draw, it is that simplistic binaries of “good mutants” versus “evil mutants” (attempts to make the latter mutants more “complex” notwithstanding) are analogues to the workings of white supremacy which oppressively categorizes people of color as either being in the “good camp” or the “bad camp.”
On February 16th, 1965, five days before El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, or Malcolm X, was assassinated, he made a speech about the way media vilifies those who resist against racism. Below is an excerpt from his speech, which is so relevant today that it could even apply here – to the people who keep insisting that Malcolm was a “violent” figure and “like Magneto”:
“We’re against those who practice racism. Racism which involves a war against the dark-skinned people in Asia, another form of racism involving a war against the dark-skinned people in the Congo, the same as it involves a war against the dark-skinned people in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Rochester, New York. They accuse us of what they themselves are guilty of. This is what the criminal always does. He’ll bomb you, then accuse you of bombing yourself. He’ll crush your skull, and then accuse you of attacking him. This is what the racists have always done. He’ll practice his criminal action, and then use the press to make it look like the victim is the criminal, and the criminal is the victim.”
Where is the “violence” that McKellen spoke of? If anything, McKellen falls into the same racist logic used to demonize Malcolm. The enormous lack of respect for leaders like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. is apparent in the way white filmmakers and writers attempt to transform these individuals into fictional white super-powered characters where one is labeled a “hero” and the other, a “villain.” In a film series where white characters dominate screen-time, what does it mean when the filmmakers and actors insist on drawing false parallels to Malcolm X and MLK Jr. while they promote these films? What message are they promoting? The films are often applauded by mainstream movie critics as offering important lessons on racism and prejudice, but who gets to “teach” these lessons? The stories may be influenced by anti-racist struggle, but, as usual, white characters lead the way in these films.
Filmmakers, actors, comic book writers, and fans need to stop making these comparisons. If you want to learn about Malcolm X, don’t read about Magneto. Read Malcolm’s autobiography and stop likening him to a fictional white mutant supremacist created by white men.