Canon Entry - Malcolm X (1992)
Inspired by the 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die, Edgar Wright’s 1000 favorite films and other lists, I am striving to come up with my own personal canon of films.
With Spike Lee, I feel that people who know of him are extremely aware of his politics and issues on race. Considering how boldly and directly Lee deals with these issues, this is hardly a surprise. Do the Right Thing incensed (mainly) White critics so much that they had to try extremely hard to hide their bigotry and White guilt. Chi-Raq is nothing if not a searing satire on the patriarchy and its pernicious influence on..well, everything. Even a “smaller” film such as He Got Game, which is smaller because of its story not because of its ambition, manages to touch on the troubled role of Black males and the White attitude towards Black bodies and how the American system uses them as merely tools to perpetuate a system of injustice.
These same people rarely ever mention his filmmaking ability and his artistry, but if he were merely didactic, his works would have lost their resonance long ago. So it seems fitting that a misunderstood filmmaker would make a film about one of the most misunderstood men of the civil rights movement. Case in point, I was reading two reviews of the DVD for Malcolm X on Amazon, and the few that I read focused solely on the political views of Malcolm X. About how he preached segregation and violence. How Martin Luther King, Jr. was a far better proponent of civil rights. Nothing about the film itself. Nothing about the choices that Lee had made as a filmmaker. (Both reviews did rightly point out what a tour de force Denzel Washington’s performance as Malcolm X was.)
I knew that neither person had actually watched the film or read The Autobiography of Malcolm X since neither mentioned how Malcolm X eventually broke away from Elijah Muhammad and modified his stance on the use of violence and segregation after his hajj to Mecca. Neither mentioned how Malcolm X was having doubts about the exclusion of White allies even while he was part of the Nation of Islam. These two reviewers were so swept up by typical rhetoric that surround this complex man that they didn’t bother to view this film on its own merits.
I mention all of this as a roundabout way of saying that Malcolm X is far more than just a mere biopic, a genre I often despise for its conventionality and predictability. Lee’s film is basically Alex Haley’s and X’s book come to life, but it is also a survey of his talents. If any scene from this film is mentioned, it’s usually the “Ya been had. Ya been took. Ya been hoodwinked! Bamboozled!” scene, but the film has more scenes than just this incendiary one. It plays as a gangster picture/loving period piece when the film focuses on Malcolm’s early life as a petty criminal. There are loving, intimate scenes with his wife Betty Shabazz (Angela Bassett) that emphasizes Malcolm’s humanity. Underlying all of this is the brilliant score by jazz musician Terence Blanchard, which adapts as the film goes on, from the lively jazz numbers at the beginning to the sweeping, yet subtle score as we see Malcolm comes more into himself. (I found the ever persistent score to be quite distracting in He Got Game, but it works well here, perhaps because the score was created specifically for this film, unlike in He Got Game.)
Perhaps the best thing that this film does is that it shows why exactly Malcolm X resonates with Black people and other similarly disenfranchised people even today. X put into words better than so many people the centuries of frustration and rage that Black people had been harboring over their position in American society. He was a strong, intelligent, powerful man who showed no fear of traditional White authorities. There is a scene, which is perhaps not entirely true, in which X organizes some of the brothers from his temple to demand that one of their brothers be freed from jail. He speaks to a chief police officer with absolutely no fear, something rare even today. Denzel Washington really was the perfect actor to play X, not because he looks like him at all (in fact this was a controversy at the time), but because he embodies poise. He knows when to be big and brash, but also restrained yet no less keen.
Lee also knows when he needed to be small and real (during Malcolm’s more introspective and intimate moments) and then big and mythical (his preaching scenes). Lee also allows the book’s complexity to seep his own picture. For instance, we are so invested in Malcolm’s belief in Elijah Muhammad that we are similarly devastated when his faith in this figure is lost.
I wish one of the things that this film had shown more explicitly was all the good things that the Nation of Islam actually did such as set up after-school programs for Black youth, accountability programs for drug abusers, and structure for spiritually lost individuals such as Malcolm. Even though X would rightly disavow Elijah Muhammad later, there were few groups like the Nation of Islam that focused exclusively on the Black community, certainly nothing on the government level.
I think that X and Lee share a lot of similarities that might explain why this film is not talked about as much as it should be. In so many films about race relations, there are always “good White folks.” White people will often feel uncomfortable watching something that condemns them unless there are “good White folks” that they can identify with, lessening the guilt the White viewer feels. (Think The Help or Freedom Writers). Lee does not give a damn about making White people feel good about themselves, and neither did Malcolm X. No wonder these men got torn apart. Fast forward to 2017, when one of the most popular movies was Get Out, a movie in which the hero and other important characters are Black and there are no good White characters. It would have been unthinkable for a movie like to exist even ten years ago, but I think that Spike Lee and his pioneering voice were a large part of what made that movie possible.