“If you’re not ready to die for it, put the word ‘freedom’ out of your vocabulary.” – Malcolm X
It has been 55 years since Malcolm X was assassinated and 28 years since Spike Lee released his cinematic chronicle of Malcolm X’s life but the injustices he fought against still plague the world today. Quite possibly one of the best biopics ever made, Malcolm X is more relevant now than ever for anyone who wants to try and understand the deeply problematic history of systemic racism in America. Lee’s three-hour epic about one of the most prominent and “controversial” Black intellectuals of the 1960s is an attempt to understand and demystify the man who has been consistently vilified and slowly erased from the history textbooks.
American novelist James Baldwin was initially commissioned to write a screenplay based on Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X in 1965. However, he developed his work into a 1972 book instead of a script because he felt pressured by the producer and Malcolm’s former Nation of Islam associates. When Spike Lee joined the project in 1990 and made his own revisions to the screenplay, Baldwin’s family even asked the producers to remove his name from the credits for the film. Baldwin had famously written about his experience, stating: “I think that I would rather be horsewhipped, or incarcerated in the forthright bedlam of Bellevue, than repeat the adventure.” After an arduous production process which was full of budget problems, requiring donations by Black celebrities like Oprah and Michael Jordan, as well as backlash from Malcolm’s followers who were unconvinced by Lee’s talents, the film finally came out in 1992. At the time of its release, the Black community in America was already in the middle of a culture war because of the high-profile instances of police brutality, especially Rodney King’s tragic case in 1991. Malcolm X appropriately begins with powerful symbolism, we see the actual footage of King being mercilessly beaten by police officers which is occasionally interrupted by a recurring image of the American flag. As the flag burns down, we can hear Malcolm’s iconic oration:
“We’ve never seen Democracy, all we’ve seen is hypocrisy! We don’t see any American Dream, we’ve experienced only the American Nightmare!”
It is almost inconceivable today to think that Lee initially received pushback when he cast Denzel Washington for the title role. Washington prepared for the role for a year before shooting started and delivered the performance of a lifetime. He deserved the Academy Award for Best Actor for his unwavering transformation but he would ultimately lose out to Al Pacino. “Denzel was Malcolm from the inside out. It was spooky directing him,” Lee once said in an interview. The film follows his journey from “Detroit Red”, the gangster, to Malcolm X, the Nation of Islam spokesperson, to el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, the independent thinker. Ernest Dickerson’s visually stunning cinematography employs different shades and tones to distinguish between these three important periods in Malcolm’s life, using disturbing flashbacks to make the viewer sit up and pay attention to Malcolm’s terrible past. Born Malcolm Little, he grew up in fear of the Ku Klux Klan who routinely harassed his parents and even burnt his house down. His father, a preacher, was lynched in a hate crime but the incident was ruled out as a streetcar accident. When his mother was hospitalised due to her mental illness, Malcolm was sent to a foster home where he was the only Black child. The other children were racially abusive to him and, despite getting good grades in high school, his teacher told him that his dream of becoming a lawyer is not “a realistic goal” for people of his race. Disillusioned with the white man’s world, Malcolm dropped out of high school and worked various jobs before turning to a life of crime. When he was finally arrested for a burglary he committed, his white female accomplices got two years of prison time while he was slapped with an eight-to-ten-year sentence at Charlestown State Prison.
History has constantly drawn comparisons between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X to criticise the radical extremism of the latter. Lee has actively tried to show that they are not antithetical approaches to the same problem, insisting that a synthesis of their ideas is required for Black empowerment. In Malcolm X as well as the end of his 1989 magnum opus Do The Right Thing, he has maintained that Malcolm is just as important a figure as Martin Luther King Jr. in Black history if not more. It is crucially important to put things into perspective when we compare the two. While King received a formal education and began his PhD at Boston University in 1951, Malcolm was educating himself at the same time in a prison library. He was realising how the language he uses is not his own, scouring the dictionary to see how the words “black” and “white” were formulated as oppositional terms. He was understanding how his surname is not his own, it is the legacy of the people who enslaved him. He was finally discovering the possibility that the white God he had shunned might have the same skin colour as him. Yes, he was religiously indoctrinated by a follower of Elijah Muhammad (played by Al Freeman Jr.), the leader of Nation of Islam, and taught that the only way to combat the religious conservatism of Christian white supremacists like the Ku Klux Klan was to adopt another religion. He was taught to bend the knee in the name of Allah, religious radicalism masquerading as discipline. However, all of these contributing factors help us understand why Malcolm became Malcolm X. He was a lost Black prison inmate who turned his life around by “religiously” studying and improving himself, rising to the uppermost ranks of public intellectuals under the guidance of Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm wasn’t an absolute pacifist like King because his experiences were vastly different from the relatively privileged life of the latter, he saw that his people were suffering in America and he was very angry.
Lee does a wonderful job at tracing his trajectory, primarily because of all the research he did for the film. After gaining parole in 1952, Malcolm became a spokesperson and minister for the Nation of Islam. He preached on the streets about Black liberty and self-reliance, criticising the rampant substance abuse and prostitution in those communities. It is true that his ideas regarding gender roles and women were just as conservative as right-wing fundamentalists, he believed that the only way for women to rise out of the vicious cycle of being single mothers was to don the traditionally subservient clothes of the housewife. Banners stating “We must protect our most valuable property: our women” could be seen at Nation of Islam meetings. Most of these beliefs were a direct result of Elijah Muhammad’s conservative teachings, he believed that women should be a certain height and certain age to be able to marry someone. Malcolm rose to prominence by claiming that Islam was the only way forward for the Black community in America, insisting that Black people should separate and form their own nation in which they would practice self-subsistence and where everyone would finally be free of the racially prejudiced machinations of the American society of that time. A crucial element in all the speeches he gave at the time is how he would preface these ideas. He began everything by saying “The honourable Elijah Muhammad teaches us…”, revealing that he was being used as an instrument by the Nation of Islam to mobilise the masses. Malcolm was arguably the most eloquent orator of the 20th Century and, because of this, he got more media attention than any of the other ministers and appeared in highly publicised television debates. His stature as a public intellectual was slowly eclipsing the influence of the Nation of Islam and Elijah Muhammad which led to a lot of friction inside the organisation. His controversial remarks caught the eye of the FBI as well who put him under surveillance.
The moment in which everything unravels for Malcolm is most likely his falling out with the Nation of Islam. He was silenced by Elijah Muhammad after the JFK assassination when he famously said that it was a case of “chickens coming home to roost”. In March of 1964, Malcolm announced that he was still a Muslim but he was no longer a part of the Nation of Islam. He founded his own religious organisation called Muslim Mosque Inc. and the Organisation of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), a secular group that advocated Pan-Africanism. Deeply disappointed with how things had turned out and how his spiritual guide Elijah Muhammad had fathered several children with multiple women despite denouncing adultery and fornication, Malcolm decided to take the holy pilgrimage to Mecca. It was in the holy land of the Muslim faith that he began to see eye to eye with people of other races who were fellow Muslims. Lee beautifully subverts the conventional visual narrative with cinéma vérité techniques to subject the nature of the film to a certain degree of ambiguity, transitioning between the lens of a feature film and a documentary. The sporadic documentary-style filmmaking also takes on an added layer of meaning when we see that CIA agents were keeping an eye on him even in Mecca. It is a common misconception that Malcolm softened his Black nationalist views after returning from his pilgrimage. He only stated that he had learnt to call white men brothers because those men had discarded their race for the Muslim religion.
In the fight for racial justice, it is a tragedy that an influential leader such as Malcolm X was killed by his own people. The Nation of Islam did not take kindly to Malcolm’s comments about the organisation and ordered hits on him. They tried to bomb his car and burnt his house down, just like the KKK had burnt his father’s house. It is one of the most poignant scenes in the film because Lee shows us that there are times when hatred has no race and that humans are capable of astonishing violence against their own kind. Many people still believe that the FBI and NYPD had orchestrated the Nation of Islam’s attack on Malcolm in 1965, when he was shot 21 times in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom. In the film, the camera hovers over the body of the martyr with reverence and grief. If you look close enough, you can notice that Denzel Washington smiles a little when he sees his assassin approach him with a sawed-off shotgun. Malcolm X wasn’t afraid to die. Spike Lee’s moving biopic ends with Ossie Davis’ beautiful eulogy for the Black rights activist and it even features Nelson Mandela teaching school children about Malcolm X. He begins to tell them, “As Brother Malcolm said: We declare our right on this earth to be a man, to be a human being, to be given the rights of a human being…which we intend to bring into existence” and Malcolm X completes Mandela’s sentence with his trademark determination:
“By any means necessary!“