By Noah Amir Arjomand, Postdoctoral Scholar in Global Media, Development, and Democracy
Russian artist and disability activist Jerry Mercury goes beyond paying tribute to Malcolm X in “Setting Off with Malcolm”–he personally embodies the civil rights icon’s martyrdom. The 22-minute film consists of Mercury reflecting on how Malcolm inspired him and reading excerpts from his hero’s autobiography co-authored with Alex Haley, intercut with archival images and footage of Mercury carrying out a “ritual of self-initiation.” In a liturgical sequence–Preparation, Libation, Communion–shot on February 21, 2020, the 55th anniversary of the assassination, Mercury gesturally reenacts Malcolm’s last night at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City. Pomegranate pods artfully stand in for blood in an homage to Soviet filmmaker Sergei Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates. A German tote bag reading “rassismus ist keine alternative” (racism is no alternative) serves as a multipurpose prop and ultimately a shroud, reminding us of the continued relevance of Malcolm X’s ideas in resistance against today’s racist movements like the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party.
Mercury joined the Russian Studies Workshop on September 2nd to share and discuss his film. He explained to us that he hoped this ritual would help him transform as a social and political subject: “I wanted, and I still want, to become my proper self. That means to be able to fearlessly advocate for my rights.” Malcolm’s ideas of self-defense and self-advocacy “by any means necessary” resonated with Mercury as a self-identified neurodivergent and disabled person who was increasingly accepting that “I can’t try to live my life as a so-called normal person and ignore my special needs.” He hoped that Malcolm’s blood “becomes a shield for me,” as he says in the film narration. Mercury’s transformation is still a work in progress, though since making “Setting Off with Malcolm,” he has started down the path of self-realization, coming out as neurodivergent and advocating for himself more strongly in public spaces.
Also in attendance was Mercury’s friend Zena Yoon, who first appears in the film to help recreate a famous photograph of Yuri Kochiyama cradling Malcolm’s lifeless body that recalls The Pietà. Kochiyama, a survivor of the US government’s concentration-camp internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, carried on Malcolm’s legacy of civil-rights and anti-imperialist activism until her own death in 2014. Later, Yoon later plays a surgeon trying to massage and shock Mercury/Malcolm’s pomegranate heart into resurrection.
Though the doctors could not revive him that night in 1965, Mercury says in the film’s narration, “I have a clear feeling that Malcolm survived his own death.” For Mercury, across the world in St. Petersburg, Malcolm X’s spirit lives on, and the story of his life and death can offer valuable lessons “not only for people of African descent, not only for those who have encountered racial discrimination, not only for those whose religion is Islam, but for each and every human being who treasures freedom and dignity and who aims to transcend all the immanent impossibilities of this life.”
“Setting Off with Malcolm” is the first of three Jerry Mercury productions inspired by Malcolm X. The Russian Studies Workshop aims to screen his films “The Saffron March” and “The Non-Loneliness Train” later this academic year and will invite Mercury back to continue the conversation.