MALCOLM X
Directed by Spike Lee. USA. 1992.


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Malcolm X is an angry film. It firmly declares war on the white man who is responsible for all the ills of the black Afro-American man. As Malcolm X says "We didn't land on Plymouth Rock. Plymouth Rock landed on us." America is not his home, it is his psychological and spiritual prison. 

Malcolm's anger largely derives from the exploits of the Klu Klux Klan who fire bombed his home when he was a child, and their subsequent murder of his father (which is regarded as suicide by the white insurance man/company). Though even the evil of the Klan is rather undermined by a beautiful shot of them riding into the rays of a huge moon hanging on the horizon.

As a young man Malcolm is a vain hustler who gets involved with gangs, drugs, rackets, burglary and white women. It is when he is in prison that he has a religious vision and converts to the Islamic faith. 

As soon as he is released from jail he rises to power within Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam. In this role he lectures that the white man is the devil, a black nation should be established, and it should be segregated from the malevolent whites. When President Kennedy is shot dead he declares that "his chickens had come home to roost" and that he has no sympathy for him. Most of his ideas are misogynistic, racist, right-wing and inflammatory. This part of the film seems like a long-winded slice of hectoring worthy of the worst excesses of evangelical television or a visit from power mad Jehovah Witnesses. It is only at the closing stages of the film that he realises, after a pilgrimage to Mecca, that black and white can co-exist. 

Malcolm's own chickens come home to roost when the Muslim group, which he has now left, assassinates him and establishes him as yet another icon of martyrdom worthy of veneration by future generations. The fact that he is aware that his time is coming to an end, and that he had psychic visions previously, implies that he was a chosen individual who was more than just a common-man. 

Spike Lee confidently tackles this high-powered Hollywood biopic with the kind of bravado that I suspect even Malcolm X would have found difficult to match. His film is justified as a corrective to the errors and ignorance of the white man's version of religious and American history. Unfortunately, there are many areas where Lee's crusading becomes silly or plain ludicrous. For example, there is an argument that God is black not white, which indicates a rather naive view of religious ideology. At the end of the film we have no less a person than Nelson Mandela talking to a classroom of children who, one by one, declare they are "Malcolm X" which makes it look like an out-take from a rejected Benneton advert. At other moments there are dancing sequences that look like the kind of stereotypical images of black people, white people would be ashamed to portray. Though as the scene where the white girl gushingly asks how she can help Malcolm X's cause, and is summarily dismissed, the white person/audience has no right to say or do anything, he/she is condemned by history and Spike Lee as the devil incarnate. 

Malcolm X can be seen as a cry for ethnic purity and cleansing, and we know where that can lead to...Spike Lee gives us the writing on the wall that we should all read and consider. 

I say 'can be seen' in the paragraph above because the film can be read in lots of different ways. Lee can argue that Malcolm X becomes more moderate and rational at the close of the film and that he wasn't so anti-white before his death. This tones down the worries of a white audience but the same closing scenes then start showing the rifts between black groups. 

Lee admits that Malcolm X was a complex man, and his film tries to deal with this complexity. This leads us to wonder what parts of Malcolm X's philosophy we should merit and which we should discard. What we are left with is the empty slogan "By any means necessary". As Carl Rowan, an ex-director of the U.S. information service has commented, this,
 

"is a glaring instance of movie-makers revising history and making a man who had a dubious impact in life appear to be a towering social and political figure long after his death. " 
During production Lee was aware that his film would spark controversy, and he conceded that, 
 
"There's just no way for one film to satisfy everyone's perception of who Malcolm was. He meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people. " 
 
You can see Malcolm X simply as a story of a person who rises from poverty and petty crime and, through spiritual and educational enlightenment, becomes a voice for his people. Indeed, many film reviews have regarded it in this manner, but this completely misses the point that this is a 'message' movie that at least tells you much about the state of racial relationships in the U.S.A. and at best challenges the Hollywood representation (or lack of representation) of such issues.
 

Nigel Watson
 
 
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