Spike Lee’s Malcolm X holds up surprisingly well after 22 years. Much of the credit should go to Denzel Washington, who puts on one of the great performances in the history of cinema. But, if this very long — over three hours — film has scarcely a boring moment, it has a lot to do with Spike Lee’s direction and Arnold Perl’s screenplay, both of which compliment each other perfectly.
Let’s take one representative moment. Most of us are familiar with the photo of Malcolm X standing near a window with an M1 carbine. Perhaps we’ve seen a poster on the wall of a college dormitory with the famous caption reading “by any means necessary.” Spike Lee puts the image in a sophisticated fictional context — the actual circumstances of the photo aren’t clear — that undermines the idea that it’s a “call to arms.” We are late in the film. Malcolm X, who has just returned from his pilgrimage to Mecca, is giving a press conference with a group of clueless — Is there any other type? — white reporters. Since he’s worshipped with Muslims of all races, he’s no longer a rigid black nationalist. He’s also broken with Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, but he’s unwilling to change his position on armed self-defense. “When the white man gives up his guns,” he says to one particularly belligerent reporter, “we’ll give up ours.” But just as we’re about to cheer, a black man at the back of the crowd yells “get your hand out of my pocket,” exactly what one of Malcolm’s assassins yelled at the Audubon Ballroom, and, thus, clearly foreshadowing his murder. Later, at home, we see the famous image. Denzel Washington, as Malcolm X, is standing in front of the window with an M1 Carbine. The image is transformed. Malcolm is not defending his family against the Klan, or against the police, but against his fellow black Muslims. It’s not an image romanticizing violence, but calling our attention to its cost.
Lee’s film is not only an evocation of Malcolm X from the grave. It’s an elegy for the leader he might have been. Malcolm, only 39 years old when he was murdered, was not only at the height of his oratorical powers, but in the middle of a spiritual and intellectual transformation only the greatest leaders go through. If Lincoln died when he was on his way to seeing black Americans as his equals, then Malcolm X died before he become the leader of the black nation within the American nation, a “black messiah,” to use J. Edgar Hoover’s surprisingly accurate term.
Denzel Washington, who was 38 in 1992, accomplishes the astonishing feat of capturing Malcolm X at each stage of his development. Somehow Washington’s 19-year-old Malcolm X looks 19. That’s no mean accomplishment. Even the great Daniel Day Lewis, who, in Jim Sheridan’s film In the Name of the Father played the unjustly accused Irish political prisoner Gerry Conlon over a similar span of time, barely even tries to get the ages right. Lewis’s 19 year old Gerry Conlon looks 35. Yet when Malcolm X opens, the 38-year-old Washington manages to look like a young man barely out of his teens.
We are in Boston during the Second World War. It’s actually Ridgewood in Queens, but, whether it’s historically accurate or not, Spike Lee has set the stage with so much energy and commitment it doesn’t really matter. We think we’re in Boston during the Second World War. Malcolm, and his friend “Shorty,” played by Lee himself, are decked out in their “zoot suits.” Malcolm is about to get what’s known as a “conk,” a black man treating his hair with lye in order to straighten it, to make him look more like a white man. It’s not self-mutilation on the level of Michael Jackson, but it’s remarkably painful nonetheless. Later we see Malcolm blow off a black woman to get involved with a white woman named Sofia. He hooks up with a West Indian gangster named Archie, starts running numbers, and, soon, is living the life of a petty criminal.
Black men committing crimes, Lee implies, comes from their wanting to be white, from self-hatred, but he doesn’t quite leave it at that moralistic level. Washington’s Malcolm X is more than just a self-hating black man. He’s a gifted young man with a high IQ. He had the ability to be anything he wanted, but he was cut adrift by a society that did not allow blacks to rise to their potential. So much for a “meritocracy.” Indeed, we had seen him earlier mention to a clueless, malevolent white teacher he wanted to be a lawyer, only to be told he should be a carpenter instead, “like Jesus.” Washington’s portrayal of Malcolm, and Lee’s photography, shows him not only as a young man who hates himself, but as a young man looking for his identity. He’s charming one moment, angry and violent the next. The way Lee shoots him and Shorty as they walk along in their “zoot suits,” with a hand held camera from below, conveys what Malcolm is thinking. “This is fun for the moment, but it’s not me. I’m trying on this identity like I’m trying on this walk and this zoot suit. But when I find out who I really am, I’ll get rid of them.”
Malcolm finds himself in prison. After being sentenced to an 8-10 year sentence for burglary, and after being tortured into barking out a prison number instead of his “real” name,” he catches the attention of “Brother Baines,” a prison recruiter for Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. Brother Baines, who will later betray him, helps him get over his hatred of himself for being black. But we also get the sense that part of the appeal of the Nation of Islam for Malcolm is that it’s also an opportunity to, finally, make use of his formidable intellect. After he’s paroled Malcolm quickly rises in the hierarchy of the Nation of Islam becoming not only Elijah Muhammad’s right hand man, but his clear superior.
One of the things that the film leaves unmentioned is how Malcolm X recruited Muhammad Ali, a coup on the level of someone in the Occupy movement recruiting Jennifer Lawrence into a drum circle at Zuccotti Park. Soon, Brother Baines is leading the anti-Malcolm faction in the Nation of Islam. So why didn’t Spike Lee include Malcolm’s recruitment of Muhammad Ali? It’s a significant part of the autobiography. Perhaps he was afraid of complications that would arise from the fact that Ali, who later regretted his mistake and converted to orthodox Sunni Islam, did not support Malcolm after his break with Elijah Muhammad. Perhaps he was afraid a historical character as important as Ali would have thrown his story out of proportion. In any event, we do get some hints over the way Brother Baines scolds Malcolm in prison for being happy about Jackie Robinson making it into the major leagues. While it’s true that Malcolm’s conversion was still in process, we also feel Malcolm’s affinity for another gifted black American and for individual achievement that a less brilliant activist like Baines might have resented.
As the inevitable tragedy plays out, as we approach the assassination, the tone of the film turns darker. We all know what’s going to happen. Malcolm X will be assassinated in the Audubon Ballroom, but the level of dread Spike Lee is able to imbue the final hour of Malcolm X with is quite remarkable. Spike Lee is known as something of an eccentric character, a manic little man who waives a towel on the floor of Knicks home games, but he’s also thought deeply about American violence, and how it consumes the most gifted Americans. Lincoln, both Kennedys, Martin Luther King, the body count of potentially transformative leaders is staggeringly large. Lee never addresses possible government involvement in Malcolm’s assassination, but he’s interested in something far more important than another conspiracy theory. Malcolm X, a potential great man, was cut down by black mediocrities as surely as his father, a political activist and follower of Marcus Garvey, was murdered by the Klan.
There’s nothing liberating about violence, Lee is telling us. Washington’s Malcolm X is not a ruthless leader of an armed rebellion. Instead, he’s most powerful when he’s speaking in front of a crowd, not holding a gun. The highpoint of his success comes not instigating violence but with preventing it. After a black man is beaten by the police and taken, in secret, into a police station to be left to die, Malcolm leads a march on the precinct. There are no guns involved, just discipline and organization, for more important, even in the event of an armed rebellion, than a stockpile of weapons. As he leads a column of well dressed men against the police, the rest of the neighborhood follows along. The threat of a mass uprising forces the police to back down and take the beaten man to a hospital. Not a shot is fired. Not a punch is thrown. Not a harsh word is spoken. It’s what might have been, Lee is telling us, the promise of a new African nation inside the United States that was cut down by the hail of bullet inside the Audubon Ballroom.
Even as a white American, the enemy in the eyes of the Nation of Islam, I can’t help but realize that a well-organized black America might have been better for all Americans than a downtrodden mass at the mercy of the corporatocracy. Indeed, that might be the film’s biggest accomplishment. As opposed to the clueless white reporters, who persistently label Malcolm an “anti-white-extremist,” we can see that his political agenda, in the end, would not have been limited to his personal history. While it’s certainly understandable that any black man whose father had been murdered by the Klan and who had his opportunities limited by a racist white establishment would be hostile towards, even hate white people, it’s also clear that Malcom X had the intellect and the self-discipline necessary to work through his personal baggage to a larger, more inclusive vision. Lee somehow manages to use the trip to Mecca to convey a sense, not only of coming to orthodox Islam, but also transcending a narrow American view of the world. Perhaps Malcolm X, like James Baldwin in Paris, would have eventually realized that the United States is only one part of a very large world, economically and militarily powerful, but culturally limited. We’ll never know.