The United States of America
Ossie Davis: There are those who will consider it their duty, as friends of the Negro people, to tell us to revile him, to flee, even from the presence of his memory, to save ourselves by writing him out of the history of our turbulent times. Many will ask what Harlem finds to honor in this stormy, controversial and bold young captain—and we will smile. Many will say turn away—away from this man, for he is not a man but a demon, a monster, a subverter and an enemy of the black man—and we will smile. They will say that he is of hate—a fanatic, a racist—who can only bring evil to the cause for which you struggle! And we will answer and say to them: Did you ever talk to Brother Malcolm? Did you ever touch him, or have him smile at you? Did you ever really listen to him? Did he ever do a mean thing? Was he ever himself associated with violence or any public disturbance? For if you did you would know him. And if you knew him you would know why we must honor him.
I want to conduct a quick experiment for the benefit of all my readers. I want you to describe Malcolm X, the famous civil rights leader, what he believed in, and what he wanted to achieve in fifty words or less. Take as much time as you want. Now, after you have written your summary, look over it and see if you used the words racism, black supremacy, hate, and Islam/Muslim. The chances are that you used at least one of those words. And why not? In the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, we are more willing to remember Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, people who fought the system using non-violent protests and messages of peace and love. When people think of Malcolm X, they are more willing to remember that he hated white people, thought they were devils, and believed, for a time, that black people should go back to Africa. But fewer people know of his change of heart after his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1964 after which he became El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz and began to believe that white and black people could, in fact, get along.
Was Malcolm X a controversial figure? Of course. He is easily one of the most controversial people of the Twentieth Century and in the entirety of American history. He preached peace and love in the African American community and incited hatred towards the white community. He believed in self-reliance, and yet he realized that if black people were to overcome they would have to become organized. It is impossible to think of Malcolm X without considering him either a saint or a sinner. And yet, it is this very mass of contradictions that made him such a legendary figure. And it is by embracing these contradictions that Spike Lee was able to create one of the greatest biopic films ever made in Malcolm X (1992).
The film divides Malcolm’s life into three parts, each of which is inhabited by a different incarnation of Malcolm. The first is Detroit Red, born Malcolm Little, a poor child born to a preacher who we assume was murdered by the Black Legion. He grows older and gets a job working as a Pullman porter. He gets involved with gangsters and gambling as his life begins to spin out of control. Eventually he is forced to flee to Boston to become a burglar. He eventually gets caught along with his friend Shorty (played by Spike Lee) and is sentenced to a ten-year prison term. Of course, they were not sentenced because they were caught stealing. They were sentenced because they were unfortunate enough to get caught dating two white women.
It is in prison that the second part of the movie begins and we are introduced to Malcolm X. Through the guidance of a fellow inmate, Baines, a composite character of people Malcolm X knew in prison, he converts to the Nation of Islam. He becomes a devout disciple of their leader, Elijah Muhammad, who molds him into a fiery speaker. He even gets married to a fellow member of the Nation of Islam, Betty X. It is here that Malcolm’s true motivations become clear to the audience. Yes, he wants Civil Rights. Yes, he wants segregation from white society. And yes, he believes that all white people are the devil. But his true desire is to bring a sense of confidence and strength to the black community. He sees the Nation of Islam as a means to an end where the black community is self-sufficient and has respect for itself. The scene that really brings this idea home is when meets West Indian Archie, the Harlem gangster who made life for Malcolm so miserable, alone in a rundown project. He has long since been decimated by drugs and alcohol. He speaks and moves as if stricken by cerebral palsy. The two embrace and we see a lot of determination and sorrow in Malcolm’s face. To him, West Indian Archie is just one of the multitudes of blacks oppressed and destroyed by white society. To him, it is white people’s fault that West Indian Archie is like this. If they can organize and cut themselves off from the white devils, then they can be safe.
But soon he discovers that his idol, Elijah Muhammad, has been having affairs with his secretary. Things aren’t made any better by the fact that the Nation becomes jealous of his exposure in the media. Suddenly the possibility of Malcolm becoming more important than Muhammad becomes a reality. Labeled a threat by his community, it takes a pilgrimage to Mecca to rediscover himself. It is here that El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz emerges humbled by the discovery that Muslims come from all walks of life and are made up of all colors. This leads to him breaking away from the Nation of Islam which of course leads to his tragic assassination.
I don’t want the rest of this review to be littered with cross-references concerning the historical validity of Lee’s film. Suffice to say that Lee made it his mission to create a fair and balanced version of Malcolm X. True, he was a great man. He did many great things. But he was also a flawed man. One of the most shocking aspects of the film is how Malcolm still acts cruelly towards some people. In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, a white woman approaches Malcolm as he prepares to lecture at a university. She confesses that she wants to help his cause. She claims that she isn’t motivated by any sense of guilt, but that she wants to aid him in his quest for civil rights. She asks if there is anything that she can do to help. He looks at her and declares that she can do nothing. Is that a look of joy in his face? Of triumph? Another frequent problem with Malcolm X was his views towards Christianity. He follows the Nation of Islam’s belief that it has failed the black community. But pay attention, the first person to reach out to him in prison is a priest (whom Malcolm mocks) and the last person to talk to him before he enters the Audubon Ballroom is an old woman who tells him that Jesus is with him (whom he dismisses). And what about the scene where he watches footage of Martin Luther King Jr. and his peaceful protesters marching in Alabama? Despite their suffering and toil he still preaches that it is the Nation of Islam that will save the black community.
It reminds me a little of Spike Lee himself. The man has never been very subtle when it comes to his views on black culture and how it is portrayed. In fact, the reason why he even got to direct the film is because he protested the original director (Norman Jewison, director of In the Heat of the Night (1967)) on the basis that he was white. Maybe his methods are not necessarily the best, but he has the best intentions in mind. These come forward in this impossibly realized film about one of the most important figures in the advancement of the black cause. It is a powerful film that develops its central character with incredible ease (in no small part to the Oscar nominated performance by Denzel Washington) and believability. The audience never thinks that Malcolm X is predestined for greatness. We watch him earn it in the same way that he wanted to see his people earn their own rights for freedom and liberty. The figure on the screen is not so much a character, but a man. In other films, this would be a problem. But here, it is the defining stroke of genius that propels it into the stratosphere.