Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992) has the power and sweep of Lawrence of Arabia (1962); it is a story of a time, a story of a man and a story of ideas. It covers the scope of one of America’s most remarkable lives, but it is also a universal story of a road to independent thinking and self-recognition. There’s a lot of talk about “the prison of the mind” in Malcolm X, but for its hero, the second he truly escapes it, he’s gunned down. What’s amazing about Lee’s film is that he can faithfully recreate the life of this man, punctuating his tragic death with all its stupidity and needlessness, without ending in cynicism and despair but as a true, hopeful celebration of his subject’s legacy.
The story follows the trajectory outlined in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, telling the story of Malcolm Little (Denzel Washington) from his humble and dangerous roots in turn-of-the-century rural America, to an existence of shallow hustling in the cities of the East Coast, to imprisonment and rebirth in the Nation of Islam as Malcolm X, to public fame and notoriety, to a fissure with the Nation and a self-reflective period that created a new incarnation as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, ending with his swift assassination at the age of 39. This is a portrait of a complicated man, at times a flawed man, even a naïve man, who breaks a system of oppression by his own country, the leaders of his own faith and cause, and is destroyed for it. Yet it’s a portrait of a legend as well, one that in death was able to transcend the physical into a spiritual and political idea that guides real people today. Lee is able to balance his story to do justice to both entities and in so doing taps into the inspiration that Malcolm so deftly supplied.
When we first see Malcolm, he is having lye applied to his hair by his friend Shorty (Lee) to straighten it. After the lye burns his head, he looks smilingly in the mirror at his new coif. “It looks white, though, don’t it?” he grins. The first act of the movie shows us a man adrift, mesmerized by zoot suits and white women and the supposed glamour of small–time hustling. This Malcolm Little thinks he has it all figured out, that through a life of crime and outrageous behavior he’s escaping the authority of white society. Lee is wise to linger on these early scenes and make them the foundation for his film (this opening act is by far the longest in the 3 1/2-hour epic). Too many biopics rush passed the early material, positing that their subjects burst like Athena fully formed or that the things that created them can be distilled to one or two brief moments from childhood. The opening act of Malcolm X enriches our understanding of the man and deepens our appreciation of the systemic disenfranchisement he was raised in. At no point do these early scenes undercut Malcolm’s inherent intelligence, but they display how much black talent could potentially be wasted in low places simply because the possessor of the talent is denied the opportunity to use it in any other avenue. Malcolm, as a schoolboy, is told as much by a teacher who flatly denies the young man’s interest in being a lawyer. “Why not become a carpenter?” he asks his student who has the best grades in the class. “That’s a good profession for a colored.” In his early days, Malcolm shifts from criminal ring to criminal ring, first running numbers for a hood named West Indian Archie (Delroy Lindo), until a falling out pushes him into the robbery game with Shorty. Malcolm becomes increasingly disillusioned and animalistic, and there’s a terrifying scene the night before a robbery when Malcolm plays a game of Russian roulette in front of his gang to prove he’s the most cocksure of the bunch. His life has little meaning, so what difference does it make if it’s extinguished? “Like every hustler, I was trapped,” Malcolm narrates. “Cats that hung together to find security, to find an answer, found nothing. Cats that might’ve cured cancer. West Indian Archie might’ve been a mathematical genius.” As it turns out, West Indian Archie, in one of the movie’s most poignant scenes doesn’t become much of anything at all.
Not only does this section serve as the foundation of Malcolm’s life, but it also is the introduction to Lee’s visual and narrative style. Lee places a lot of emphasis on black–on–black violence; a damnation of the schisms that divided the cause is prevalent throughout. There are white people in the story, of course, but they are auxiliary. As in The Color Purple (1985), they haunt the edges of the screen and serve as sirens (like Sophia [Kate Vernon], Malcolm’s moll from his hustling days) or ghosts (like the white-sheeted Klan terrorists who burn down his childhood home), emerging only to dole out injustice or violence. Lee focuses on the discord among the black causes, emphasizing guns throughout and subtly arguing that their struggle would be more effective as a unified force, an opinion that Malcolm eventually arrives at. There’s an early scene of Shorty and Malcolm in the park, pretending to be Cagney and Bogart, and Shorty play-shoots and kills Malcolm, which not only portends his eventual murder at the hands of his own race but is juxtaposed with a scene of the terrible death of his father, who was beaten in the head and tied to a railroad track by the Klan, an incident that was ruled a suicide, denying his mother life insurance money, leading to Malcolm’s and his sibling’s eventual upbringing in foster homes. The message is clear: Dissension among the black ranks makes it easy for society to keep them down.
The movie looks great in its period costuming and adornments, especially in a hopping zoot suit joint near the beginning. Ernest Dickerson’s masterful cinematography sways and sweeps around Washington’s passionate speeches, all decorated to perfection. Each frame is filled with a level of detail that is astounding. Look at the marquees on the theaters and concert venues that are seen throughout the movie; they all seem to be showing a movie or holding a performance from a luminary of American film or music, all black, reinforcing a message that black people had been contributing to American culture without the benefit of full American rights. “Plymouth Rock landed on us,” preaches Malcolm, and we are reminded by the corners of the frame that a man like Thelonius Monk could give so much to his country while his country gave so little back. The editing is superb, intelligently and briskly imparting the information so the movie never feels its length. The greatest moment is the last, an extended montage shown over the reading of Malcolm’s eulogy (by Ossie Davis) that brings to life the man (it uses footage of the real Malcolm X) and makes real his impact, culminating with a stunning appearance from Nelson Mandela. This moment has all the power of the final moments of Schindler’s List (1993), which similarly reminds the viewer of the real consequences of the drama they have just seen. It’s a virtuoso sequence.
Lee achieves a masterstroke by showing Malcolm as a man whose ideas remained in progress. In this way (and in no small part thanks to Washington’s powerhouse performance) he becomes a real person: flawed, always learning, trying to get better. Notice the way that for most of the movie, even though he is a great speaker and dynamic personality, Malcolm is following the lead of others. Early on, he straightens his hair after Shorty already has. He wears the same style suit. He emulates West Indian Archie. When he’s is jailed, he falls in the fold under the tutelage of Baines (Albert Hall) who recruits him to the Nation of Islam. When he is released, he becomes the slavish devotee of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad (an uncanny Al Freeman Jr.), the Nation’s godhead, who makes Malcolm the Nation’s voice. In a scene in which Malcolm courts Betty (Angela Bassett), who he’ll eventually marry, Lee cuts between the pair’s discussion in a diner and a discussion between Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad on the same subject, and it’s clear that he’s simply regurgitating talking points.
Only after his devotion is betrayed by the Nation (a discovery Betty has to browbeat him into realizing) does he begin to form his own opinion. A magisterially rendered trip to Mecca is transformative and he returns with an inclusive outlook to go with his fierce determination. Soon after, the Nation has him shot and killed. I don’t believe Lee is arguing that Malcolm was empty-headed or a vacant puppet, only that life, even that of a great man, is a process. Independent thinking is a tough road, few people walk down it, and the knowledge he picked up along the way, even if he was in the debt of others to attain it, all lead him down it. We see a man who will change his tune but not his passion. Lee doesn’t invalidate what Malcolm said before his pilgrimage to Mecca just that his philosophy matured. References to a universal “white devil” and the cold rejection of good-natured whites who ask to help are abrasive, but the assertion that white people have gone nowhere without creating discord is harder to disagree with. His conviction toward human rights remained the same.