Updated Nov 19 2017


Denzel Washington in a scene from Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. Malcom X became a member of The Nation of Islam when he was in prison
Denzel Washington in a scene from Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. Malcom X became a member of The Nation of Islam when he was in prison

"The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the colour-line.” So wrote the Afro-American activist W.E.B. Du Bois in his famous 1903 work The Souls of Black Folk. And indeed, the century of which he spoke was dominated by issues of race, decolonisation and civil rights — the last especially so in the United States.

One of the most forceful figures of the Civil Rights Movement was Malcolm X — a man who rose from criminality and prison to become one of the most eloquent and captivating orators of the modern era. And one of the greatest tributes to the man is Spike Lee’s 1992 film Malcolm X, featuring a performance by Denzel Washington which film director Martin Scorsese lauded as “[...] one of the best in American movies.”

For Lee, The Autobiography of Malcolm X was the most important book that he had ever read, and a film about Malcolm was something that he thought he was born to do. Subsequently, despite having hitherto made relatively small films, he sought to make Malcolm X comparable in scope to David Lean epics such as The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962). In this he succeeded: shot on three continents and with a running time of well over three hours, the film ranges from Malcolm’s childhood in the ‘20s to his assassination in the ‘60s, while commenting on the problems of race in the ‘90s.

Spike Lee’s masterful biopic about the iconic civil rights campaigner was released 25 years ago. It remains as relevant today as in 1992

The opening title sequence at once sets a provocative tone: as Malcolm is heard castigating the white race for its crimes, we see an American flag going up in flames, intercut with real footage from the infamous 1991 videotape of black taxi driver Rodney King being severely beaten by several white police officers. Once the flag has been burned down to the shape of an “X”, the film proper begins with young Malcolm getting his hair straightened so that it “looks white”, moving on to him cheerily bouncing down the street in a flamboyant zoot suit.

The film goes on to survey Malcolm’s develo­pment as a criminal, eventual incarc­eration, conversion to the black nationalist ideology of the Nation of Islam (NOI), and rise within the ranks of that organisation.

Then Malcolm discovers that NOI leader Elijah Muhammad — whom he venerated — has been impregnating numerous young girls. Shattered by this revelation, and marginalised after his infamous description of the John F. Kennedy assassination as a case of “chickens coming home to roost”, Malcolm eventually leaves the NOI to create his own organisation. He visits Africa and the Middle East, performs the Haj, and comes to realise that the “Islam” touted by the race-obsessed NOI is far removed from the orthodox Islam in which Muslims of multiple races come together. The film climaxes with Malcolm’s assassination at the hands of his former NOI associates, followed by several minutes of footage and photographs of the real Malcolm. A coda features Nelson Mandela quoting Malcolm to a classroom of African children, returning us to the racial issues of the ‘90s with which the film began.

Lee and his crew did extensive research for this film, examining documents and letters by and about Malcolm, in addition to interviewing those who knew him. But like other biographical or historical films, Malcolm X changes, omits from, and adds to the historical record. Such alterations are understandable, given the difficulty in attempting to portray in just a few hours a life — especially a life containing the varied hues of Malcolm’s.

But it is important to note the film’s limitations.

For instance, the film shows a prison inmate urging Malcolm to embrace the NOI, but it was members of Malcolm’s own family who advised him to do so. Malcolm’s siblings only appear in the film as children in flashback sequences — their roles as adults in his life are not shown at all.

American human rights activist Malcolm X
American human rights activist Malcolm X

The NOI is also treated in a simplified manner. While imprisoned, Malcolm underwent a religious experience and had a vision of W.D. Fard (also known as Wallace Fard Muhammad), the mysterious founder of the NOI. But the film shows Malcolm encountering Elijah Muhammad in his vision, not Fard. More importantly, the film focuses on the political and racial components of Elijah Muhammad’s message while ignoring the more outlandish claims of the NOI leader. For example, in Muhammad’s book Message to the Blackman in America (MUHAMMAD’S Temple No. 2, 1965), we can find declarations that the earth separated from the moon in an explosion 60 trillion years ago, that Native Americans came to the United States 16,000 years ago after being expelled from India for breaking Islamic laws, and that Moses, after failing to civilise the white creations of the evil scientist Yakub who were now living in Europe, killed a few hundred of them with dynamite.

The focus of the film is, of course, on Malcolm, but Malcolm himself was also prone to making questionable assertions, ranging from claims that Jesus spoke Arabic, to the proclamation that an airplane crash was God’s retribution for the death of a Black Muslim some days earlier.

In his book Race Matters (Vintage Press, 1994), the African-American intellectual Cornel West wrote how important it was to “[…] interrogate iconic figures of the past”, and went on to criticise Malcolm’s silence on oppression in Muslim and Middle Eastern countries. From a different perspective, the pictorial biography Malcolm X — Make it Plain (Penguin Books, 1995) quotes poet Maya Angelou on the dangers of making Malcolm seem larger than life: “[…] young people, hearing about him — this larger-than-life person — will be led to think they could never be like him [...]”

Lee’s film might not interrogate Malcolm as much as the latter’s critics would like, but neither is it hagiographic. The material by and about Malcolm is vast, and Lee could not possibly include it all. Lee deserves respect for humanising Malcolm while simultaneously tackling controversial matter in the face of hostility. During shooting, someone aimed a car at the set with a brick tied to its accelerator (no one was injured). The director was cautioned not to show Malcolm sleeping with a white woman, and not to show him taking drugs. But Lee ignored these warnings; his film spends more than an hour on this period of Malcolm’s life, and also delves into his second conversion to orthodox Islam. As a consequence, it excels at showing the man’s evolution, and paints large the triumphant and tragic themes of Malcolm’s life. While some telling details may be missing from the film, one of the greatest lessons and legacies of Malcolm is given substantial focus: his embodiment of the power of human beings to improve themselves and to transcend their origins and circumstances.

While Malcolm was not an incurious or illiterate fellow before being sentenced to prison, there is no doubt that his long and purposeful reading regimen, while incarcerated, dwarfed in scope anything that he had done before. Reading for up to 15 hours a day, often by a dim beam of light that entered his cell after normal lighting had been turned off, he studied history, mythology, philosophy, literature, psychology, theology, linguistics, Shintoism, Egyptology, Latin and much else. His fellow inmate Malcolm Jarvis said, “We were trying to acclimate our minds into thinking on a much higher level than that of the average person.”

“Up to then,” wrote Malcolm in his autobiography, “I had never been so truly free in my life.” Through the dedicated study of books, then, a hustler whose command over simple English was barely functional upon entering prison, transformed himself into one of the most articulate and sought-after public speakers in the US, with an intellect and personality that had the power to charm and inspire the leaders of nations as well as the denizens of slums. The example of Malcolm has influenced many, from the Black Panthers to Native American activist Russell Means and beyond. Few men have possessed the same unremitting fearlessness to defy accepted notions of race, politics, history and democracy, and just as his charged rhetoric was capable of terrifying blacks as well as whites, his life has inspired people of different races across the world.

West lamented the present absence of intellectual black men of the calibre of Malcolm, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Du Bois, contrasting these men, who were known for their sobre dress suits which symbolised their seriousness, with their shabbily-dressed modern counterparts. He went on to say: “For Du Bois, the glorious life of the mind was a highly disciplined way of life and an intensely demanding way of struggle that facilitated transit between his study and the streets; whereas present-day black intellectuals tend to be mere academicians [...]” Malcolm exemplified many of the qualities West ascribed to Du Bois, but was also dismissive of the notion that people who attended prominent universities such as Oxford and Harvard must necessarily be intellectuals: “A scholar in my opinion constitutes a guiding light in a revolutionary period and is a bond that unites the abstract and the concrete,” [Quoted by Mburumba Kerina in “Malcolm X: The Apostle of Defiance — An African View”, as found in Malcolm X — The Man and His Times, Collier Books, 1969].

Lee’s film might not interrogate Malcolm as much as the latter’s critics would like, but neither is it hagiographic. The material by and about Malcolm is vast, and Lee could not possibly include it all.

It is difficult to think of a film which comes even close to Malcolm X in its unhindered portrayal of the problems of the colour-line. “Cry Freedom and Amistad are not about the black people,” Lee observed in a documentary that accompanied the film’s DVD release. “They end up being about the white people.”

Malcolm X  rose from criminality to become one of the most eloquent and captivating orators of the modern era
Malcolm X rose from criminality to become one of the most eloquent and captivating orators of the modern era

Indeed, there are no white saviours in Lee’s film, and it would perhaps be more productive to compare Malcolm X to an equally controversial work released a year before: Oliver Stone’s JFK. Both films were over three hours in length, and both used the stylistic devices of archival footage and multiple film stocks to challenge and discuss 20th century American politics and history. In fact, JFK was an influence on Malcolm X, and even some footage from the former appears in the latter.

In a 1992 article for The Los Angeles Times, Lee was quoted on the need for young black men to have more diverse role models than athletes and rap artists. In a book he co-wrote with Ralph Wiley on the making of Malcolm X titled By Any Means Necessary (Hyperion, 1992), he went further and criticised the fashion amongst many black youths to fail classes, hang out and get high, because the opposite was seen as “acting white”.

Lee blamed this championing of ignorance over intelligence on peer pressure. West attributed the mediocrity of black intellectuals to a more easily accessible mass culture, with its concomitant side-effects of conspicuous consumption and hedonistic indulgence. This same mass culture is also responsible for the commodification and simplification of Malcolm: the selective way in which his image and words have been interpreted. Malcolm’s pride and anger are easily packaged, marketed and imitated — but his attributes of self-correction and asceticism are not.

Because Malcolm’s life was, as he himself put it, a “chronology of changes”, and because he was a complex man who died at a time when he was reconfiguring his own philosophy, there has been varied speculation about his future development, much of it contradictory. That he had softened in his attitude towards other civil rights leaders, and abandoned blanket antagonism towards whites, seems clear, but would he have forsaken other prejudices? Since Malcolm was neither afraid of the truth, nor afraid to publicly renounce his own errors, it is not unreasonable to conjecture that he would have revised his views as his knowledge and experience increased.

In the last year of his life, Malcolm began to broaden his perspectives, reclassifying the racial problem as one of human rights, attempting to form linkages between black Americans and their cousins on the African continent, and — like his father before him — desiring to indict the US before an international court. To what degree he would have been successful in these efforts is difficult to ascertain, but it is certain that his activities frightened the white power structure.

When Malcolm X was released, the Rodney King riots were just months past, and South African apartheid still in the process of being dismantled. Yet the film is as relevant today as it ever was, and has lost none of its salutary power, for racism and injustice are not at an end, neither in the US nor anywhere else. There are still people in many different countries who, like Malcolm in his youth, think it preferable to be light-complexioned and who, sometimes unbeknownst to themselves, strive to be white, both physically and culturally. Of course, one could argue that a transracial attitude towards life and culture is a most enlightened outlook, but this ideally comes after a philosophical acknowledgement and acceptance of one’s origins.

To study the life of the philosopher and revolutionary Malcolm X is to help one to reach this goal. And one could do worse than begin with Lee’s film, which, despite its flaws, is as inspiring and challenging as its subject. As Lee himself described it: “This is not just some regular bullshit Hollywood movie.”

The author is an antiquarian and freelance writer

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 19th, 2017