The first actor you see in MALCOLM X is not Denzel Washington, or even a kid playing a young Denzel Washington. It’s Spike Lee getting his shoes shined, then strutting across the street in a zoot suit. As if to say, “Yep, after a long fight to be hired by the producers, struggling to shoot the movie, fighting the studio for the 3 hour running time, gathering donations from black celebrities for completion funds, here I am. Playing Malcolm X’s best friend Shorty. Welcome to my movie.” The audacity makes me laugh, but oh well, it works.
This is by far Lee’s most Serious and Important film, but there’s some fun to be had early on. In his youth Malcolm went to dances, tried to look good and pick up women, and Lee couldn’t resist an epic lindy hop sequence that’s incredible to watch. Hard to believe people used to know how to dance like that. I wonder how many people landed on their heads?
But Malcolm is headed toward an inner struggle and that’s symbolized in that first scene with Spike in the zoot suit. He’s actually strutting across the street to the barber shop where he’s about to put lye on Malcolm’s red hair to straighten it out. Malcolm loves the look (“looks white, don’t it?”) but it burns his head and he tries to rinse it off before it’s ready. Later in the movie he’ll be straightening his hair and discover the sink’s not working and be forced to dunk his head in the toilet. This was in the book so it apparently really happened to Malcolm but it’s the perfect poetic way of making the point about trying to be someone he’s not.
He has a black girlfriend, but prefers the white one, uses her as his moll and accomplice when he falls in with criminals, becomes a numbers runner, has a falling out, and starts robbing houses. When he goes to prison he says it’s not as much for robbing houses as for having sex with a white woman.
The beauty of this story as a movie is that so far it’s a gangster movie. We’ve seen his youthful innocence, flashbacks to his troubled past, his love of flash and oppulence, his moments of madness when even his friends get uncomfortable with him going too far. We’ve seen him earn the respect of West Indian Archie (Delroy Lindo) who teaches him where to tuck a gun, to always sit facing the door, and not to write anything down on paper. We’ve seen Archie get mad at him and turn from father figure to scary villain. We’ve seen Malcolm get busted.
But now he goes to prison, becomes a Muslim and changes his life. He reads the entire dictionary, studies the Bible and Koran, annoys the shit out of the priests who volunteer at the prison by asking pointed questions about the race of Biblical figures. Maybe at this point it’s academic wankery, but he’s definitely putting his intelligence to better use than crime. This is the part we never got to in SCARFACE.
Now it becomes a different movie and he becomes a different person. I realized watching it this time that although he’s a better person I wouldn’t want to hang out with him anymore. The guy is so serious now. His whole life is about preaching the word of The Honorable Elijah Muhammed. Can you imagine what a stick in the mud this guy would be? “So who you rooting for in the big game this weekend Malcolm?” “The Honorable Elijah Muhammed teaches us not to waste our mind on frivolous games” and blah blah blah blah. Plus, his views on women make me kind of uncomfortable. Even as Betty (Angela Bassett) is earning his respect he tells here he’s “hard on the women” like it’s a cute little quirk he has. I would feel guilty hanging out with him, because shit, if he has a free moment he should be spending it with Betty.
Well, it’s okay because Malcolm wouldn’t want to hang out with me either, because he learns that all whites are devils. You could argue that he does have a sense of humor, but his idea of a joke is to pour cream in his coffee and say that’s the only thing he likes integrated. Ha ha, a little segregationist humor for ya there. When he says that I get the feeling he uses that joke alot. Like, every day with his morning coffee. It’s part of the routine.
At the same time as Malcolm is uncomfortably anti-white it also paints a clear picture of the power he had, and the rise from a street preacher to having a small segregation, then a slightly bigger one, then an entourage. Then he starts using the Fruit of Islam for protest – you don’t want to release a black man you beat up who needs medical attention? Fine, we’ll wait outside your headquarters. Just an army of disciplined black men in suits and bow ties, standing in rigid lines like soldiers. Don’t mind us.
Next thing you know he’s speaking to giant crowds. The historical detail is very convincing, and this was a year or two before they started using computers to enhance the size of crowds. The photography is fantastic, so afterwards cinematographer Ernest Dickerson said fuck it, for now on I’m a director, I do movies like DEMON KNIGHT and BONES.
Because of the constant seriousness it’s hard for Lee to use some of his usual stylistic experimentation. You don’t have people talking to the camera or goofy things like that (well, until the last scene). But he does do the classic Spike Lee shot of an actor (Denzel) “walking” by actually standing on the same platform the camera is moving on. It works great because it’s Malcolm walking toward the ballroom where he will be assassinated, seemingly knowing his fate but being carried toward it. This is at the end of a perfect montage set to Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Coming.” It’s such a fitting song with its lyrics about a man with humble beginnings, and the strings on that song are already so cinematic.
I don’t know much about the Nation of Islam, but this might be about the only American movie I’ve seen where the Muslims seem real. Usually they seem like a Hollywood depiction of a type of outsider to our culture. In this movie I feel like I’m the outsider, seeing what goes on in these mosques. There’s even a sort of magic realist scene where we see Malcolm’s vision of a glowing Elijah Muhammed appearing in his cell. Never saw that in a movie before. The most impressive part of the movie is Malcolm’s pilgrimage to Mecca, where they were allowed to shoot inside holy places never allowed to be shot by westerners before or since. You can’t fake that shit. It looks incredible. I don’t think Denzel is a Muslim – I wonder how he felt going there? I wonder if he was tempted to convert?
But this story kind of works as a cautionary tale about organized religion. Elijah Muhammed, who he says he would die for, treats him exactly like the criminal West Indian Archie did. He helps Malcolm out, really likes him, helps him become somebody, but when Malcolm gets too big he gets jealous and considers him a threat. It’s still unclear who exactly was involved in the assassination of Malcolm X, and the movie doesn’t tell you who they are. But the three people who did time for it were in the Nation of Islam, and one of them didn’t claim innocence. Personally I don’t think churches should do that.
But between his falling out and his death Malcolm finds his own way. His pilgrimage to Mecca opens his eyes to different races living together peacefully. There is a very powerful quote from one of his letters that I think sums up alot of racial issues we still have today. Basically he says that black people have every right to be angry at white people, but that they need to work past that and get along. I think the second part would be easier if some of us whiteys would be less defensive about the first part. No, we didn’t ourselves own slaves, but I bet if my ancestors had been the slaves and my people were still feeling the effects of it I would probaly have a chip on my shoulder about it. How hard is that to sypmathize with?
I guess that’s part of why Malcolm X’s story is so interesting. He went through different stages. The final post-pilgrimage Malcolm X is the one I like the best, but you have to understand the earlier ones before you can get to that point. You have his childhood as the smartest kid in an all white school, but being called the N word and told he can never be a lawyer like he wants to. Without that you can’t get to the hyper-intelligent but strongly anti-white religious leader. And from there you go to the more enlightened Malcolm who apologized to other black leaders and wanted to work with them, and no longer shunned the help of white people who agreed with the cause.
The weird thing about MALCOLM X is that it’s a very carefully constructed portrait of the times of Malcolm X (mainly the ’40s through ’60s), but at the same time it reminds you of where we were at in 1992 when it came out. The opening credits – re-enacted Malcolm speech heard over an American flag that burns until only an X remains – are intercut with the tape of the Rodney King beating. That was fresh on people’s minds, this was about 7 months after the riots. The closing scene of the movie features Nelson Mandela, who had only been released from prison about 2 year earlier, and it seemed incredible to see him in a movie. Of course, it’s not like he’s doing cameos in Adam Sandler movies these days or hosting Saturday Night Live. It would still be quite a coup to get him in your movie. But at this time it still seemed miraculous that he had been freed. FREE MANDELA! had been such a cause for so long. Seeing it now I just think of what it was like to see it back then.
Before the movie came out it was incredibly controversial. It was weird how scared some white people were. They thought DO THE RIGHT THING would cause riots and I don’t know what they thought this would do. Were they thinking the jig was up? I think these type of issues could benefit from a more laidback common sense approach. Look at it reasonably. Have you ever been called a white devil by the Nation of Islam before? Most of us haven’t. They are not exactly franchising around the country. Go ahead and be pissed off about it, but don’t take it too seriously. How much stock do we want to put in people that call somebody “devils” anyway? People with funny names to call each other are usually destined to remain on the fringe. I’m not gonna lose sleep over that shit.
This year some right wingers tried to bring us back to 1992 when they smeared Obama for his association with Jeremiah Wright. There was that youtube video that cut from Wright to Malcolm X (obviously meant as a bad thing). But guess what? It didn’t work. Nobody cared. Obama responded by making a speech about race, and his willingness to speak to Americans as grownups was a big turning point in convincing people that he was presidential. Credit Obama’s political aikido, but the scary black man card doesn’t work anymore. I think this is a sign that things have changed since MALCOLM X. Maybe even partly because of MALCOLM X.
On the other hand, Malcolm X himself doesn’t seem like as big of a deal now as he did then. When this movie came out it was a phenomenon. You cannot imagine how many black men wore hats with Xs on them. This was an event. Maybe I’m just talking to the wrong people, but it seems like these days Malcolm X doesn’t come up nearly as much as he used to.
(To be fair, MALCOLM X opened in third place at the box office, behind HOME ALONE 2: LOST IN NEW YORK and BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA. So even then he wasn’t exactly the number one thing on Americans’ minds. Only #3.)
For all these reasons I think MALCOLM X remains an interesting movie and an important cultural landmark in our country. It holds up well. If I had to pick the best Spike Lee movie, I’d go with DO THE RIGHT THING. But this is definitely a topnotch movie that transcends many of the weaknesses of the biopic. It adds to people’s understanding of history, says something about both the time it took place and the time it was made, and even works as a compelling story divorced of that context. But Denzel is like 4 inches shorter than Malcolm X was. What the fuck is up with that?
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.