By Michael Tardif
"We have a responsibility to pass down the history to our children ... It has to be more than just a hat, more than just a T-shirt", said Spike Lee, director of Malcolm X, on a recent JJJ interview. With LA still smouldering and the racism that sparked it still alive and well, Malcolm X couldn't have arrived at a more appropriate time.
Perhaps no other figure in contemporary US history has been as misquoted and misunderstood as Malcolm X. As usual, Spike Lee uses any cinematic means necessary to get his point across. The result is a living and courageous portrayal that goes at least some of the way to reaffirm the politics in the image of Malcolm X.
Lee came under fire earlier in the project from critics who believed that the film would be less a reflection of Malcolm and more of Lee's perceptions of Malcolm. However, the film is no exercise in idolatry. It frankly presents the man and his work, his strengths, his weaknesses and the changes that take place in him both personally and politically.
Despite the film's attempts to clarify the figure of Malcolm X, the mainstream media have largely attempted to discredit Malcolm with the same distortions they brandished in the '60s. Kerry O'Brien's attempt on the ABC's Lateline to dismiss Malcolm as nothing more than a violent black supremacist is a good example.
More valid criticisms have come from some on the African-American left, who feel that Lee's representation trivialises or omits the importance of Malcolm's political conclusions after his break with the Nation of Islam. Instead, the film deals with this period of Malcolm X's life and work on a personal level.
Dealing cursorily with the political aspect of this stage of Malcolm's life is perhaps the biggest weakness. The film does chart Malcolm's path away from separatism and his attempts to work more closely with civil rights activists. However, without looking any deeper, it may leave some feeling that — rather than developing his revolutionary perspective — Malcolm had begun to adopt a more liberal appraisal of black oppression.
Expressed most strongly throughout is the dynamism of Malcolm's development. Malcolm stumbles onto the screen a home boy uninitiated in the intricacies of Boston and Harlem street life, lindy-dancing, zoot suits, gangsters and reefers.
The first third of the film is alive with the deprivations, music (Duke Ellington to Junior Walker), loyalties and deceptions through which Harlem shaped Malcolm's taste for survival.
The bravery and cunning which were to become so important in Malcolm's the Nation of Islam are signposted by Lee in a scene in which Malcolm Little is struggling for leadership of a gang of thieves. He challenges his opponent to Russian roulette. Placing a gun with one chamber loaded against his brow, he remains stony faced as the challenger sweats and prays. Malcolm's final warning to the vanquished foe was later addressed to the white oppressors: Don't mess with someone who's prepared to die.
Malcolm's conversion to the Nation of Islam in prison and his success in building that movement dominate the middle of the film. Denzel Washington's stunning performance and his mastery of Malcolm's style of oratory are compelling viewing.
Lee nicely juxtaposes Malcolm's backward attitude to women with the strength of his wife Betty and her perceptive appreciation of Elijah Muhammad, which initiates Malcolm's eventual break with the Nation of Islam.
Lee squeezes a flurry into the close of the film: Malcolm in Mecca, his return, the attempts on his life, the implication of the FBI and CIA and his final assassination. It tends to gloss over the detail of the political Malcolm in exchange for a sense of the frustration, stress and desperation. Yet Spike Lee pulls us back firmly to the reality and relevance of Malcolm X today with a few surprises in the final scenes.
Malcolm X is a must above all for its political message. Malcolm X's revolutionary struggle is as necessary today as it was when he lived it. "We declare the right to be a man, to be a human being, to have the rights of a human being, to be treated as a human being in this society, on this earth, in this time, and we intend to bring this into existence by any means necessary."
In the words of the Afro-American band Arrested Development, "We are still here, and we are still talking about revolution."