Malcolm X: Director Spike Lee's Portrait Of An American Hero
Malcolm X was not a man who could be easily characterized and the same is true for Spike Lee's 1992 film. Malcolm X was a labor of love for Lee, who was only thirty-five at the time of the film's release. Lee had been a young child when Malcolm X was assassinated, so his knowledge of the man was not based on any personal recollections. Instead, he read The Autobiography of Malcolm X as a junior high school student and has said it changed his life forever (Hopkins, 2004). Lee's goal in making the film was to introduce Malcolm Little, later known as Malcolm X, to a new generation of African-Americans. He felt it was an important piece of history that may otherwise be forgotten. Lee realized that Malcolm X was a controversial figure, both in life and in death, and said that, for this reason, he wanted to make the film as accurate as possible. Lee succeeded in creating a film of epic proportions that shows the different facets of Malcolm's life. As a record of historical facts, however, the film has some major flaws.
The film's opening shot is dramatic and leaves no doubt about Lee's feelings regarding Malcolm X as an American hero. With a voiceover using Malcolm's words, the screen is filled with an American flag. It is reminiscent of the opening shot in Franklin Schaffner's Patton, the 1970 Oscar-winner about another controversial American. The degree of controversy swirling around General George S. Patton, however, can be considered minimal compared to the controversy surrounding Malcolm X, so the comparison is a bold one. In Patton, the General (played by George C. Scott) is standing to the side of the enormous flag and making a rallying speech designed to show his strength and determination while providing the filmgoer some insight into the character of the man. His tone is proud and impassioned. Malcolm X speaks in an impassioned voice as well; his rhetoric grows stronger as the edges of the flag begin to burn. The now-famous video of the Rodney King beating is cut into shots of the burning flag.
The burning of the flag is meant to be shocking. It cues the viewer that the film that follows is going to make a strong statement and one that will definitely be considered controversial. When the flames are extinguished, what is left is an X made of the remains of the Stars and Stripes. It alludes to the hell that Malcolm X found in white-dominated American life and the trial by fire that made him the man and the activist, in his words not American by virtue of being born in this country but " a victim of America."
The use of the Rodney King video in the opening (the first time the Warner Brothers' logo was not used in a film [Boyd, 1993]) is significant for several reasons. For one, the use of black and white footage is meant to add credibility to the film as a factual account of Malcolm's life and work. Throughout the film, Lee intersperses actual historical footage with reenactments filmed in black and white.
Rodney King, often described in the press as a "motorist" was driving on the Los Angeles Freeway with friends one night in 1991. The California Highway Patrol (CHP) detected he was speeding and attempted to pull him over. King, on probation for a robbery offense, feared the consequences of a traffic violation and instead of stopping, led the CHP on a high-speed chase. By the time King was caught and ordered to leave his vehicle, additional CHP officers had arrived on the scene. King was tasered when officers decided he was uncooperative and when further efforts to subdue him failed, several officers beat him viciously with their batons The entire incident was videotaped and even in the days before YouTube, the images made their way around the globe quickly. For African-Americans, particularly those in L.A., the video affirmed their belief that racial profiling and abuse by police was rampant (Gray, n.d.).
Lee's Malcolm X was released in November 1992, about six months after the devastating violence that occurred in the aftermath of the King verdicts. When white police officers were acquitted of charges by a predominantly white jury in suburban Simi Valley, the nation's worst race riots erupted. Ultimately, fifty-three people died and there was over one billion dollars in property damage (Hopkins, 2004). The King beating, the trial and the riots were terrible moments in American history that ttragically coincided with the release of Lee's film. In a way, however, the film could not have come out at a better time because of the heightened social and political awareness surrounding race relations. The video made a powerful statement about the treatment of African-Americans and set up perfectly the story Lee was poised to tell.
Lee said that his film did not glorify any one phase of Malcolm's development as a black leader but rather looked at "all the different Malcolms as making up one Malcolm" (Rule, 1992).
It can be argued that the film divides Malcolm's life into three sections, his early years, his time in prison and growing awareness of Islam, and his post-prison activism. It can also be argued that Lee glorified Malcolm in each of these phases and used his actors, the script and techniques of cinematography to glorify him in different ways.
As the story opens, Lee's cameras zoom in on the action from above. The director characteristically used dollies to move cameras over and around his actors. The scene is Roxbury, Boston's equivalent of Harlem, of the 1940s. The set has an almost Disney-esque quality to it. The city looks not so much like a real street but a soundstage, and this is emphasized with Terence Blanchard's jazz score and the bright colors worn by the zoot suiters and their women.
The teenage Malcolm eagerly surrenders to the ministrations of a Roxbury barber, who paints his head with a lye mixture in order to "conk" (straighten) his hair. Malcolm grimaces as the stuff burns his head but is delighted with the results and exclaims, "Looks white, don't it?"
Malcolm (played by Denzel Washington) leaves the barbershop and, in a bright blue zoot suit, jive walks with a friend directly towards the camera. Washington, more handsome and disarming than the real-life Malcolm X, radiates with boyishness and a fun-loving nature. It is a stark contrast to the scene that shortly follows, a recollection of a Klan attack when Malcolm was a boy in Omaha.
In an interview with Bruce Perry, author of Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America, Malcolm's mother denied the incident ever happened. It certainly lacks credibility. Omaha, even in the 1930s, would not have been as rural as Malcolm suggests and it is doubtful that the Klansmen would have arrived on horseback. The story was taken directly from The Autobiography of Malcolm X, written in 1965 and based on interviews with Alex Haley. Lee wanted to be true to the autobiography, which in some cases played fast and loose with facts (Rule, 1993). The Klan attack is one such instance. Lee acknowledges the improbability of Malcolm's claim with his use of an impossibly gigantic full moon, against which the Klansmen are silhouetted as they ride away from the burning Little house. Savvy filmgoers will recognize the irony in Lee's dramatic recreation of Malcolm's version of events. It adds to the almost cartoon-like mood of the first part of the film, a mood that is broken intermittently with somber commentary by Malcolm and scenes from his father's murder.
The dance scene at Roseland is overly long and elaborately choreographed, designed to show a lighthearted but sexually-charged Malcolm that will provide greater contrast to the serious Malcolm revealed later in the film. The frantic energy of the dancers provides the perfect backdrop for Malcolm's meeting of Sophia, a blonde "bad girl" whose presence at the all-black club is never explained, although it is implied that she is bold, reckless, and looking for a kind of trouble she cannot find in her own white neighborhood. Malcolm takes home his date, a nice girl who dismisses his promise to phone ("I'm not white and I don't put out").
Malcolm's scenes with Sophia are highly stylized. Once again, Lee moves in for close-ups from above when shooting Malcolm and Sophia kissing in the back seat of the pale yellow Cadillac, almost cartoon-like with its exaggerated round shape, red upholstery, and shiny paint glistening in the moonlight as it is parked along the river. Later, they walk on the beaches of Cape Cod and although they are fully clothed and not in swimsuits, their passion in the sand is reminiscent of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Karr in From Here to Eternity. The relationship between Malcolm and Sophia is also reminiscent of Lee's own Jungle Fever and according to some critics reinforces…