It’s long been said that over time the ‘winners’ have taken the privilege of writing our history books, in which case our ‘heroes’ and our ‘villains’ are dependent upon who’s telling the story. While accepting that sentiment may be too cynical for some, and for many is surely too humbling or inconvenient to fully endorse, for others the questions remain in regards to searching for that ultimate truth. It’s likely however that you can never find an unadulterated truth that is absolute (specifically in regards to retaining history from one definite source), yet instead we’re left with untold realities scattered throughout the universe, as if they’re waiting to be aligned like pieces to a puzzle. With that in mind the truth is out there if you’re willing to look for it, yet contingent upon the material there’s often lies and distortions found along the way.
Take for example the life of Malcolm X, a story untold by most public schools in the United States, the same country where he built his legacy that instead feels more like a mystique, considering how so very few know his real story. I can say without uncertainty that my education in rural New Jersey was void of any lectures or instruction on Malcolm X, an education system that has long been recognized as one of the best in the nation. Which then makes me wonder how the value of an education is qualified, for instance is being well-rounded an attribute? Is demonstrating both sides of an issue a characteristic? Or at least is the very disclosure of what’s important a quality that is given consideration, particularly in regards to historical significance in hopes that our youth will take that knowledge and use it for a better tomorrow. Whereas all of that’s up for debate what remains clear is that the story of Malcolm X was never a priority in my school system, which is surprising considering how much I learned about Civil Rights, and furthermore how his name remained in pop culture albeit tarnished and misrepresented while none of my educators seemed anxious to clarify. Thus leave it to one quirky man small in stature yet a giant in spirit, who had enough courage to correct the record in telling the full story from start to finish, understanding that without the entire scope most of us could never understand such a complicated historical figure.
It’s imperative to mention that long before Shelton Jackson Lee took initiative, other literary and film creators had re-created the man’s legacy in their work and to great success. One of these men was Alex Haley, who would later be best known for his novel and docu-series Roots, and had been granted the opportunity as a young journalist to accompany and interview Malcolm X during the last two years of his life. What became of his findings was published only months after the assassination in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, in which Haley was credited as a co-author. What was Haley’s debut was immediately critically acclaimed and would decades later be listed as one of the ten nonfiction “Required Readings” by Time magazine. Meanwhile in the years that followed the success of the autobiography, filmmakers Arnold Perl and Marvin Worth created the documentary film Malcolm X, which was also well received and was nominated for an Academy Award. Yet while Haley’s work and other adaptations were indeed celebrated by liberals and progressives alike, I can assure you that admiration wasn’t shared by all, affirmed by how none of their works made it very far into the homes or school buildings of Suburbia, USA.
Therefore by the early 1990’s it was long overdue for Malcolm X’s story to be illuminated in a feature film that would be sure to make an impact on the nation at large, yet as soon as Warner Bros greenlit the project there was already contention over how the story would get told. It’s perhaps noteworthy that Warner Bros had the foresight to distribute the film at all, as a reputable company they may have felt they had much to lose with a film so controversial, yet ultimately decided they couldn’t afford to lose as much as Doubleday did when they balked on publishing Haley’s book for similar reasons. At any rate all didn’t start well when their initial idea for a director was met with major backlash, as Norman Jewison was the one selected despite one visible and all too noticeable complication.
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Jewison was already an accomplished director who had worked with Denzel Washington previously (the budding superstar the studio eyed to play the title role), but there were many who felt it was inappropriate for a white Canadian to direct such a significant film about the plight of a black man. Lee himself was one of the critics who later would say Jewison went down without much of a fight, and before long the young director who had previously spearheaded a debate about race with Do The Right Thing was assigned for the role. Ironically however Lee was also met by criticism from those who felt Lee would misrepresent the icon, an objection that Lee admitted was eerily similar to his own of Jewison. It was true in fact that Lee would use his own artistic license, and ultimately rewrote the screenplay that was drafted by Perl and poet James Baldwin decades earlier, a decision that made Baldwin’s family ask for his name to be removed from the credits altogether. Lee made no secret that this film would be his own interpretation of the man and his evolution, yet his vision was framed on behalf of the research done before him, a decision that paid off by capturing the essence of the man who had been forever misunderstood.
With Lee in the director’s chair there remained no doubt that Washington would play the career defining role, a character whom he had previous experience with after portraying him in a Broadway production titled When The Chickens Come Home To Roost, a reference to a quote made by Malcolm X after the assassination of John F Kennedy. Washington admittedly wasn’t a scholar on the subject beforehand, and educated himself reading countless books and articles while meticulously analyzing his speeches. Washington’s performance was praised and when it was time to reprise the role for Lee he dedicated himself further, avoiding eating pork while attending Fruit of Islam classes in a way to be in touch with his spirit as well. Despite being a few inches shorter and only sharing a vague resemblance, he devoted himself to his craft and sacrificed himself in body and mind; to such a degree that at the time of shooting Denzel Washington was Malcolm X.
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Without any more of an introduction needed the film itself is a masterpiece. Opening with dashcam footage of the police brutality put forth on a Los Angeles taxi driver named Rodney King, the film was released within the same year those officers were acquitted of wrongdoing, subsequently demonstrating the relevance of the film’s protagonist as well as a firm reminder that Civil Rights are still being violated today. Set in three stages Lee takes us on a journey through Malcolm X’s life from start to finish, beginning with the painful childhood he endured growing up in Omaha and East Lansing. Born Malcolm Little he was the fourth of eight children to a homemaker and a preacher, the latter being his father Earl Little who was a black nationalist heavily influenced by Marcus Garvey, thus his sermons empowered the black community by denouncing White America for its deception as any ‘land of the free.’ For his father’s efforts the Little’s were tormented by the Ku-Klux-Klan, breaking their windows before ultimately burning their house to the ground, all the while the police and fire department stood by idle and did nothing. Two years later Earl Little was found dead on the train tracks, ruled a suicide despite the countless threats against his life, a baseless ruling that voided his life insurance policy and left his wife with no means to support their children. Louise Little never recovered and was eventually put in a mental institution, leaving a young Malcolm without the guidance of a mother and father, and already a broken man long before his adolescence.
Lee illustrates these early years effectively and to the point, as in flashbacks narrated by Washington’s voice the audience is able to witness the eradication of an American family, so deliberate that one shouldn’t have to question why Malcolm X was fueled by vengeance. Even in his legacy people remember Malcolm X as a radical who hated white people, a narrative that has garnered him great disapproval from critics who are unable to relate to his pain. From the white supremacists who murdered his father, to the white establishment who took away his mother, his entire set of circumstances revolved around the racism and intolerance of others; leading me to question why his oppressors never met the same criticism that fell upon him. Even in schools his white teachers diminished his potential, telling him he couldn’t be a lawyer because of the color of his skin, a turning point in his life that made him drop out of school at the age of fifteen.
The scenes that follow are some of the most vibrant filmmaking that has been put on screen, as both figuratively and literally Lee follows Malcolm towards his downward spiral in a life of crime, both as actor and director. Lee plays Shorty aka Malcolm Jarvis who became Malcolm Little’s right hand man when he moved in with his sister in the Roxbury Hill section of Boston. Shorty and Malcolm shared an immediate connection that led to Malcolm’s introduction to the criminal underground, whereas they sold drugs and robbed houses to support their lavish lifestyle. Ernest Dickerson, a fellow alum of NYU film school and by this point a long time collaborator, perhaps handed Lee his finest work with his portrayal of Malcolm’s youth and young adulthood. From the Lindy Hop to the flamboyant Zoot Suits, Malcolm most likely felt alive for the first time in his life after so many years of despair, and Dickerson brilliantly encapsulates that with colors and movement that were sure to bring out the best of Washington as well.
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The young actor is electrifying while running the streets, breaking hearts, and even sleeping with promiscuous white women for sport, a color complex Malcolm admittedly had deep rooted in his family lineage, as his mother had lighter skin because his grandmother was raped as a slave. He stated that the way slave owners thirsted over women of color, was reciprocated by black men as a way of retribution, in which case sleeping with a white woman was a black man’s ultimate desire. At this point in his life Malcolm was even using chemicals to straighten his hair to look white, a complete deviation from his later identity which demonstrates how lost he truly was. This chapter of his life came to a screeching halt however when Malcolm, Shorty, and three other accomplices were arrested on larceny and sentenced to ten years in prison.
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The second stage of the film is Malcolm’s years in prison in which he undergoes a complete transformation, a metamorphosis from Red, Detroit Red, and Malcolm Little, to the revolutionary icon the world would soon know as Malcolm X. It’s in these scenes that Lee happens to use his artistic license the most however, crediting a fictional character named Baines (played masterfully by Albert Hall) for his conversion to the Nation of Islam, in place of his brothers and sisters influence as it really happened. In the film however Hall and Washington go back and forth in critical scenes in which Malcolm makes up for his lost education, and starts to believe as his father once did in black nationalism, the idea that real freedom and justice for blacks would be to separate themselves entirely from White America. Lee’s vision is nothing short of captivating as it meticulously examines Malcolm’s newfound fascination with words, rewriting the dictionary in full to the point where he could articulate his ideals with little effort and great emotion, a natural skill he would take with him upon his release.
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It’s understood that Malcolm dropped the Little in his name because of it’s origins in slavery, and adopted the X moniker as a tribute to his unknown ancestors. As a new man with a new identity Malcolm X became a minister of temples across Harlem, Boston, and Philadelphia, and delivered passionate speeches in the streets which in turn established his following. Lee understood the significance of using excerpts from his actual speeches throughout the film, and phrases like “by any means necessary” resonate loudly in it’s lack of sympathy for anyone who stood in the way. Lee also creatively uses activists Al Sharpton and Bobby Seale as street preachers beside Malcolm X, a cue to how many he inspired and who would further his cause after his death. Later in the film it’s implied that Baines introduces Malcolm X to Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam played by Al Freeman Jr (who coincidentally portrayed Malcolm X in Haley’s previously mentioned Roots), and under his guidance helped expand the growing movement exponentially. During this time Malcolm X was also deliberately outspoken in his distaste for the white majority, shown in an unforgettable scene when a young white progressive apologizes for the sins of her ancestors, and with good intentions asks what people like her can do to help. Malcolm X’s answer is simple, and without compassion he tells her to do “nothing,” a response that confirms he had no interest in racial unity at a time when the whole world was hanging on every word.
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Malcolm X’s statements would create additional controversy when he expressed no remorse for the assassination of the sitting President of the United States, a sentiment that led him to fall out of favor of Elijah Muhammad and alienated him from the Nation of Islam. Already however Malcolm X had his own misgivings in regards to who he once called his greatest mentor, becoming disillusioned when he found out he had extramarital affairs and fathered many out of wedlock, therefore exposing ‘The Honorable’ as someone who didn’t even practice what he preached. Furthermore as the film demonstrates there was also the prevailing thought that jealousy and envy had already permeated within the Nation, suggesting Malcolm had become so influential that even his allies came to resent him.
The final stage of the film and the final chapter of his life are both heartbreaking and inspiring, as after his departure from the Nation a second enlightenment occurred, facilitated by a pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia which gave him a redesigned outlook on life. By converting to the traditional Islamic faith he rejoiced and prayed with people of all colors and ethnicities, and soon began to see the potential of a harmony between all of mankind. After changing his name once again to El-Hajj Malik Shabazz, he wrote a letter in which he conceded the error of his ways, publicly declaring that white people could indeed play a role in achieving justice and equality for everyone.
“Never have I witnessed such sincere hospitality and overwhelming spirit of true brotherhood as is practiced by people of all colors and races here in this Ancient Holy Land,” he wrote, “There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over the world. They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans… displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and non-white.” He went on to profess “You may be shocked by these words coming from me. But on this pilgrimage, what I have seen, and experienced, has forced me to re-arrange much of my thought-patterns previously held, and to toss aside some of my previous conclusions. This was not too difficult for me. Despite my firm convictions, I have always been a man who tries to face facts, and to accept the reality of life as new experience and new knowledge unfolds it. I have always kept an open mind, which is necessary to the flexibility that must go hand in hand with every form of intelligent search for truth.”
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In the film the entire letter is narrated by Washington, in breathtaking scenes that were filmed on location in Mecca, a triumph in itself. Warner Bros wanted the filming to take place around the Jersey shoreline, but Lee refused and was steadfast that a second (all Muslim) film crew travel to the Holy Land, persistence that eventually paid off as his film became the first non-documentary, as well as the first American film, to be shot inside the sacred city. All the same one couldn’t help but be moved by Shabazz’s courage and humility, as his previous ideals were simply cultivated by his life experiences, a life of suffering that he was never to blame for. He even remembered the young lady who extended her hand years before and vowed to collaborate with all people moving forward, in ways congruent to what we now widely celebrate as the monumental Civil Rights movement. In the end this was the “Malcolm X” that the universe needed, and this was the man most of us never heard about.
On February 21, 1965 at the Audubon Ballroom in New York, the world lost a revolutionary and gained an icon. Lee depicts the assassination as it happens, as three gunmen rushed the stage and shot him with shotguns and pistols at point blank range. The three men arrested for the murder were all members of the Nation of Islam, a revelation that remarkably surprised nobody familiar with the climate at the time. It’s particularly tragic that the community that saved his life decisively ended it, and further ironic that he was killed by one of his own after years of focus on the enemy. In any event what Lee omits from the film is the rumor of Louis Farrakhan’s involvement, who was then known as Louis X and had publicly condemned Shabazz for his new identity, even writing in a Muslim newspaper that “such a man as Malcolm is worthy of death.” Lee would later go on to say that Farrakhan threatened him and demanded that he be removed from the film, a request he granted perhaps knowing what he was potentially capable of. What Lee did include however was black and white documentary footage of Malcolm X towards the end of the film, beneath a speech written and performed by Ossie Davis, another long time collaborator of Lee and Civil Rights activist who also delivered Shabazz’s eulogy in 1965. The film’s final moment is of a South African classroom whereas a modern day Nelson Mandela quotes a Malcolm X speech directly, only to step aside and let the fallen icon say his famous four words, “by any means necessary.”
In closing Lee was able to achieve something here that few directors even make an attempt at, creating an epic masterpiece both relevant in terms of cinema as well as an imperative history lesson. As referenced earlier I would say most people from this generation and the last knew the name but never took the time to understand his story, in which case this blockbuster film was nothing short of an educational moment. In fact it was said that upon it’s release Lee encouraged kids to cut school to go see the film, knowing perhaps that the material wasn’t being covered in their classrooms. While many school buildings across the country praised Martin Luther King Jr (and rightfully so), they also largely ignored his contemporary in Malcolm X, whose journey towards social justice was perhaps more turbulent but for that reason all the more significant.
In theory all the personas he adopted in fact made him all the more relatable, as so many of the disenfranchised and human beings in general could relate to some aspect of his life, and could use him as a precedent on how to evolve in search of their own enlightenment. As it turned out the very idea of the film made people come together, as during post production the studio threatened to take the film out of Lee’s hands and cut it’s running time considerably, a catastrophe that was avoided when a legion of black celebrities donated their money to make sure the film was made correctly. From Oprah Winfrey to Michael Jordan they made their contributions and asked for no reimbursement, as the work art they got in return was indeed more than compensation.