Below is an essay response for a quiz in my “Race, Ethnicity, & Identity” class at San Diego State University.
The essay prompt is based on the 1986 film The Mission starring Jeremy Irons as Father Gabriel and Robert De Niro as Rodrigo Mendoza. The former is a Jesuit priest who lives in South America with the Guaraní. The latter is a slave trader who converts to the Jesuit order with the assistance of Father Gabriel and the Guaraní and both seek to protect the indigenous Guaraní from the Spanish and Portuguese powers that be.
The essay questions asks:
The struggle against racism and inequality has existed for hundreds of years and the decision as to how to combat it has been a key issue for activists. Discuss the struggle between Mendoza and Gabriel and then correlate it to how you think about activism related to racism today.
My answer is below:
The struggles of Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) and Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro) bear a few similarities to the struggles as well as the methods used by Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X in their respective attempts to combat segregation and inequality in the US during the 1960s. They also reflect some of the oversimplified rhetoric, as well as the complex issues underlying that rhetoric, in today’s era of the battles between Antifa and the Alt-Right.
Within both modern examples we see that the public understanding of the use of violence and non-violence lacks a deeper understanding of the complexities behind the pros and the cons behind the use of each as well as the reasoning behind the use of each. It is reflected in the (mis)understandings of the methods of MLK and Malcolm X and how their struggles are separated as a “good” approach versus a “bad” approach and also reflected in the (mis)understandings of resurgence of Nazism today and their privilege to a so-called non-violent, public platform versus their detractors, Antifa, who allegedly believe in nothing other than punching them in the face at every opportunity.
Arguments that favor defending the free speech rights of the Alt-Right are based on simplified, non-contextual understandings of the first amendment, Nazism, and non-violence that also lack the deeper understanding behind how speech is governed, who is entitled/privileged to speak, and who is given access to a platform to speak.
Meanwhile, the arguments against Antifa tactics enforce a belief that any idea and method that appears non-violent is the only one that should be held as valid, proper, and worthy of given a space.
The film ends with similar simplifications, which we can pin on the film industry’s crutch on “Hollywood endings” pinned on simplistic moral reasoning, on the ideals of violence and non-violence.
“If might is right, then love has no place in the world,” says Gabriel to Mendoza when the latter informs him that he and the other Jesuits plan to renounce their oaths to order and remain to fight alongside the Guaraní. His response to the larger threat of the impending attack by the Spanish and Portuguese reflects his strict religious beliefs and moral code, found within the biblical passage that Mendoza reads during his conversion, in the power of God’s love to overcome all obstacles.
Mendoza, meanwhile, decides to redeem his violent past by using said violence to help defend the Guaraní. In the end, both are slaughtered alongside those they defended. Neither of them alone, neither philosophy alone, was enough, which, I believe, is the lesson we should take from the lives of MLK Jr. and Malcolm X in spite of the simplified, competing narratives.
Simplistic understandings of the two men divide them into two camps. Those on Dr. King’s side and his belief in non-violence and others on X’s side of violence when necessary in the name of self-defense. The narratives behind these men can also be found in the narratives behind King and X.
Gabriel, like King, is a devout man of the Christian faith who stands behind it in a respectful manner. Mendoza is similar to X in that he lived a criminal past as a mercenary and slave trader before joining the Jesuit order just as X, then Malcolm Little, converted to the Nation of Islam’s black nationalist interpretation of the Muslim faith while in prison as he served time for the crimes of theft, drug dealing, and pimping.
Where Gabriel/King saw hope for a world filled with love, both Mendoza/X held a stronger grasp of its potential, and very real, cruelty thanks in part to their enriching their separate lives via that cruelty.
The simplistic narrative would defend a viewpoint that ends with Gabriel and Mendoza dying as King and X did in their respective ideological spheres. However, that viewpoint sells the lives of King and X far too short as both men evolved in their ideological outlook to degrees that some would be surprised about.
Dr. King, for instance, went beyond fighting against the injustice of simplistic notions of racism and segregation. He would soon go after the hegemonic powers of white patriarchal capitalist supremacy going so far as to echo the criticisms that Muhammad Ali levied against the war in Vietnam. He criticized Communism and Capitalism in equal doses and publicly shared his fear that he may have mistakenly integrated his people into a burning house. He began to question the limits of non-violence.
Malcolm X sung a slightly different tune after his trip to the Islamic holy city of Mecca. As a member and leader of the Nation of Islam, he never believed that white people could ever be part of, much less allow, a peacefully integrated society between the races. It was at Mecca where that belief was upended. He met Muslims of various ethnic and economic backgrounds and skin tones worshipping together peacefully.
Both men eventually discovered the limits of their beliefs. King never advocated the use of violence, but he realized that non-violence had its limits against an inherently violent society. X, on the other hand, realized that some integration was possible, even attainable, in his lifetime without the use of violence.
The Mission ends with Gabriel and Mendoza dead on the ground at the mission. Mendoza, mowed down in a barrage of bullets, looks on during his last breaths as Gabriel is shot while leading mass, defiant via his faith in the only way he knew how. Both men fail but the memories of their sacrifice will be remembered by the Guaraní children who survived much like the memories of the sacrifices of King and X survive today.
Those memories shouldn’t be tarnished by simplistic notions of right and wrong, good and evil, but should be understood and upheld within the proper context of their times, their ideas, and their hopes in creating a society that respected their autonomy and existence as a people.