Catching Up with the Classics: MALCOLM X (1992)

Ideals and identity clash in Spike Lee’s epic biopic of the Civil Rights leader

FILM 55 of 115: MALCOLM X (1992)
I came into Malcolm X with only a cursory knowledge of the man himself. To me, he’d been defined as an opposing viewpoint to Martin Luther King, Jr., and as the face of the Nation of Islam throughout the Civil Rights Movement. I had heard speeches of his in high school and college history classes. At the end of it, though, I’d learned far little else about Malcolm X’s story that hadn’t been delivered through some filter of a secondary source or public image.

I knew of the biography Malcolm X related to Alex Haley, and of the lengthy production history in adapting it for the big screen — a process that drove initial writer James Baldwin to endless frustration. Faced with both the towering responsibility the material as well as with interfering producers eager to replace him, Baldwin later said, “I would rather be horsewhipped, or incarcerated in the forthright bedlam of Bellevue, than repeat the adventure.” Baldwin’s script would be rewritten once more by Spike Lee and Arnold Perl for Lee’s film — passing Malcolm’s story through a final set of eyes. Despite Lee’s provocatively empathetic reputation as a director, I was wary of how much Malcolm X would be reverential to its subject. Would Lee’s film be too dedicated to reaffirming the Malcolm I’d learned of in high school, or get to a deeper understanding of the man behind the incendiary speeches?

Malcolm X is the third film of Spike Lee’s I’ve seen for this project, and the sixth from his filmography overall. Of what I’ve seen, Malcolm X is Lee at his most epic and unrestrained. The postwar, pre-Civil Rights East Coast is Lee’s cinematic playground — no expense is spared at recreating the past, with lavish production design and swarms of period-attired extras in every frame. A handful of sequences surprise with their choreography or famous bit players — notably a nightclub scene where none other than Billie Holiday is the night’s act. It’s a far cry from films like Do the Right Thing or 25th Hour that also feature stellar ensemble casts but are kept within the confines of their local borough.

At the same time, though, Lee refuses to outright romanticize the past, including frank depictions of the racism and class struggle Malcolm encounters during his childhood in Nebraska and his adulthood in New York and Boston’s criminal underworld. Flashbacks illustrate the victimization of Malcolm’s family at the hands of the KKK, and the discouragement of Malcolm’s teachers after he expresses his wish to become a lawyer; an adult Malcolm bleaches his hair to be straighter, “whiter,” and takes a grueling, people-pleasing job as a Pullman porter until he’s drawn into the criminal underworld. As keenly-paced as this section of Malcolm X may be, it still possesses a frustrating shapelessness. Malcolm’s moral descent is interesting to watch, but there’s an inevitability to it from the start — and as dragged out as it is, with Malcolm drifting between cities searching for a sense of identity, one can’t help but feel Lee’s film try to do the same.

What saves this section of Malcolm X is how both Lee and lead Denzel Washington equally refuse to romanticize the man himself. Washington’s magnetic performance pivots Malcolm’s criminal endeavors into the last options of a man lost in the vices of the world after being denied any larger sense of purpose. Washington is effortlessly cool and possesses the same natural gravitas as Malcolm himself, while being simultaneously unafraid to showcase the baser parts of Malcolm’s nature. Sure, the film hits the expected moral lows of normal biopics, especially so early on, but it’s refreshing how attuned Washington and Lee are to the moral imperfections and later reckonings that make Malcolm such a compelling historical figure.

It’s only after Malcolm discovers Islam and the teachings of Elijah Muhammad during his incarceration that the film begins to find surer footing, and it finally taps into a signature rage as Malcolm comes into his own as a powerful public orator. These sequences are some of the best in Malcolm X, as Malcolm discovers and hones his words like poisoned daggers to increasing crowds of people, culminating in Malcolm’s leading the Nation of Islam’s marches in the aftermath of the Hinton Johnson beating.

Where Malcolm X truly excels is in the peak of Malcolm’s public recognition, as the man’s ideals begin to clash with that of the organization that first gave him direction. As Elijah Muhammad is embroiled in scandal, and Malcolm discovers the corruption hiding within the ranks of the Nation of Islam, he’s suddenly forced to re-evaluate and potentially divorce himself from the men who “bestowed upon him…a sense of worth.” It’s fascinating to see such a figure like Malcolm in this kind of conflict, and Washington’s performance taps directly into a raw emotional doubt. In time, Malcolm’s forced to reckon with his own beliefs and actions taken up in the name of justice–and confronts both internal and external hypocrisy in order to become the leader everyone believes Malcolm to be.

As the film barrels towards the inevitable, Lee justifies Malcolm X’s epic form in employing his signature double dolly shot. Malcolm’s endured bigotry, hypocrisy, and all the blows and dangers this world can offer. But he’s also seen how beautiful the world can be in spite of the evils within it. The social goals he’s long pursued aren’t mere empty promises by those who inspired him. Instead, for greater change to be possible, one must be wholly unafraid to change from within–and equally unafraid and loving of whatever forces may offer up resistance. Now, Malcolm heads towards his future finally resolute in who he is–both to himself and to others. He achieves the enlightenment promised to him by those who ultimately fell victim to corruption. It’s here that the twain finally meets between the man formerly known as Malcolm Little and the man future generations would immortalize as Malcolm X. It takes three hours and change for Lee to get to this moment — and damn if this tribute to Malcolm’s legacy doesn’t justify every preceding minute.

I came out of my screening at Austin’s Paramount Theater wholly relieved. Malcolm X deftly navigated that wide gulf between personal identity and public image, providing illumination, criticism, and commemoration in equal measure. It’s an epic film about an equally epic man, denying hagiography in favor of a deeper, personal sense of reckoning between Malcolm X and the ideals he championed.

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