I’m probably supposed to hate this film.
Readers familiar with me know that while I understand the genuine fears individuals have when they encounter the police uniform, I despise and would celebrate the demise of that certain organization whose trite three-word slogan is also its proper noun title. And the very first thing Malcolm X does is to take an image from my second favorite movie of all time – the flag of my country, no less – and set it on fire, intercut with imagery of the police mobbing of Rodney King and the fiery voice of Denzel Washington’s Malcolm damning “white America” with the same venom we would later see echoed by Reverend Jeremiah Wright.
I’m also not particularly fond of Spike Lee.
Anti-Semitism aside, Lee is clearly an intelligent man, incredibly skilled behind the camera, and would probably be the greatest film history teacher in the country. But as a filmmaker, his body of work, especially after the ’90s, reveals him to be the demagogue I always suspected he truly was. Lee is also a dork, and I liked his movies better when he reflected that fact by casting himself as a Steve Urkel lookalike and portraying a reckless troublemaker who never learns much. Honesty and irony sometimes go hand in hand.
But Lee deserves his due for the good films he made in his younger days. Movies like School Daze, Jungle Fever, Get On The Bus, Do The Right Thing, and even Clockers are all interesting, enjoyable, and a little weird at the same time. These films are valuable because of their ability to express emotions sincerely while keeping spectres of doubt alive in their narratives. Many critics confuse that for empathy, but I’ve never thought that fully explained it. Spielberg is empathetic and his films find their focus accordingly. Lee is too nerdy to be interested in such things as focus. He’s always reaching for connections to ideas, events, and memories beyond not only his frame but also beyond the setting of his stories and characters. No one else tried that as well as he did in that era, and those films still today reflect his originality.
That approach, however, eventually gets old and desperate. To sustain it, you need a larger-than-life character to give those resonant moments credibility. You need someone whose real existence was a story of truth as stranger than fiction – a figure who can stand in the center and pull nearly everything and everyone else into his orbit.
The most violent thing that ever happens in this film is his assassination.
I often begin reviews by mentioning the ending because sometimes you can work backwards and consider the rest of the picture in that light. Malcolm’s name is synonymous with violence. His rhetoric is associated with violence even though if you actually study his speeches you will find not a single incitement. His character was assassinated along with his person, and after decades of being both overly celebrated and vilified often on stark racial lines, he remains something of an enigma.
Malcolm X the film is obviously made with reverence to a fault for the man, but his abysmal deification in One Night in Miami (and to a lesser extent Lee’s Da 5 Bloods) are so over the top that the seminal film simply must be re-considered for it. What a re-watch today reveals is that even with the backdrop of the L.A. Riots of 1992, Lee understood that Malcolm is, even to black people, a foreign figure and presence, yet only America could have produced him.
Lee also understood that you cannot tally up the events of Malcolm’s life and expect to suddenly make sense of him. Nor can you expect to scour the dance floors of Roxbury, the nightclubs of Harlem, the solitary cell blocks of Norfolk, the classrooms of Harvard, the churches in Cleveland, or the steps of Mecca, and find him again. You won’t have your DNA spliced with his simply because you open the dictionary and read it from cover to cover. Nobody putting an X anywhere in his name today has anything meaningful in common with him, however much they may want to believe otherwise. And just because someone today is angry, black, and able to say so, does not mean he is his successor. There are white conservatives on television and radio who have as much if not more in common with him than the closest black lookalike. This film, somehow, understands all of that.
Malcolm came and went in just a few short decades, and didn’t even make it to 40. He changed himself as assuredly as he changed the people he chiefly influenced, and he left this world as someone who was no longer the figure of fire, brimstone, and assertion that both his cheerleaders and detractors selectively, opportunistically preserve as the hallmark of his legacy. The way you can tell Malcolm X the film understands this is because of the ending. And also because of the nine unique and textured story acts that lead to it.
Lee’s consistent inconsistency with story and character and Denzel Washington’s energy and personal verisimilitude elevate the film beyond any of their others. They show us here that the characteristics and attributes of Malcolm people most eagerly wish to emulate are themselves reflective of his principal human flaw. That flaw was his overzealousness. Betty points this out and reminds him of his mortality in the first meaningful thing she says to him. The first two acts feature a sizzling hair conk, a ’30s style dance number, a backstory, and a race-exploitative relationship with a white girl indicative of his teenage repression. The interesting thing about these scenes, no doubt embellished by Lee, is the extent to which he is already racially aware even as he isn’t. “When you gonna holler rape, sister?” He cruelly torments Sophia like a concubine purity test, and on the train he acts as half slave/half butler to please the white passengers.
Malcolm X has four or five beginnings to its story because it has no beginning at all. The storm of his arrival is framed as inevitable even as the journey belongs entirely to him. In this way, the film is both better and worse for the way it handles his legacy. You can’t separate it from the man, but you can’t understand the man until you try. This is how the overzealous theme works. Perhaps the story begins for real when he reddens Harlem and meets West Indian Archie. It’s the last time we see the big Denzel smile, and the introduction scene is framed as perhaps the one and only time Malcolm turns into a truly evil person rather than just a wayward kid. But after a Russian Roulette game that feels like if Nick from The Deer Hunter survived his gunshot and made a bigger hobby of it, the movie can really begin… as soon as Malcolm goes to prison, meets Brother Baines, and opens up that dictionary. In each of these encounters, we see a cocky yet capable Malcolm with a thirst to prove himself to a potential father figure (or, during his robbery stint, to prove it to himself) by any means necessary.
All of this is amplified even further when he is released from prison and begins his new life’s purpose as a preacher for the Nation. Malcolm X the film may open with more “look what society did to me” sympathy pleading than was necessary, but its middle acts present uncertainty in all the things Malcolm is certain about. The West Indian Archie scenes are pivotal to the entire picture because they suggest that Malcolm’s embrace of the Nation of Islam is no different a racket than Harlem’s gambling scene. As his influence grows and grows, even with such a triumphant demonstration of his power in Chicago when Brother Johnson’s life is saved by his temple’s march through the streets to the hospital, doubt is always cast over the nutritional value of his Kool-Aid. If you read the book, the chapters where he revises history and puts the entire racial journey of civilization and mankind’s time on Earth in racial bifocals contain some of the most insane madman ramblings that have ever been put on paper. Malcolm X doesn’t go quite far enough into that for the sake of its accessibility, but the church rally climax is enough to convey the point. Everyone in today’s era fashions himself an expert in the ostensible parallels between Hitler and Donald Trump. So it’s extra ironic that it’s the story of Malcolm X featured here that actually connects the two by connecting all three of them. Does that mean Malcolm X is Hitler? No more than it means Donald Trump is Malcolm X; the genius of Lee’s framing of that church rally lies in how the relationship is revealed. The crowd is there to see Malcolm, and everyone in the Nation (except Malcolm himself) implicitly understands that, yet the crowd expresses this by cheering “All hail to Allah and the Honorable Elijah Muhammad!” There are few moments in any film that make me as uncomfortable as that one.
The great contradiction of this moment is that Malcolm is loudest, his most zealous, and these are the soundbytes that did the most trailer, clip, and poster work for the film; he is undermined by the very same. These are the nuggets and dog whistles most easily politically exploitable by his appropriators today. Malcolm’s leadership is exalted by the angriest sentiments he espoused in the excitable middle of the film, yet in these moments he wasn’t a leader at all. He was a blind servant to Elijah Muhammad, and his declaration of “total separation of the races” is sudden, jarring, and not actually supported by even the worst actions from whites seen earlier. These moments bring the film back to the blaze at the opening, but thankfully, the story is far, far from over.
What I wish the film also did is to apply the same skepticism to Malcolm’s departure from the Nation. This is the most suspect part of the book, and Lee never challenges it. Malcolm learns of Elijah Muhammad’s treachery to the Nation’s principles at the same time that he learns (or accepts) that the Nation despises him, is threatened by him, and has been blackballing him behind his back. An opportunity was there; when Malcolm’s remarks about the Kennedy assassination get him into trouble with everybody (for good reason), the film could have used the moment to critique the very implications of his rhetoric. Malcolm had been blind to this. He states in the book that the only real problem was that he said it out loud rather than under his breath like everyone else, including everyone in the Nation. He later explained in an interview that his comments were distorted. There may be truth to that, but it’s impossible to parse the matters because the rest of this act is about how he grapples with the fact that his loyalty to his family is no longer the same as his loyalty to his convictions. It’s the first time in the film Malcolm seems to be within reach of reason, and the film is not wrong to highlight this as an important shift.
Does the film do enough to separate the new Malcolm who is blown to bits on stage by his former cult from those who parrot his words today without the full scope of understanding? No. But Malcolm is too big and mysterious for that, and there is a limit to how much you can try. Sometimes the film forgets that. The cinematography in the press conference scene upon his return from Mecca is an example of how an exciting moment of change in attitude is poorly conveyed by Lee’s failure to express that change through movement. The closest thing we get to meaningful movement is with the audio as the scene switches between television and reality. But when he stands on stage for the speech he never gets to deliver, you sit still in silence genuinely not knowing what he’s about to say.
So I end this piece similar to the way I ended another one – with a question? What do we do with someone like this?
What do we do with someone who rallies thousands of people we don’t normally see rallied together, ignites their passion and inflames their sense of injustice to such a red hot degree that they can be motivated to do almost anything? What do we do with someone whose most polarizing staples of political legacy overshadow the complexities of his life? And what do we do with the friction of factionism that social integration fosters?
The older and more educated I get, the less I fear the questions, and the more confident I am that I have limited answers and a mind aspiring to G.K. Chesterton – open enough to receive more information that challenges what I know but with the discipline to shut it only on that which is solid. Malcolm had that kind of mind too.
Hate this movie? No sir. I love it. And Brother Malcolm, I love you too.
V’s Ten for Ten (2022)
#1: “48 Hrs.” (1982)
#2: “Battle Royale” (2000)
#3: “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (1949)
#4: “Rope” (1948)
#6: “6 Underground” (2019)
#7: “Broken Blossoms” (1919)
#8: “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” (2011)
#9: “Mutiny on the Bounty” (1935)
#10: “Escape From Alcatraz” (1979)