Sunday, January 6, 2019

The Year After Year Blogathon: Malcolm X

At the beginning of a new year we all like to look ahead, but sometimes we can't help but looking back and take stock of our lives. Film allows us to examine someone else's life, learn from their mistakes, and share in their triumphs. That's the path I'm traveling as I complete my entry in the Year After Year Blogathon hosted by Movie Movie Blog Blog. The only real guideline he gave us was that the movie has to take place over a number of years. There is still a sliver of time to join. If you want to see how, or just see how others approached this topic, click here. Me? I decided to take a look at one of my all-time favorite movies, the Spike Lee directed biopic Malcolm X.

The real Malcolm X was assassinated shortly before turning forty years of age. He packed a lot into his time here on Earth. Lee covers most of it over the course of 202 riveting minutes. The film is mostly a linear telling, with the exception of his childhood, which is covered in flashbacks. Another exception are the opening moments. As we see fire eating away at the edges of an American flag, we hear Denzel Washington as the charismatic leader delivering a fiery speech to a delighted crowd. By the time this segment ends, the flag has been burned into the shape of an 'X.' It's a poignant image that is immediately irreverent, suggestive of the radical and reactionary mindset of a people often on the receiving end of the misdeeds of those in power, yet reminds us that this is a tale of an important American. It's just not one full of flowers and sunshine.

Our actual introduction to the subject comes during his early twenties. Then Malcolm Little, he spends most of his time hanging out with his (fictional) buddy Shorty (Spike Lee) at local dances trying to bed women and committing burglaries and other crimes. Two important things are set up by this portion of the film. The easiest to see is that this, in spite of how his life ends, is ultimately a story of redemption. The other is more important. It's an idea Malcolm dealt with and eventually pushed back against. It's one that still plagues much of the non-white world. It's the idea that the closer one's proximity to and/or approximation of whiteness the better a person is and how this affects people of color. We see this explicitly in young Malcolm going through great pain to straighten his hair and in the woman he chooses. Every instant of him doing something "white" and every interaction with whites turns out terribly. Lee, borrowing liberally from X's own autobiography (as told to the brilliant Alex Haley), ensures that we understand that his decisions are informed by a lifetime of experience.

The second act of the film covers Malcolm's six years in prison. It's here where he converts to Islam and begins to turn his life around. He begins to understand that the oppressed in which he and most blacks were (are) living was not by happenstance. Systemic racism is a carefully orchestrated symphony espousing the greatness of its benefactors while demonizing those it relegates to the cheap seats. This realization begins with, of all things, a dictionary, and evolves into a worldview to be worked toward.

Malcolm's release from prison sees a man who is aggressively transforming into the man he wants to be. We watch his rise through the ranks of the Nation of Islam under the tutelage of the organization's leader Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman Jr.). He becomes the face of the NOI. This is the Malcolm X most people first think of when his name comes up: the passionate, no-holds-barred orator calling out white devils and Uncle Toms alike. This Malcolm X was the most feared man in America. Even decades after his death, he is one of the most divisive figures in the country's history.

However, the story of Malcolm X is one of reinvention. Beginning with his suspension from the NOI Malcolm makes himself anew once more. He makes the pilgrimage to Mecca, as many Muslims do. What happens to him there is the genesis of the final incarnation of Malcolm X: el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz. This is a man still very much cognizant of the plight of African-Americans, yet also moving away from the separatist rhetoric of the NOI. This, in part, cost him his life.

Spike Lee uses almost every bit of that life to give us a complete picture of his subject. To help him do this, he sticks pretty close to the aforementioned autobiography where he can. When he can't, those last few weeks leading up his assassination, he remains true to the spirit of the film he's made up to that point. Throughout, his biggest aid is Denzel Washington. He fully embodies his subject to the point where their images have merged in my head. This is coming from someone who was very aware of Malcolm X long before the release of this movie. I had a Malcolm X poster in my room in the barracks when I was in the army. The man stared down at me, and I back at him, many days. Yet, after seeing the movie I have trouble separating the two. When I hear the name Malcolm X, the first image that pops into my head is of Denzel playing him. I then remind myself that that's not really Malcolm and the image switches to the real thing. As a movie buff, I've watched a lot of movies, including most of those that are routinely mentioned as being among the best ever. I even love a good deal of them and the towering performances they contain. Still, for my money, what Washington does here is the greatest piece of acting I've ever seen. But the movie doesn't end with the demise of his character.

Malcolm was killed in 1965, but Spike Lee has more years to go. He gives us an epilogue in the present (1992), which stars none other than Nelson Mandela. It's a reflection on Malcolm's legacy and an acknowledgement that the work he was doing is not yet done. It's also used as an affirmation to those of us, all of us, who have the opportunity to finish the job. The sad part is that, as the epilogue to Spike Lee's latest movie, BlacKkKlansman shows us, that job is still incomplete.

Check out these other posts on Malcolm, Spike, and Denzel


  1. Malcolm X isn't my favorite Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing is), but it's almost certainly his most important and the one with the greatest single performance.

    It's also one of those rare movies with a huge running time that never feels long or in need of an edit. A good reminder that no matter how much the Academy hates Spike Lee, he's a hell of a director.

    1. Don't get me wrong, Do the Right Thing is my favorite, but I love this just as well. And yeah, 3 plus hours flies by pretty quickly.

  2. Are you sure it's that long? Ha. It never felt that way. I'm with you both on Do the Right Thing. That film is astonishing. This is too though, and sets a standard all biopics could learn from. It feels wrong to even try and choose one aspect I prefer most. The movie just jumped off the screen, I was almost up and out of my seat holding the assailant down.

  3. For a film that was 202 minutes, it never felt that long. Believe me, having seen films that are much longer and far more challenging. Spike Lee succeeded in doing something that was quite vast but never make it feel overwhelming. It's one of my favorite films of his and I think it is a masterpiece from start to finish.

    Yes, things are still unfinished as there is a lot to be done. Yet, we're facing challenges from the worst kind of people. Not just those of hate but also those of ignorance.

  4. This was a blind spot for me until just today. My indifference to both Lee and Washington kept me from seeing it on its initial release and though I was interested in the story it slipped off my radar for many years. Then when I realized I had never gotten to it early last year and attempted to track it down I was surprised how unavailable it turned out to be. It seems to never be shown and though I queued it up on Netflix it was on a very (very, very) long wait. I was actually astonished the other day when it showed up as on its way, I figured at this point it was a no go.

    So be that as it may it was quite impressive. I can't say the over three hour running time flew by but it was involving, I wasn't bored at any point and the story was well wrought.

    I will never count myself a huge Denzel Washington fan but he was excellent here, extremely suited to the role. Lee assembled quite a cast (I was delighted to see Delroy Lindo) though I was disappointed that Lee had a talent like Angela Bassett at his disposal and except for a moment or two utilized her as just "the wife". I realize it wasn't "The Betty Shabazz Story" but she was a seminal figure in his life and her consignment to the sidelines was disappointing.

    1. Impressive, indeed! I'm glad you got to see it, and even enjoyed it. And it's always great to see Delroy Lindo. Your point about Angela Bassett is completely valid. I attribute that to a combination of two things: Betty Shabazz does not play that big a role in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the source material, and Lee's own shortcomings as a writer. He has long struggled with female characters. The best of his are in movies he directed but were written by women.