Malcolm X (Spike Lee, 1992) – REVIEW

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“Brothers and sisters, I am here to tell you that I charge the white man. I charge the white man with being the greatest murderer on earth. I charge the white man with being the greatest kidnapper on earth. There is no place in this world that this man can go and say he created peace and harmony. Everywhere he’s gone, he’s created havoc. Everywhere he’s gone, he’s created destruction. So I charge him. I charge him with being the greatest kidnapper on this earth! I charge him with being the greatest murderer on this earth! I charge him with being the greatest robber and enslaver on this earth! I charge the white man with being the greatest swine-eater on this earth. The greatest drunkard on this earth! He can’t deny the charges! You can’t deny the charges! We’re the living proof *of* those charges! You and I are the proof. You’re not an American, you are the victim of America. You didn’t have a choice coming over here. He didn’t say, “Black man, black woman, come on over and help me build America”. He said, “N*gger, get down in the bottom of that boat and I’m taking you over there to help me build America”. Being born here does not make you an American. I am not an American, you are not an American. You are one of the 22 million black people who are the *victims* of America. You and I, we’ve never see any democracy. We didn’t see any… democracy on the-the cotton fields of Georgia, wasn’t no democracy down there. We didn’t see any democracy. We didn’t see any democracy on the streets of Harlem or on the streets of Brooklyn or on the streets of Detroit or Chicago. Ain’t no democracy down there. No, we’ve never seem democracy! All we’ve seen is hypocrisy! We don’t see any American Dream. We’ve experienced only the American Nightmare!”

Malcolm X was shot on the twenty-first of February, 1965. His “hand flew to his chest as the first of sixteen shotgun pellets or revolver slugs hit him. Then the other hand flew up. The middle finger of the left hand was bullet-shattered, and blood gushed froths goatee. He clutched his chest. His big body fell back stiffly, knocking over two chairs; his head stuck the stage floor with a thud.”, and “the autopsy confirmed the shotgun pellet wounds in the heart had killed Malcolm X”.

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He was certainly a controversial figure. With his “reverse racism”, his white hatred, his supposed violence (which never actually did occur), his being the “angriest black man in America”, as he was often referred to, it’s no wonder that so many turned their back to such a man, and felt unsafe in his presence. Spike Lee opens his film, a three and a half hour biopic epic which details just about every major part of Malcolm X’s life as according to his autobiography (penned by Alex Haley, though told by Mr. X), with the speech above, instantly proving many of the points that those against Malcolm would come carrying with them into the film – these ideas that he stood for the hatred of the white race – but the truth is, he never did. Malcolm was a person, just as anybody else is, of course. After his long-awaited pilgrimage to Mecca, he came to the realisation that he had placed his blame incorrectly – that some white people were unbiased, that his fury and hatred was suited to the white men of America who still held the beliefs that the black man was inhuman, or at the very least, that they were better than him. As Malcolm himself says towards the end of his autobiography, “My thinking had been opened up wide in Mecca. In the long letters I wrote to friends, I tried to convey to them my new insights into the American black man’s struggle and his problems, as well as the depths of my search for truth and justice. ‘I’ve had enough of someone else’s propaganda,’ I had written to these friends. ‘I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it is for or against. I’m a human being first and foremost, and as such I’m for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.”, his issue was not with white people, it never truly was. His anger was towards injustice, and the white man was really the start of his trouble as they led to his being in America in the first place – the white man committed many a sin against Malcolm and those whom he loved and held close, his mother’s mother was raped by a white man, his father was likely killed by white men, the KKK terrorised his family when he was young, they shunned him, kicked him down, entrenched him in his eventual downfall in his late teens and early twenties. They led him to drugs, to theft, to changing how he looked in a desperate attempt to fit in, and as it happened, he didn’t even have the time to realise it. 

There is a point made in many films focused on the betterment of black people especially that looks at how education is the one and only thing that cannot be taken away from anyone. It’s a point also made in music, looking at the early work of Kanye West and the work of A Tribe Called Quest, among others, but it seems that this mainly stems from Malcolm and other leading Muslim Ministers, such as Louis Farrakhan, who preached of their own saviour through education. As Marcus Garvey said, “Man in the true knowledge of himself is a powerful creature of creation.”, he is the “master of his environment”.  For those who are unaware, Malcolm spent his childhood a victim of terrible circumstances: as aforementioned, his family was terrorised when he was young by the Ku Klux Klan, his father was eventually murdered, and he was so poor that as a child he “thought that not for sale was a brand name”, from seeing it on the food in his home so often, and with more frequency than anything else. “They (welfare) acted as if they owned us, as if we were their private property. As much as my mother would have liked to, she couldn’t keep them out.” Malcolm performed excellently in school, despite his troubling experiences outside of it. He describes learning early on that he could get most anything by raising his voice about it, he found power in language, but he was stopped in his tracks on one occasion. Asked by his teacher what his hopeful plans were for the future, Malcolm said that he would have liked to have been a lawyer. His teacher, knowing that Malcolm was within the top three best performing students in the class, and having told every other student that he was sure they would accomplish what they hoped for – no matter what it was – replied by saying, “Malcolm, one of life’s first needs is for us to be realistic. Don’t misunderstand me, now. We all here like you, you know that. But you’ve got to be realistic about being a n*gger. A lawyer – that’s no realistic goal for a n*gger. You need to think about something you can be.” This, unsurprisingly, turned Malcolm away from the future he had hoped for, and coming to realise that, in mid 20th century America, he was set to go nowhere, soon lost hope in school, and shortly after left school in order to get himself a job as a way to keep his family financially afloat. It wasn’t before long that Malcolm was often so desperate for food that he turned to theft, stealing just enough to get by – he never committed a crime he didn’t have to do – but soon after being found out, this was used as reasoning for the government to split up Malcolm’s family, rendering his mother eventually insane and sending her to an institution where she would remain for twenty six years – the majority of Malcolm’s life – only getting out in 1963, two years before Malcolm would be assassinated. Following tradition, and Murphy’s law, anything that could subsequently go wrong surely would, and it wasn’t long before Malcolm found himself hustling, selling reefers to anybody who would take them, sleeping with one eye open for just two hours a night, being threatened at gunpoint by police officers and gangsters alike, keeping up on a steady diet of cocaine and almost nightly theft. But then, something happened. 

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Malcolm X, or Malcolm Little at this point, and his accomplices (including his friend Shorty, played by Spike Lee in the film, and two white women) were caught. The two women received quite minor sentences, whilst Malcolm and Shorty received an unusual ten year sentence. As Malcolm said to a lawyer at the time, “We seem to be getting sentenced because of those girls.”. So, now entering prison, quite uneducated, having been kicked around every day he had spent alive, Malcolm gave in. It wasn’t until his family visited him, speaking of a religion he was completely unfamiliar with, that Malcolm came to thinking about his position more. He was introduced, through his family, to the Muslim religion, and to the teachings of The Honourable Elijah Muhammad, which painted clearly to him all of the reasons for his experiences, and, more importantly, how he should go about combatting it. So, turning to the books, even going so far as to copy out the dictionary in its entirety, word for word and punctuation mark for punctuation mark, Malcolm would go on to learn all he could about just about anything and, alongside his consistent prayer and continuation in learning the teaching of the Honourable Elijah Muhammad, found salvation and solace in knowledge and religion – the first solace he had found in his life up to this point. Of course, having finally stumbled across such a powerful change, and knowing what it meant to him having seen the change within himself first hand, he clung to it with all of his might, fuelling his passion from his past into his endeavours for the future. It sounds simple, but hanging onto something quite so tight often also has its downfalls, as Malcolm finds out later on here, but I shall avoid that for the sake of ruining the end of the film for those who haven’t yet seen it – which they absolutely should.

What is revealing is the way in which Spike decides to tell this story. From subtleties in the editing that quietly reveal nuances that we don’t have the time to delve in to explicitly, such as a sneaky edit that highlights Malcolm’s general disagreement with the ways of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. to the subdued lighting changes and the overall control over the tone, Spike seems to be adamant on placing Malcolm in a world entirely separate from ours, as spectators. This fantastical side to the film is only expanded upon when Malcolm stumbles across the teachings of the Honourable Elijah Muhammad, such as a scene where Malcolm, and the audience, literally ‘see the light’, as Elijah Muhammad, literally engulfed in a blinding golden-yellow light, appears in Malcolm’s cell and talks to him. Using this kind of abstraction and surrealism to emphasise the points works surprisingly well here, as rather than being distracting and retracting from the focus of the film (which it certainly has some of, somehow, despite the runtime, this film feels so incredibly efficient with how it chooses to pace itself), it instead enhances this focus. It makes us feel exactly as Malcolm would – completely overwhelmed by his new findings. Spike is so careful about setting up this strange feeling in the opening act, most everything is slightly exaggerated (or even outright hyperbolic at times), creating this comic tone, this carelessness that Malcolm evidently had to a certain extent. It is as if he is pleased to be in this world of drugging, gambling, etc., right up until the very moment he reaches prison. In fact, the control over the tone is so specific throughout the entirety of the film in its aiming to place the audience directly into Malcolm’s mindset that often, we do lose our touch on reality. Take for example the third act, when Malcolm starts to become increasingly paranoid about the potential of betrayal, the slick and fast pacing turning into this stressed, raggedy, desperate editing and sketchy cinematography that seems oh-so-slightly off. 

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The cinematic influence of Malcolm X, the person, is to be seen smothered all over the majority of the films with a large focus on black people, primarily with his idea of education and perseverance as a way to truly escape the dangers of the ghetto, in his case being Harlem. It clearly had a great impact on the likes of Ernest Dickerson, who includes a prominent poster of the man in the bedroom of the protagonist, a picture which towers above the character and takes up the majority of the screen during the majority of the time actually spent in said room (more on him later!), John Singleton, who spent two of his first films (Boyz N The Hood and Higher Learning) almost entirely focused on the idea of using education and resistance of temptation as a way for young black people to escape the seemingly inescapable ghettos, or racial prejudices in general and a great number of directors still coming out from under the woodwork now. And Spike’s film only helped to preach the teachings of Malcolm X, and brought additional awareness to a public figure who needs his story to be told time and time again, to anybody who will listen. Who is to say how many less people would have heard of Malcolm X, or even come to know his words, if it weren’t for Spike’s work here?

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Spike’s cinematography complements it all beautifully, too. With energetic cinematography by the  previously mentioned Ernest R. Dickerson, who directed Juice the year preceding (another phenomenal film, focusing instead on the downfalls of the ghetto at their worst, rather than telling a more hopeful story as Malcolm does… for the majority, anyway), the film is given a distinctly cinematic look, one that fits beautifully with the kind of narrative that Malcolm has, a surprisingly clean one considering it is a real life on screen. Unfortunately, for the sake of running time, and likely budget too, a lot of the content from Malcolm’s life and autobiography is skimmed over here, but it is difficult to complain as there is still a ridiculous amount for Spike to cover in these two hundred minutes. Following a man from his childhood, to his troubles as a young adult, through an awakening like the one that Malcolm had is enough of a task, without adding in so many of his nuances and his personal life contrasting (or complimenting, at some points) his outer persona, as the ‘angriest black man in America’. 

Really, it is an outrage that Malcolm was called such a thing. Whilst, undoubtedly, he had just about every right to spit vitriol just about any place he could, being a true victim of circumstance if ever there was one, Malcolm has only been described as a surprisingly gentle man by those who actually knew him. A man with nothing but an endless devotion of all of his energy towards trying to help people out of the very same pit that he had fallen into, or trying desperately to give them the same wake up call he received, that saved his life. In the final few pages of his autobiography, Malcolm gives in and summarises everything that has come before, managing to eloquently describe his life’s discoveries in one brief moment. He says: “I believe that it would be almost impossible to find anywhere in America a black man who has lived further down in the mud of human society than I have; or a black man who has been any more ignorant than I have been; or a black man who has suffered more anguish during his life than I have. But it is only after the deepest darkness that the greatest light can come; it is only after slavery and prison that the sweetest appreciation of freedom can come. For the freedom of my 22 million black brothers and sisters here in America, I do believe that I have fought the best that I knew how, and the best that I could, with the shortcomings that I have had.”. Perhaps more strikingly, also on the final few pages of the book, he says that “If I take the kind of things in which I believe, then add to that the kind of temperament that I have, plus the one hundred percent dedication I have to whatever I believe in – these are ingredients which make it just about impossible for me to die of old age.”. It was as if he knew what was coming, and in knowing, did all that he could with the time that he had to give out as much hope as he could with all of his energy.

Malcolm’s teachings are really of equal importance when compared to just about any other, if not holding more. He is living proof that, with the right attitude and energy, anybody in any situation can come to accomplish great things, and that one can never really be down and out for good. To lose him when and as we did is one of the truest tragedies of humanity of the past few centuries, as one is left to only imagine what he could have come to teach, the minds he could have come to inspire if only he had been allowed to live out his life as he should have. There is a good reason that this is the film that I hold closest to my heart, and yes, it may go far beyond what Spike’s film does, but without Spike’s film I know that I would never be in the situation I am now, that being one of great joy, passion and want for education as opposed to the writhing pit of depression, addiction and suicidal ideation I lay in comfortably before the discovery. Malcolm X was a man truly dedicated to his ideas, often even to a point of great detriment, he was a man determined to tell his very own truth, and no one else’s, by any means necessary.

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