Imagine having parents who were actively involved in the Civil Rights Movement, who participated in non-violent boycotts and rallies, who were beaten and jailed by local authorities, who likely feared for their safety behind closed and locked doors at night, who attended the March on Washington and found themselves inspired by the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. Consider the magnitude of the situation these people find themselves in, deciding to have a child in the midst of this turmoil and, upon that child’s birth, daring to name him after Dr. King. And not merely borrowing his first name — no, this child comes bearing the full name of the iconic leader and voice of the movement. Talk about heavy is the head that wears the crown.
Or what about the child born in New York, maybe to parents living near Christopher Street who sympathized with or were actively involved in the Stonewall Riots? A child who is christened with a name like Sylvia Rivera Smith or Marsha P. Johnson, as an homage to the street queens caught up in that struggle. Or how about the child from California, ushered into the world after the assassination of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person elected to public office in the state, who ends up bearing his name?
What would we, as parents and a larger society, expect of these children as they grow up and become aware of the burden of their names? Would we pray for them to take up the mantle of leadership, to become firebrands in their own right? And what about their own hopes and dreams for their lives?
Davis Guggenheim, the Academy Award-winning documentary director of An Inconvenient Truth (2007), teases us with these questions in He Named Me Malala, his latest documentary foray showcasing the astonishing story of Malala Yousafzai.
The young Pakistani schoolgirl suffered a brutal attack at the hands of the Taliban at age 15 for speaking out on the subject of educating girls in her country. We know Malala and her story, which inspired the autobiographical book I Am Malala, because she survived that near-fatal assault and went on to become the youngest recipient of a Nobel Prize for Peace (at age 17). And Malala has lent her political clout to movements beyond education; she has been elevated to the status of a living icon, a sainted cultural figure.
But is that what she — and her father Ziauddin Yousafzai — wanted? Was that what Ziauddin had in mind when he named her after another outspoken young girl, a rousing historic figure who rallied her people against British colonialists centuries before and fell on the battlefield as a result? In the documentary, Ziauddin admits to knowing the great expectations that came with the name.
What also shines in the story is the close bond between father and daughter. He says at one point that they are linked like “one spirit in two bodies,” and it seems true. But not necessarily in the larger, more politicized moments. They do share the same determination to see opportunities for girls across the globe to have access to education.
Yet, we also come to appreciate that Malala is a young girl who plays around with her siblings and has everyday thoughts about her celebrity crush, Roger Federer. We see her helping her father set up his Twitter account, and we spy the two of them as they prepare to enter one of the countless meetings that dominate her life. And what we see is not the international force, ever-composed and on-point, preaching and teaching about her education agenda, but a loving father holding hands with his little girl.
And Ziauddin, in a moment alone with Guggenheim and the camera, expresses his doubts and fears about what he might have wrought in the act of naming her Malala. He wanted his child to be engaged and passionate, but did he push her into this life? In his heart, he believes, yes, maybe he did.
But then Guggenheim allows Malala a chance to rebut, which she swiftly does. The name alone means nothing. The word she uses is “choice.” It was her choice to become Malala Yousafzai, the young school girl who stood up to the Taliban, nearly died for this cause. She marches on, willing to continue the fight with nothing but love and forgiveness in her.
What’s in a name? As He Named Me Malala posits, maybe nothing, until the rose chooses to embody what it means to be a rose. (PG-13) Grade: B+ (tt stern-enzi)