Sunday, September 29, 2013
(November 1992, U.S.)
Like BASIC INSTINCT earlier that year of 1992, Spike Lee's film of MALCOM X was deeply marred in controversy even before filming began. And like BASIC INSTINCT, all of that controversy and outrage just fueled my resolve to get in line to see the film as early as possible. The crux of the controversy, it seems, was Malcolm X's inflammatory and very often angry denunciation of whites before he undertook his hajj. He was, arguably, not well regarded among white citizens of America, by and large; nonetheless, he rose to become a national hero in the black community and a symbol of blacks' struggles, particularly during the era of the turbulent 1960 and the fight for equal rights.
Like many other film biopics before it on well-known figures, Lee begins the film showing us the character in his earliest years with flashbacks to a rough childhood in which he was separated from his family after his father was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan and his mother was deemed unfit to raise him and his siblings. From the very beginning, Malcom Little faces life with racial prejudice from all sides of the white person's world who would seek to keep him down in life and not allow him to chase his true potential. As a child, when he announces that he wants to be a lawyer, he's immediately shot down by his (white) teacher, claiming that such a career for a black man is unrealistic and that a carpenter would be better suited for him. Manhood brings on thievery, hustling and running number for the local boss (played by Delroy Lindo). Interestingly, when he and his accomplice in crime "Shorty" (played by Spike Lee himself) are arrested for their burglary crimes, it's the true crime of sleeping with white woman that earns them much extra jail time.
And so, as cliché often dictates, prison life is where a man usually comes to terms with himself and changes his outlook and actions towards life. Malcom embraces the practices and faith of the Nation of Islam and is immediately delegated a speaker and representative to the people upon his release from prison. Here, I might add, is where the stellar performance of Denzel Washington truly unleashes itself on the screen. In a film that tends to rely primarily on stirring dialogue through repeated speeches during a time of struggle, it's impossible to feel even a shred of boredom or impatience when you're listening to Denzel speak the words of his cause and purpose. Unlike Gandhi and Martin Luther King, though, Malcom X was not a believe in passive or non-violent resistance. For a black person to not exercise his or her right to defend themselves when faced with aggression or violence, he deemed totally unintelligent, and he was right! And like all great men who dare to stir the shit storm of society's balance, Malcom X is gunned down in a brutal assassination by his own people. Like all great men, history often doesn't fully appreciate and understand their greatness until after they're dead. That seems to be how history works.
As a non-prejudice white man who only knows a certain amount of American history, I can only claim that my knowledge and experience of who Malcom X was comes only from Spike Lee's epic film. How much was accurate? Who can say? There are people on both sides of history who can likely argue two different sides of what's historically correct, or not. Knowing Lee's true passion to have this film made and the fact that it's based on Malcom X's own words as told to author Alex Haley, I'd like to think that we're watching the story of a man's life in its accurate form. If that's true, then it becomes painfully obvious just how sick with racial hatred America was during the decades before I was born. Did it ever really improve? Spike Lee didn't seem to think so at the time of making this film. Just watch the opening credits accompanied by the amateur video footage shot the Los Angeles police beating Rodney King; an incident that had taken place only about a year and a half before the release of MALCOM X.
This film has, and will continue to be, the acting performance of Denzel Washington's long career; one that I feel he served the best actor Oscar even more than the one he inevitably achieved for TRAINING DAY eight years later. And as much as I like later films like PHILIDELPHIA, CRIMSON TIDE, THE HURRICAN and TRAINING DAY, they will likely never measure up, in my book, to the obviously difficult task of portraying a man who helped to change the course of America and our attitudes toward the oppression of blacks in our society. We would probably all agree that there's still a long way to go. Malcom X would have, too, had he lived this long.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Ossie Davis (voice-over of the actual eulogy he gave at the funeral of Malcom X in 1965): "Here, at this final hour, in this quiet place, Harlem has come to bid farewell to one of its brightest hopes. Extinguished now, and gone from us forever. It is not in the memory of man that this beleaguered, unfortunate, but nonetheless proud community has found a braver, more gallant young champion than this Afro-American who lies before us unconquered still. I say the word again, as he would want me to: Afro-American — Afro-American Malcolm. Malcolm had stopped being Negro years ago; it had become too small, too puny, too weak a word for him. Malcolm was bigger than that. Malcolm had become an Afro-American, and he wanted so desperately that we, that all his people, would become Afro-Americans, too. There are those who still consider it their duty, as friends of the Negro people, to tell us to revile him, to flee, even from the presence of his memory, to save ourselves by writing him out of the history of our turbulent times...and we will smile...they will say that he is of hate; a fanatic, a racist who can only bring evil to the cause for which you struggle! And we will answer and say unto them: Did you ever talk to Brother Malcolm? Did you ever touch him or have him smile at you? Did you ever really listen to him? Was he ever himself associated with violence or any public disturbance? For if you did, you would know him. And if you knew him, you would know why we must honor him: Malcolm was our manhood, our living, black manhood! This was his meaning to his people. And, in honoring him, we honor the best in ourselves. However much we may have differed with him or with each other about him and his value as a man, let his going from us serve only to bring us together, now. Consigning these mortal remains to earth, the common mother of all, secure in the knowledge that 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. And we will know him then for what he was, and is: a prince! Our own black shining prince who didn’t hesitate to die, because he loved us so."