By Ray Sawhill
With his underslung jaw, his 6’4″ lean-and-hungry build, and the fury in his eyes, the real Malcolm X was unquestionably a star. He had a triumphant, gritty voice and worked a crowd close-in, relishing the tumult. He may not always have made a lot of sense, but you could see what delighted blacks and frightened whites; on a stage, he was an angry, defiant turn-on.
Alas, Denzel Washington, who plays the role in Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X,” just isn’t riveting. There’s nothing behind his restraint — he’s in control, but of nothing. He doesn’t get a rapport going with the audiences he speaks to (and Lee makes counterproductive whoopee with the camera and the editing scissors during the speeches). For all the bravado of the opening credits — which play over footage from the videotape of the beating of Rodney King, intercut with an image of an American flag burning until it’s shaped like the “X” on an “X” hat — the movie isn’t fiery. It’s a stolid civics lesson, complete with heavenly choir. There are a few hippity-hop, disjunctive editing tricks, some overhead shots that are “unusual” in a familiar way, and that cross-angled mustard light that Lee and his cinematographer Ernest Dickerson seem to like. But otherwise the filmmaking is mainstream. Only the length (three hours and 21 minutes) and an occasional freedom in the way it ribs blacks suggest the film is anything more than the usual worthy docudrama. The end features little black schoolchildren (first in America, then in South Africa) standing up at their desks, one after the other, to announce, “I’m Malcolm X.” (Study guides and Malcolm X book jackets are being provided to high schools in the 100 largest U.S. urban areas.)
Lee has based the movie almost entirely on “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” which was written by Alex Haley, who completed it after Malcolm X was murdered in 1965. (Lee revised a nearly 20-year-old script by Arnold Perl and James Baldwin.) Among some groups, this “autobiography,” like Malcolm’s speeches, has taken on the aspect of a religious text, with exegesis-happy scholars and fans quarreling about what Malcolm really meant, what his stand really was. Lee has committed himself to putting the material across not as drama but as truth — we’re meant to accept Malcolm’s view of himself reverently, every step of the way. (It’s embellished with a few twists, such as CIA men following Malcolm on his tour of the mid-East, and the FBI tapping his phone.)
What we’re given is the Malcolm legend. When Malcolm is a child, his family is destroyed by whites. He tailspins off into a life of crime and cheap thrills, bottoming out in jail, where he finds his personal hell and is given the nickname “Satan.” He pulls himself together with the help of the Nation of Islam, which encourages him to blame all his troubles on whites, and he achieves fame giving voice to his race’s rage and demands. After 12 years he becomes disillusioned with the Nation’s leadership and quits the organization; he becomes an ordinary Muslim, visits Mecca and realizes it’s OK to be any color. Wiser and more humble, he’s martyred by the Nation of Islam followers he himself had once fired up.
Spike Lee begins with the street years and proceeds straight ahead, using incidents to trigger off flashbacks to Malcolm’s childhood. He mimics Malcolm’s development in his filmmaking. The street years come with daddy-o colors and sassy crane shots; the prison section is shot in end-of-the-road blue-grays. The Nation of Islam passage has “Godfather”-style dignity and solemnity; the tour of the Holy Lands is a Barbet Schroeder-style spiritual travelogue; the troubled final year is paranoid and portentous (it’s the Oliver Stone section). The flashbacks — which are meant to explain Malcolm’s drives — are “Birth of a Nation” racist nightmares.
“The Autobiography” has push and heat — Malcolm X and Alex Haley tell good tales. But you can sense that the stories have been brightened up, and the lessons Malcolm X draws from them often have little to do with the experiences he describes. As one flamboyant tale follows the next, what comes together is a man’s view of his life as a superhero myth. Essentially, the film is the autobiography, recapped 27 years later, with considerably less flair. Yet Lee obviously wants people to accept his movie as factually accurate.
In the film, as in the book, we’re asked to accept Malcolm’s conversion to the Nation of Islam as a genuine religious experience; Lee gives Malcolm a literal vision. Yet when Malcolm quits the faith on discovering that Elijah Mohammed, the Nation’s leader, is a hypocrite — Elijah has been screwing secretaries while demanding near-celibacy from his followers — he doesn’t spend a single day thinking to himself, “Whew, what a fool I’ve been.” He doesn’t ask himself: “What was it about me that made me so vulnerable to that line of baloney?” At hour one, we’re meant to feel tender awe at the faith, and to be impressed by its insights; at hour three we’re meant to see the faith as corrupt and crazy.
The film doesn’t question Malcolm’s sincerity either; we’re meant to find his disillusionment as genuine as his conversion. He’s always aggressively heading off in some new direction, as certain of this one as he was of the last. It’s such an odd passage when he’s grappling with the fact of Elijah’s hypocrisy that you almost think the message of the movie must be, “Don’t go getting involved with weird religious cults.” Yet when Malcolm’s racial views shift and, after all those 12 years of preaching that the “white man” is the devil, he decides that it doesn’t matter what your skin color is, there’s no indication that he regrets leading his followers astray. Sometimes it seems as if what was inspiring about him was his inconsistency.
In the film, as in the Malcolm-Haley account, Malcolm’s father was a strong, very dark Marcus Garveyite who was terrorized and finally killed by whites; his mother was a proud, light-colored woman whose family was ripped apart by the social welfare agencies; Malcolm’s schooling came at the hands of abusive whites. But a recent (and very sympathetic) biography, “Malcolm” by Bruce Perry (Station Hill Press), suggests that while Malcolm certainly did suffer from white racism as a child, most of his pain originated in his family.
Malcolm’s father never earned enough money to support a family, and this was a family with 10 kids. He beat them, and beat his wife; he was also, one family friend told Perry, “a natural born whoremonger.” He didn’t die tied to streetcar tracks by white men in black hoods and robes, as the film would have it. Perry shows that he stormed out of the house after an argument, missed his step getting on a streetcar and fell under it.
Malcolm escaped most of his father’s brutality but was beaten by his mother so hard his screaming could be heard by neighbors. (And his family didn’t live in a city apartment; they lived in the country.) Malcolm wasn’t ripped from his mother by welfare workers; with another brother, he tried to get the authorities to send him to reform school (“we heard they had good beds there,” recalls the brother). Malcolm grew up largely among whites; if his enemies and rivals as children were white, so were his playmates and friends. He was teased and put down by some whites; other whites fed him when he was hungry and fought and played alongside him. Light-skinned and red-haired, he also got teased and put down whenever he was in a black neighborhood, where kids called him “Snowflake” and “Eskimo.”
The Malcolm of myth — hard, uncompromising, defiant, manly (yet ever “evolving”) — is fuelled by a rage that is very pure; he stirred up other people’s rage, too, and made them feel exalted by it. (This seems to be what people mean when they say he “gave them hope.”) Malcolm’s late “tolerant” phase wasn’t what it’s sometimes meant to be: what he said was that some whites were OK with him — whites, that is, “who had accepted the religion of Islam.”
In one scene, when Malcolm has become a top leader of the Nation of Islam, a black man is injured by police; Malcolm leads a crowd of blacks to the hospital to insist he get proper treatment. A cop (Peter Boyle) orders him to disperse the crowd; Malcolm resists, then, when it suits him, he makes a tiny sign with his hand, and the mass of people breaks up, the Muslims in their hats and overcoats marching off in perfect order. Denzel Washington shows a minuscule twinkle of satisfaction, and Boyle marvels, “That’s too much power for one man to have.” I understand the joy blacks may feel at seeing a black man fling it right back at “the white man,” and I can enjoy a “kiss my ass, honky” gesture. But the film is too pleased by violence cockily and righteously contained, and that twinkle undercuts the idea we’re mean to have of Malcolm having achieved egolessness.
I found myself interpreting the material differently than we seemed meant to. Early on, Malcolm is invited by a big-time crook to sit across from him at a table in a dark restaurant; the crook winds up taking Malcolm on as a hood-in-training. The scene is balanced by a later one. Malcolm has become a Nation of Islam leader; he’s drinking coffee with assistants in a diner, and an eager young boy who has seen him and wants to join up begs his way to the table. It’s hard to know what’s intended — are we just meant to recognize that Malcolm has found some success? But we’re also left wondering: did Malcolm just want to be a bigwig all along? Did he fail at crime but find his niche in the religion game?
Malcolm’s life suggests that he was trying to create, by himself and in himself, his own idea of a father — his idea of manliness. As a young man — before he joined the Nation of Islam — Malcolm beat a number of his girlfriends (this is not in the film) and chased after white women. (In the film, he has one white girlfriend.) He had a drive to control women that apparently took a new form when he joined the Nation. Moviegoers may find the film’s images of womanly submission really alarming. Malcolm’s wife calls him Dear Heart, and says things like, “Even when you’re not with me, you’re with me.” At one rally, a huge banner hangs from some columns — we’re shown it several times. The text reads, We Must Protect Our Most Valuable Property, Our Women. The men in their gray suits, white shirts and skinny dark ties sit on one side of the stage or the auditorium; the women, in their white robes and shawls, sit on the other. Visually, these ranks of sex-segregated automatons may be effective in suggesting lives cleaned up and set in order. But it’s still hard to take.
You don’t have to accept the myth to find the actual Malcolm a fascinating character. But what we’re being asked to watch is an epic about a Chosen One, and the uninspired moviemaking works against the mythology. Spike Lee will need a lot of help from the press and the Malcolm Industry to keep people talking about his movie. Lee hasn’t found a way to give the movie a present-day bite, either. He offers a Sixties view of things: white equals oppressor equals bad, black equals oppressed equals good. Presented to us in the Nineties — when the press would rather accept the Malcolm myth than get into touchy areas, and a black ad agency is helping Warners create a “groundswell of positive word of mouth” about the film — this view seems preposterous and inadequate.
Denzel Washington was impressive in Richard Attenborough’s “Cry Freedom” and in “A Soldier’s Story,” directed by the Canadian Norman Jewison. The characters he played had reserves. You could see that they were choosing what they said and what they did from a range of possibilities; when they lashed out, the violence came from a source that you could feel demanded release. The characters Spike Lee creates don’t have inner lives. At one point Norman Jewison was on the verge of making “Malcolm X”; Spike Lee caused a public uproar about the supposed inappropriateness of a non-American white man making the film, and Jewison withdrew from the project. Did Lee think that being black was all he needed to connect with his character and his audience?
In Lee’s first feature, “She’s Gotta Have It,” he showed a relaxed impudence. I saw it with a mostly black audience that laughed at some jokes I didn’t even identify as jokes; they also enjoyed being teased about black traits and habits. But his next film, the college comedy-musical “School Daze,” was a self-conscious, chaotic piece of in-your-faceness, with a joyless central character who, in the final scene, rang the school bell and yelled, right into the camera, at close range, over and over, “Wake up! Wake up!” Spike Lee has been ringing that bell and hollering at the camera ever since. As a self-publicist, he’s in a class with Madonna; they think like magazine editors, pushing hot buttons and goosing you along with graphics and outrageousness even as what they’re packaging gets thinner. Lee has stopped being an entertainer/artist and has become an entrepreneur/haranguer; he has turned himself into a marketer of superficially radical ideas and attitudes. As he has assumed the mantle of savvy firebrand/spokesman for his race, all the shadings (and the humor) have gone out of his filmmaking. Everything is black or white.
- The Malcolm X website.
- “The House Negro and the Field Negro,” audio of one of Malcolm X’s best-known speeches.
- A 1963 interview with Malcolm X.
- Spike Lee makes the case for his interpretation of the man.
- How gay was Malcolm X?
©1992 Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The Modern Review.