Spike Lee: Malcolm X (1992) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Spike Lee: Malcolm X (1992)

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He was born Malcolm Little.  His father was beaten and murdered by Klansmen who burned down their house.  His mother was hounded by white welfare agents until she suffered a nervous breakdown.  He was Detroit Red in the city, transformed in Malcolm X through prison, and El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz at the end of his life.  Spike Lee's sixth feature film is about the life, political, social, and spiritual impact of one of the greatest figures in American history.

XKyle Commentary BannerWith Malcolm X it seemed like we were approaching a pinnacle for Spike Lee. I remember seeing it years ago and being impressed not only with the power of Denzel Washington's performance, but also its massive scope—distilling a short life that had more acts and fluctuations in 39 years than most would have in 80. I was looking forward to revisiting it this time around in part out of a curiosity to see how Lee tackled such a large project centralized on a single man, prone as he is to multi-layered stories that involve a number of intersecting characters.

The results were underwhelming at first, which was something I did not expect. The early scenes that make up the first third or so of the movie (up until he goes to prison) are racing so quickly through so many important, formative events that Lee requires the viewer to already know about Malcolm X's life in order to draw much from them—they don't get the time to develop a complex character, but rather act as important nodal points for us to reference later as Malcolm evolves. On one hand, this seems like a misstep—these scenes aren't particularly engaging as they provide broad characterizations of Malcolm rather than intimately drawing a person to connect with—but it's also important to remember that Lee is making movies not just for a black audience, but for an audience he expects to bring an active engagement with social, cultural, and racial issues into the theater with them.StrutHe's hitting here the main points in Malcolm X's personal evolution, from a child of a family torn apart by white authorities to an eager and smart street hustler—it all seems workmanlike, but to really fully explore all these different stages of his life would have taken far more screen-time than a single film. It's also tough when holding these early scenes up against his autobiography—which is like a wellspring of insight and empathy—not to feel like something's missing, not really a fair comparison for Lee, but something that heavily affected by viewing nonetheless.

Once the film hits the prison segment it starts to work a lot better for me, primarily because this is where the focus switches to the development of Malcolm X's understanding of the role of race in so much of our collective history, and where his rhetoric starts to develop on-screen. This is the greatest strength of the film, in a second and (especially) third act that this viewing upheld my sense of the movie's greatness—the channeling of the raw strength of his rhetoric and anger. There are a lot of great scenes we should talk about that do this brilliantly, unfortunately the early scenes seem to be serving a purpose on paper that doesn't translate effectively onscreen for me without treating them almost as Cliff's Notes of a person's very complex early life.‏Lindy hoppin' all dayAndrewCommentaryBannerI don't feel as negatively about the opening forty minutes or so as you did, but I agree that the moments where Malcolm stops living his life to tell us about this childhood didn't mesh as well with the perfect glimpse into the Lindy Hop jazz life of the '40s.  But any apprehension I feel about that is just because the film couldn't be longer, and I craved more when it was done.  Malcolm X comes barreling out with two of the most confident images of Lee's career.  There's the perfect distillation of both the fear and revolutionary promise of what Malcolm will come to represent as Washington's words come blazing out the of speaker and the American flag burns into a X.  Then Spike Lee himself comes onscreen as Shorty, one of Malcolm X's best friends early in life, and struts forward in that magnificent zoot suit as the camera follows him through a busy street and into the barber shop.

This is the film's mission statement to rival Rosie Perez's aggressive dance sequence at the beginning of Do the Right Thing.  There's nothing workmanlike about Lee's evolution of that dance when we get into the huge halls after Malcolm  X's first lye job.  It's an expression of joy and color so boisterous that I can't recall a single time in Lee's career after this we'll get something so free and happy.  The narration is a bit intrusive, but the flashbacks to his childhood are so well meshed with the formative events of his criminal life that the subtler seeds of discrimination planted for his turbulent transformation.  The fact that the Russian Roulette scene, played almost entirely in close-up of Washington's face with the only color in his frame coming from the bullets, is powerful expression in and of itself.RouletteAll that said, while I don't completely follow you, the effect is somewhat intentional.  In Lee's book detailing the start-to-finish production of Malcolm X, he says that the appeal of Malcolm X shouldn't be just for black people, "...but all people who want to be enlightened about their history in this country."  Putting Malcolm X in the lens of a history project, which Lee intended this partly as, excuses those slight moments of pure exposition for me, especially when they're married with amazing shots like little Malcolm already equaling his teacher in size when he's told not to be a lawyer, or the stunning second or so we see Malcolm X's mother alone in the bare white of the asylum.

Specifying any one accomplishment in Malcolm X feels like a redundant task just because there are so damn many of them, but the prison sequence is such a wonderful turnaround because it's so unlike anything Lee has done before.  The key sequence is the one where Malcolm is pouring over the dictionary with his mentor, and it manages to make the act of reading completely cinematic.  As the camera slowly moves in on those two it jump cuts to a scrolling mess of definitions and jumps to the single words that define Malcolm's life in a way he had not realized.  It's a side of Lee that shows he's not going to lecture angrily, but teach with patience.  We'll see plenty more of both sides of Lee as the films roll on, but this sequence is a revelation for those who only know the more direct Lee films.‏HumilityTiny Kyle CommentaryI like the scene in the prison library a lot, because in addition to making the act of reading cinematic, it also does a great job conveying the exciting and liberating sense of discovery as Malcolm starts to understand how language itself (controlled in this case by the King James Bible) has had a hand in controlling perceptions of race historically. It's not a solely academic moment—the audience connects emotionally with its significance as well.

Speaking of the visuals, Lee does a great job reflecting Malcolm's attitudes at different points in the film with the way scenes are shot. We get the hazy filter and soft colors in the early scenes, and more stark, cold colors later, when he knows his life is in danger. But there's also my favorite image in the film, during the height of his involvement with the Nation of Islam, where he speaks before a massive audience introducing Elijah Muhammed. He's shot from a low angle, Fruit of Islam guards flanking him on both sides, with a large banner of Elijah Muhammed's face hovering behind him. Denzel Washington cuts straight up into the middle of the screen almost literally like a pillar.

It's an incredibly strong image, one that conveys the utter power he holds over the people of the Nation of Islam, one that encapsulates the white mainstream fear of his militancy, and one that attaches to both these things the at once subtle and overbearing influence of Elijah Muhammed. It's also a credit to Denzel Washington's pretty well flawless performance that he can move so effortlessly and convincingly between the confidence and electricity with which he addresses his audience in this scene and the humble, almost child-like reverence he projects in the moments when he and Elijah Muhammed are alone.‏CostumesNewer Andrew cutout commentaryWhat aids those visuals a lot is, hands down, my favorite costume work of all time.  Ruth Carter, who has worked with Lee since School Daze, is instrumental to what is my absolute favorite image of Washington and Lee in the film as Shorty leads by example and gets Malcolm strutting in his new, gigantic zoot suit.  The transitions from there so perfectly mirror what is going on in Malcolm's life - from the head wrap and tank top adornments of his criminal years, then the conservative suit with scarf as he rises in the ranks, and on to the slim tie and glasses that point straight up to his face and then to Elijah Muhammed's in the rally you mentioned.

These moments in Malcolm's life culminate in a brilliant costume at the end when he is going toward his death and he has the plain buttoned up coat from his prison days, cap recalling his criminal years, slightly oversized jacket recalling the zoot suit, simple frames of his days in front of Muhammed, and the leather gloves as he first learned how to command a crowd's attention.  Much like the narrative builds each bit of Malcolm's life as not a stepping stone but merging ripples in a pool, this final costume shows so perfectly how the different phases of his life shaped him into the person he dies as.Dignity into the darkYou mentioned the ongoing chaos in Ferguson last week, but I could not stop thinking about it throughout the climax of Malcolm X.  It tears me up that America is so hypocritical about the revolution that gave us our freedom and continued insistence that the black communities of the United States are pushed to keep turning the other cheek then beaten back if they don't.  Turning that cheek starts to lose its meaning when its been flayed to the bone, and when we get the double-dolly shot of Malcolm staring into the camera and gliding to his death, I thought of the man who stood with his hands up in front of the handful of armed officers keeping him from walking home.

By the time Ossie Davis' eulogy, quoted for the ending, reached, "Did you ever really listen to him?" I almost couldn't take it anymore.  The appearance of Nelson Mandela, who was recently freed and whose life is an example of how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X's philosophies were different ends to the same goal, gave me a surge of assurance that some people still heard and felt the right lesson.  The perfect use of Sam Cooke's, "A Change Is Gonna Come," was the note of painful growth to lead us into the climax, one that shouldn't be as relevant as it is.‏I am Malcolm XTiny Kyle CommentaryOne of the things the movie does well is show how he either steps into or is forced into different roles. He talks in the autobiography about the dual conflicting identities he sees in the black population that prompt people to try to assimilate into wealthy white culture even as this culture will never truly allow them to belong—the movie hits this point as well in the scene on the talk show, where he explains the difference between field and house slaves.

Throughout the film, we see this process of two or more identities in conflict quite a bit. There are the scenes where Malcolm addresses black audiences contrasted with the scenes where he speaks to predominantly white classrooms, and the shifting presentation of his arguments for each. There's his first religious experience in the dark, cramped prison cell where he sees Elijah Muhammed versus his later trip to Mecca set against bright, expansive landscapes.

But there are also scenes like the one where he delivers the “chickens coming home to roost” quote following the Kennedy assassination. First Lee has him framed boldly, head-on, delivering the controversial line, with a drum-roll in the background to stress the dramatic nature of his statements. This establishes his remarks as incendiary and perhaps overzealous—it reflects the potential for outrage by boiling his response down to a single tagline. But then, immediately after, we get newsreel-style footage, framed more naturally and without the dramatic soundtrack in the background, where he explains his statements in context. The whole sequence does a great job juxtaposing the media-promoted identity of a cold, brazen militant with a thoughtful person articulating how the assassination is yet another product of the United States' climate of hate and fear.‏Media frenzyNewer Andrew cutout commentaryThat's why the end is so powerful as Malcolm has come full circle as someone who accepts the many aspects of his life and joined them into one man who is at peace, though still saddened, by his fate.

We both had a lot to say on this film, but there's one other aspect I'm curious to get your thoughts on.  Lee caused some controversy when it was still a project tossed around between directors as he was vocal that no one other than a black director could make this story.  That's something that I wrestled with as well, wondering if it the gap in experience was so insurmountable that it was not possible for anyone to "walk in another's shoes" and make a great film from that experience.‏

Malcolm X is a direct answer in that Lee says, "Yes, it is impossible" but uses Malcolm's life as the suggestion that it will not always be that way.  Lee, because he was a black man with a deep respect and knowledge of both Malcolm X and Islam, was the only person alive who could get the information he needed from all the parties needed to make the film properly.  The disciples of Elijah Muhammed certainly would not have given any information to Norman Jewison, director of The Thomas Crown Affair and In the Heat of the Night, no matter how strongly he may have felt about the project.  In Malcolm's end of life transformation Lee makes a statement artistically that the gulf is not impossible to cross, but much like Malcolm X was exactly who he needed to be for others at every point in his life, Lee was the only person who could make the film.  He ends up making a social statement as strong as anything in Do the Right Thing, and is more affirmative that we can move in a positive direction.‏Deep focusTiny Kyle CommentaryI think his insistence that a black director be the only one to bring Malcolm X's story to the screen also makes sense given his importance not simply as a historical figure but as an embodiment of an idea. One of the messages that comes through so strongly in everything Malcolm X said throughout the numerous phases of his public life was his belief that the black population in America needed to reclaim their cultural pride and heritage. It's not to say that a white director couldn't have empathized with this need to reclaim a stolen and historically obliterated national identity, but the idea of someone like Jewison doing the film seems hypocritical—it would have upheld the very notion of white America positioning as advancement small instances of change in which we ultimately retain all the power and agency.‏


Newer Andrew cutout commentaryThat's a wonderful point, one that shows Lee's lingering influence in cinematic culture all the way through to last year's Lee Daniels' The Butler.  If an ensemble director like Ron Howard made that film, would it have been good?  Probably, but would it have had the same vital impact of hundreds of years of emotional and physical thievery, struggle, and sacrifice coming to a head in Daniels presenting one of the most important victories in American history?  No.  Both Malcolm X, the film and the man, are far more inspirational than almost all current media and recorded history are willing to give either credit for.  Lee made a point that was not embedded in racism, but hope, and created arguably the best film in his career.‏‎

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Next time, Crooklyn.Spike Film Selection

Posted by Andrew

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