St Malcolm Martyr

Michael Wood

  • Malcolm X directed by Spike Lee
    May 1993
  • By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations of the Making of ‘Malcolm X’ by Spike Lee and Ralph Wiley
    Vintage, 314 pp, £7.99, February 1993, ISBN 0 09 928531 2
  • Malcolm X: The Great Photographs compiled by Thulani Davis and Howard Chapnick
    Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 168 pp, £14.99, March 1993, ISBN 1 55670 317 1

The reviews and the hype hadn’t prepared me for Malcolm X at all. I expected it to be dull and worthy, a straight and long-winded retelling of a famous life. I found it lively, pretty dramatic, not all that much too long. It is a glossy parable of the sinner who came to virtue, found fame and power, was threatened and killed: the work, death and glorification of St Malcolm Martyr. I also found the film troubling because of its very glossiness, and troubling in ways I didn’t at first understand.

It’s not that it isn’t accurate, or that it oversimplifies history. In certain respects the film is fanatically accurate, full of the exact looks of old icons, minutely close to many of the marvellous photographs collected in the Davis/Chapnick volume. ‘Authenticity is very important in any film,’ Lee says. ‘If you see a pack of cigarettes, we had to find old Chesterfields, or old whatever you might see in the shot.’ Denzel Washington manages not only uncannily to resemble Malcolm X but to project all kinds of edges and facets of his character: authority, charm, wit, anger. You feel there is a person here even when the pieces don’t go together, are in conflict with each other. It is an amazing performance, and he should get an Oscar for it. It is clear, too, that Spike Lee understands the contradictions and complications surrounding the historical Malcolm. In By Any Means Necessary he recounts conversations with former associates of Malcolm’s which suggest all kinds of intricacies in the man’s life. Yet none of this appears in the movie: Malcolm’s journey from sin to sanctity is unruffled by any sort of second thought or counter-argument, either on his part or on anyone else’s. Those who are with him are heroes, those opposed to him flat-faced, unmotivated scoundrels. The historical world is not just modified or tilted, it is secretly abandoned. In the midst of all the appearances of fidelity to the way it was in Boston and Harlem (and Lansing, Michigan, where Malcolm grew up, where the Klan hounded his family, where his father was killed), the film shifts us into dream time, its only location is a movie world. It bears the same sort of relation to the history of civil rights in America that The Godfather bears to the Mafia.

There’s a clue in Lee’s borrowing a famous phrase of Malcolm’s for his told-to book about the making of the movie: ‘For me the title says it all. That’s exactly what it’s been like trying to make this film.’ Getting to work on the film, wresting it from the hands of the white director Norman Jewison, persuading Warner Brothers that it needed to be as long as it is, that the scenes of Malcolm’s pilgrimage to Egypt and Mecca had to be shot on location, all this is a version of Malcolm’s struggle on behalf of the blacks; maybe the real subject of the movie. There’s an even stronger clue in the opening scene of the film, and in what Lee says about it. We are in Nineties Brooklyn got up to look like Forties Boston. A subway train crosses the screen – it’s on an elevated track at this point – the camera dives beneath it on to a busy street, all shops, stalls, people. The whole thing is beautifully lit and full of warm colours, but it doesn’t look like Forties Boston or any place known to real time and weather. It looks like a Fifties musical, a busier Singin’ in the Rain, say. Spike Lee himself, as Malcolm’s friend Shorty, stares into the camera, and then comes loping towards us in a walk which suggests Groucho Marx converting to jitterbug. ‘The shot cost about one million dollars,’ Lee says. ‘We felt it was important from the jump, from the git-go to let people know this is a big movie, no skimpy, fake-ass wannabe shit.’ Lee’s idea of a big movie is David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia or Bridge over the River Kwai. He is also a great admirer of Oliver Stone’s JFK. Later we get a better look at Shorty and Malcolm in their immaculate zoot-suits, long coats, baggy pants tight at the ankles, broad-brimmed hats with giant feathers. Ruth Carter, the costume designer for the movie, interviewed in By Any Means Necessary, says she had six suits for Malcolm but neither she nor Lee wanted the audience to start thinking: ‘Where’s he getting all these clothes from?’ I confess this thought did cross my mind, but I quickly dispelled it. Besides, I knew where he got the clothes from: Warner Brothers.

A great dancing scene at the Roseland Ballroom ends with Lee slithering across the floor between a dancer’s legs to land in front of the camera as the number ends; the movie has become a musical. When Malcolm thinks of his mother distraught in a mental hospital, we see him squatting in his zoot-suit in a corner of her bare room, looking up at her as if he were still a scared and bewildered child. Much later, when Malcolm is perturbed about his career and his relation to Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, his face is held on screen and rotated through 360 degrees. Just before he dies he walks down the street towards the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, lost in his thoughts: a mood represented by placing the actor on the trolley with the camera, so that trees recede behind him while he seems to float towards us. This is imaginative stuff, and it re-creates some of the possibilities so brilliantly deployed in Lee’s Do the Right Thing, where light and heavy genres cross, where playful, harmless, foolish, angry and irrevocably embittered talk and gestures tangle and finally flare into horrible violence: the death of a black man at the hands of the police, and the burning and looting of an Italian restaurant by young blacks, Malcolm X could have been a musical with death on its mind, or with death waiting for it, and some early intercutting of the Boston scenes with scenes of violence from Malcolm’s childhood suggests something like this, notably a cut from a game of gangsters Shorty and Malcolm are cheerfully playing to a memory of Malcolm’s father lying on the tram tracks in Michigan, placed there by vengeful members of the Klan.

Then Malcolm gets arrested for a burglary, for playing gangsters for real, goes to prison and finds religion, and the movie gets pious. It still has plenty of energy, and some good visual and musical touches, but it’s too devoted to the fairy tale to let any turbulence in. It’s muddled too. It’s wonderful to have Sam Cooke singing ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ as Malcolm drives towards his death at the Audubon Ballroom; but what does it mean to have Coltrane playing ‘A Love Supreme’ on the soundtrack when Malcolm talks about (supposed) black supremacy and (real) white supremacy? When Ossie Davis speaks his impressive eulogy for Malcolm, it’s full of Biblical and Shakespearean echoes, it goes for grandeur and gets it. But when a speech like this is replayed in a movie, you need to ask why these American republicans are so hooked on monarchy, why this film, like JFK, goes on so about princes and kings as the highest term of praise. The winter of our discontent, at the end of Davis’s speech (‘what we place in the ground is no more now a man, but a seed, which after the winter of our discontent will come forth again to meet us’), is just a phrase, a little high culture, but it has eerie undertones if you think about it. The soon-to-be Richard III had a very particular discontent in mind, and he had extreme solutions for it. Right at the end of the movie, a group of children in a classroom rise in turn, each saying, ‘I am Malcolm X,’ and of course this is attractive in terms of the fairy tale. The children are saying they have understood Malcolm’s legacy, that they realise that the oppressed can fight back, that as Thulani Davis says, ‘African-Americans have choices, that we must make choices’ – African-Americans and others, since the film cuts from an American classroom to one in Soweto, where the teacher is now Nelson Mandela. But surely it is significant that Mandela refused to say the words ‘by any means necessary’, and his hesitation, or what it means, cries out for representation in the movie. For Lee it’s just a technical problem, easily solved. Mandela doesn’t say the words, the film cuts away from him to some newsreel footage where Malcolm says them.

Lee would say, I think, that these we are just white liberal whingeing. He seems to regard Mandela’s difficulty with the famous words as technical and local rather than ethical, a matter of South African politics. Lee says only whites ask him about the meaning of the two quotations, from Martin Luther King and Malcolm, at the end of Do the Right Thing, and only whites need to ask, he claims, why the uncommitted character played by Lee himself chooses to start a riot by hurling a rubbishbin through the window of the pizzeria. The quotation from King is about the undesirability of violence of any kind: ‘Violence ends by defeating itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers’; the one from Malcolm about the necessary violence of self-defence: ‘I don’t even call it violence when it’s self-defence, I call it intelligence.’ But the quotations are not there for what they say. They are there for the meaning of the two names, their evocation of what Lee calls different paths for black politics. He says he didn’t see the conjunction as an either/or, and he follows the quotation with the famous picture, included in Malcolm X: The Great Photographs, of King and Malcolm together on the one occasion of their meeting. Both are smiling, particularly Malcolm, who seems to think the whole encounter is a high old joke. He looks tough, however: tougher than King and a lot tougher than Denzel Washington, for all his gifts, can quite make him. But Lee also says that while ‘there are times when Dr King is a vehicle for my true feelings about the racial situation,’ he has long known that what Malcolm said ‘was much more in line with the way I felt’. Neither this statement nor the fact that Malcolm X is necessarily about Malcolm, quite prepare us for the knee-jerk endorsement of Malcolm’s position in the later movie, or the uncorrected travesty of King’s. Again, I don’t think Lee’s politics are at issue here, or not in the first instance; only his inability to see beyond the movies, to think in any terms other than those of how things play.

The screenplay, for example, included in By Any Means Necessary, describes a less militant black appearing on a television programme with Malcolm as ‘a NAACP-type negro’. In the film he is played as the grovelling and resentful Uncle Tom Malcolm kept saying his black opponents were. When King is allowed to speak in the film it is in a piece of newsreel footage taken at the time of Malcolm’s death. King is patently insincere in his regret, or perhaps just thinking about something else. In the movie’s terms this is a crime: you stand or fall by your loyalty to the dead and never-criticised hero. Similarly, when a young white woman approaches Malcolm on the steps of Hamilton Hall at Columbia, her language is so soggy and self-serving (‘I’m a good person despite my whiteness’) that it’s a pleasure, for whites and for blacks, to hear her put in her place. She asks what she can do for the movement, and Malcolm brusquely says: ‘Nothing.’ He might have been right even if another white person had asked in another way, but the scene would have felt different, and could have been stronger. As it is, this is classic old Hollywood magic: take a problem, and replace it by an allusion to the problem, or a parody of it. Then we can deal with the parody and forget the problem.

What Malcolm represents, of course, what the movie relies on but won’t explore, is important and interesting. It flickers in the film when Malcolm talks of black separatism as a strategic need. ‘There can be no black-white unity until there is first some black unity.’ If, as James Baldwin suggested, and as the case of Anita Thomas and Clarence Hill recently demonstrated, a large part of the problem for many blacks is their internalising of the gaze and values of whites, of an imperial standard seen as universal and unavoidable, then a separate space is urgently needed, a zone beyond those watching eyes and the easy liberalism of those who have nothing to lose. Malcolm taught self-respect and dignity to people for whom those qualities were under threat from all directions, and his recurring use of the word ‘intelligent’ is striking. There is nothing in the Koran, he says, ‘that teaches us to suffer peacefully. Our religion teaches us to be intelligent.’ We can think of worrying applications of intelligence in this sense, but as Thulani Davis suggests, the idea does proclaim precisely the reverse of mindless violence. Malcolm always used to say, ‘the Revolution we need is a revolution of the mind.’ Davis remarks, too, that when Malcolm spoke of ‘white devils’ and ‘that ole pale thing’ he wasn’t being friendly, certainly: but he wasn’t talking to whites, or even, centrally, about whites. ‘It was a statement about our own mental condition.’ Davis describes the statement as ‘both frightening and cathartic’: both/and – she doesn’t mean frightening for whites and cathartic for blacks. It is in this sense perhaps that we could understand Lee’s claim that only whites ask him certain questions about the end of Do the Right Thing. He doesn’t mean blacks don’t have questions or don’t think about the movie. He means their questions are not the same.