As cineastes worldwide honor the thirtieth anniversary of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992), it is clear that the passage of time has only solidified the film as a masterpiece that functions simultaneously as a mesmeric character study and an unflinching history lesson. Malcolm X is a sober portrait of truth within a nation intoxicated by falsehood. Malcolm X is a seething celluloid abstract painted by Lee in sometimes acetylenic brushstrokes and hung in an American Museum of Shame. Malcolm X is a woeful reminder of the past, an acerbic confirmation of the present, and an unsettling harbinger of the future.
Simply stated, Malcolm X is one of the greatest films ever made.
Lee’s 1986 feature debut, She’s Gotta Have It, already displayed the work of a passionate filmmaker. In it, he balances a sexual-coming-of-age story with a carefully layered character study, of Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns), who explores her appetites through three different men. With this one film, Lee created his own Black nouvelle vague. She’s Gotta Have It felt like the freshness of Agnès Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7 and of John Cassavetes’s Faces—it was defiant, comedic, unchartered, confessional, and explosive. He continued to elevate his high-stakes filmmaking game by exploring the intraracial dynamics of Black university life, as a musical, in School Daze (1988); the racial tinderbox of gentrification and heated prejudice during one hot summer in Brooklyn in Do the Right Thing (1989); bebop/cool jazz/self-discovery in Mo’ Better Blues (1990); and interracial sexual intrigue, set against one Black family’s implosion during the crack-cocaine era, in Jungle Fever (1991).
And then came Malcolm X.
The provenance of Malcolm X is itself something of a marvel. The film was initially supposed to be helmed by the great Norman Jewison, the white Canadian director responsible for one of the most significant films to address race in the sixties, In the Heat of the Night (1967). A distinctive policier situated in the racist American South, In the Heat of the Night stars America’s most important leading man of that time, Sidney Poitier, alongside the chameleonlike Rod Steiger. But Jewison stepped aside from the Malcolm X project after an outcry from the Black community, with Lee in the lead, insisting that the story of the life of the civil rights leader needed to be refracted through the lens of a Black director. Lee gives a lot of respect to Jewison. “Norman Jewison didn’t have to do that,” he told me. “He could’ve said, ‘Fuck everybody. I’m directing it.’ But he didn’t. I thank him for that.”
And then there was the debate about the script. Though Lee and the late playwright, screenwriter, and filmmaker Arnold Perl (who wrote and directed the posthumously released 1972 documentary Malcolm X) are credited as coscreenwriters for Lee’s Malcolm X—which is adapted from the same source material as the documentary, The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley—there were several other writers who also came into contact with the project. In a New York Times interview published on May 31, 1992, Lee discusses the development process with Henry Louis Gates Jr.:
Gates: The Malcolm X project has been in development hell for two decades. James Baldwin and Arnold Perl, David Bradley, Calder Willingham, Charles Fuller, and David Mamet were attached to the project as writers at various points. What’s the real reason this movie was never made—until now?
Lee: I just think the studios were scared of the film. And the rising popularity of Malcolm, coupled with the box-office appeal of Denzel Washington and myself, is what made it economically feasible for them to invest in the project.
Gates: David Bradley says the writers weren’t fired because the scripts were wrong; they were fired because the story was wrong.
Lee: I would agree with that. Malcolm X was basically disputing the American dream. And if there’s one thing Hollywood is about, it is selling the American dream. So Malcolm X is at odds with the images that Hollywood has always been about.
Gates: On the other hand, he is the American dream: the self-made man. His story is very much like Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography or Booker T. Washington’s.
Lee: Yes, but the story Hollywood chooses to tell is always John Doe’s, Horatio Alger’s. It’s never been about people of color.
The rising popularity of Malcolm X as a cultural icon that Lee mentions here is connected to the emergence of “conscious hip-hop”—hip-hop that celebrates a positive and pro-Black existence—in the late eighties and early nineties. And indeed, Lee’s short film for Public Enemy’s song “Fight the Power”—featured on the Do the Right Thing soundtrack—may have been his on-ramp for Malcolm X. The urgency of that hit song and short couldn’t have been any clearer. From the footage of energized crowds of Black folks on the streets of Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, and the clips of Elvis Presley and John Wayne as outmoded examples of American heroes, to the huge portrait of Malcolm X on the outdoor stage, the video feels like the manifesto of a new Black nationalism. Elsewhere on the conscious-hip-hop scene, KRS-One and Boogie Down Productions (who can forget KRS-One peering out through window blinds and holding a MAC-10 submachine gun on the cover of Boogie Down Productions’ 1988 album By All Means Necessary, an homage to Don Hogan Charles’s monumental 1964 photograph of Malcolm armed with an M1 carbine after the firebombing of his home in Queens?), Rakim, Poor Righteous Teachers, Big Daddy Kane, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Queen Latifah, and Jungle Brothers made music that celebrated Black intelligence, Black progress, Black independence, Black fortitude, and Black love. This epoch of conscious hip-hop was a rebuke of gangsta rap—of niggas, bitches, guns, dope, and death. It was almost a throwback to Amiri Baraka, Haki R. Madhubuti, Sonia Sanchez, and the Black Arts Movement of the sixties and seventies. It was hip-hop that not only emboldened Black listeners but also attracted curious white ones. The vitality and prodigious assurance of the era of conscious hip-hop was fertile ground for Lee’s Malcolm X.
Lee assembled Malcolm X as a tetraptych: a four-“paneled” layout of a cinematic painting. You can almost label each panel like this: “Infancy” (Malcolm Little growing up in racist rural Michigan); “Recklessness” (Detroit Red, the Harlem miscreant and gangster with the flaming and devilish red conk); “Dignity” (Malcolm X, the recast and clarified Nation of Islam convert, minister, and oratorical revolutionary); and “Maturity” (the epiphanic El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, after his journey to Mecca, and on his road to martyrdom at the Audubon Ballroom in February 1965). Analogous to what Bernardo Bertolucci achieved in The Last Emperor and Paul Schrader did in Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Lee’s Malcolm X tetraptych—buttressed by Denzel Washington’s preternatural lead performance—is a vivid construct of contrasts that underscores a complexity of absolutes.
The film opens with an image that scorns, fears, and secretly admires what it depicts: the American flag. It calls to mind the commencement of Franklin J. Schaffner’s Patton, in which we see the late, great George C. Scott standing in front of a stories-tall American flag. “Americans,” intones Scott as the outspoken and pugnacious General George S. Patton, “traditionally love to fight. All real Americans love the sting of battle . . . Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser.”
In Malcolm X, Lee uses that same American flag to drill down into and bore through the hypocrisy of such a symbol’s illusive promises for Black Americans. As the opening credits roll, we hear the white-hot resolve in Washington’s voice-over as Malcolm X, addressing the congregants at a Nation of Islam meeting on the brutality of the white power held by powerful white men like Patton. “Brothers and sisters, I’m here to tell you that I charge the white man. I charge the white man with being the greatest murderer on earth,” he begins, the audience cheering him on. “I charge the white man with being the greatest kidnapper on earth! There is no place in this world that that man can go and say he created peace and harmony!”
At that moment, Lee and his steadfast editor, Barry Alexander Brown, cut to the repugnant video footage of Rodney King being beaten almost to death by a cadre of barbaric Los Angeles Police Department officers—injecting the film with even more power, considering it was just a little over a year after the horrific event, still fresh in the public consciousness. As Washington concludes his malediction, the image of the American flag incinerates, and smolders into the letter X.
The film is an amalgam of such indelible visuals, courtesy of Lee’s prodigious cinematographer and fellow New York University film school alum (now a director in his own right) Ernest Dickerson. Lee and Dickerson’s partnership echoes that of Bertolucci and Vittorio Storaro, Francis Ford Coppola and Gordon Willis, Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Burks, David Lean and Freddie Young—demonstrating an acute symbiosis. Poignantly, this would be their last collaboration, an epic culmination of their shared vision. Dickerson and his team accomplish some herculean panoramas throughout Malcolm X, such as:
The KKK ghost riders, bathed in the light of a monstrous and nightmarishly pale supermoon (actually a still photograph taken by special-effects supervisor Randall Balsmeyer, which was superimposed by Lee and Brown on a shot that was filmed during the day, then rendered via blue screen as a nocturnal image), galloping off after setting fire to Malcolm’s childhood home. The tableau is both ghastly and otherworldly. There’s also the pallid gold of the Littles’ house burning to the ground, as the courageous Earl Little stands in front of his wife and children, defying the cowardly KKK.
The supersaturated jitterbug sequences, referencing cinematographer Alfred Gilks’s luxe Technicolor splashiness in Vincente Minnelli’s An American in Paris, mixed with the reverence of such iconic Harlem photographers as Roy DeCarava, James VanDerZee, and the inimitable Gordon Parks.
The multiple tableaux that Lee and Dickerson use to foreshadow Malcolm’s death, the earliest being the playful Central Park cops-and-robbers chase between Malcolm/Detroit Red and his hustler compatriot Shorty (in an adroit portrayal by the director himself). When Shorty fires a “gunshot” from his pointed fingers and Malcolm falls dead on the grass in an extreme close-up, it’s an homage to how DP Charles Lang similarly framed Kirk Douglas’s dead character in Billy Wilder’s noir Ace in the Hole. “When me and Ernest watched that film, and I saw that shot of Kirk Douglas falling dead, eyes open, almost directly on top of the camera, I knew we had to use that,” Lee told me. “Yes, Malcolm and Shorty are just kidding around. But it is an opportunity not just to make the audience aware of the fatality of Malcolm’s circumstances but also to let the viewer know that Malcolm was fully aware of his mortality.”
The jail scene, with its amber, eerie, almost sepulchral light, when Malcolm has his vision of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad (in an unforgettable and seismic performance by the late Al Freeman Jr.) and accepts the teachings of the Nation of Islam. This is one of many set pieces in Malcolm X that take on an almost metaphysical aura, and in which the audience observes Malcolm as an open vessel. “I have come to give you something that can never be taken away from you,” says the clipped-voiced, spectral cleric to an astonished former addict and stickup kid looking for absolution.
This last scene is repeated when the freshly scrubbed apostle Malcolm (after his release from prison in Massachusetts) actually meets Muhammad, at the Chicago headquarters of the Nation of Islam. Now the lighting is not the gloomy amber wash of Malcolm’s jail cell but the golden bioluminescence of a new day—which is so overwhelming for the new convert that he becomes apoplectic. In a spellbinding display of physical agility, Washington shifts the weight of his body to one side, shuffling as Malcolm tries to walk toward his master, as if his spirit has suffered a stroke. It is a hypnotic and transformative tableau vivant of a man overwhelmed by the hunger of his soul.
The shifting optics between the sumptuously regal color of Malcolm reciting a salat in a temple during hajj in Mecca and the almost wan Super 8 images of him being surveilled by the CIA during his time in Africa. And similarly, the stark black-and-white images when his home is bombed juxtaposed with the ethereal palette of his “death march” to the Audubon Ballroom. Lee and Dickerson give all these sequences the intimacy and visceral power of a documentary.
Two additional elements that serve to breathe life into Malcolm X are the contributions of production designer Wynn Thomas and costume designer Ruth E. Carter. Both were Spike Lee alumni and had an intuitive feel for the director’s varied and colorful palette. In the second panel of Malcolm X, Thomas’s attention to detail puts the viewer directly in the midst of modern Black American history. Consider the sumptuous and gargantuan merlot-hued drapes on the stage of Chicago’s Muhammad Mosque #2, during one of Malcolm’s soaring oratories. A fevered Malcolm energizes the congregants, underneath a huge banner reading “There Is No God but Allah—Muhammad Is His Apostle,” as Muhammad sits behind him in a baroque, burnished-leather Louis XIV chair, nodding in approval.
Within that same mise-en-scène, Carter gives sartorial luxuriance to the Fruit of Islam battalion, onstage and in the audience: a squadron of fashionable Sidney Poitiers outfitted in natty sixties apparel, all of which she and her team made by hand. She drapes the Amiras in the audience with worshipful adoration, swathing them in sparkling white hijabs and abayas, like a sea of regal Black diamond queens. In scenes like this, Lee, Thomas, and Carter make the photos of the Nation of Islam that I viewed as a kid in the pages of Ebony and Jet feel both real and otherworldly.
It should also be noted that the haunting debut score from Lee’s now longtime composer Terence Blanchard infuses Malcolm X with an analogous sonic opulence, evoking the timeless work of Quincy Jones and Oliver Nelson.
As Malcolm X transitions from the second panel of its tetraptych to the third, Lee takes the film into a paranoid and foreboding place. The director told me that he created the fictional composite of Brother Baines (portrayed with venomous zeal by the peerless Albert Hall), who begins to plot Malcolm’s downfall, as a fulcrum of the resentment that sprang up within the Nation of Islam as Malcolm became more popular than Muhammad. In this segment, what was previously a whiff of envy toward Baines’s fervent mentee has escalated into the stench of unbridled jealousy’s maggot-filled rot. Baines is a master manipulator, undermining Malcolm by playing to Muhammad’s fragile ego, as delineated in a quietly taut scene between Baines and Muhammad while they watch Malcolm X explain his definition of a “house nigger” on television. “Dear Holy Apostle,” Baines says panderingly to a skeptical Muhammad, “the ministers think Malcolm is getting too much press. They think he thinks he is the Nation of Islam. That he has aspirations to lead the Nation. It was you who made Malcolm the man he is. You lifted him out of the darkness.” The viewer watches Muhammad shrug off Baines’s outlandish claims, but also take them under advisement. (In an earlier scene with Malcolm, Muhammad gently forewarns his telegenically charismatic acolyte, “Beware of them cameras. Oh, them cameras is as bad as any narcotic.”)
As Baines continues to fraudulently undermine Malcolm X, the man who will become known as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz struggles with his own uncomfortable epiphany about his prelate. Washington’s portrayal of a man in crisis is formidable, as is Angela Bassett’s of his faithful and brave wife, Betty Shabazz, who begs him to accept the truth that the man to whom he pays obeisance is nothing but a hypocrite, encouraging Malcolm to be a dedicated family man, while Muhammad himself fathers several children out of wedlock, some with women who are young enough to be his daughters.
Lee’s depiction of the figurative (and literal) shrapnel from the explosion between Malcolm and Muhammad is cataclysmic and transfixing. Malcolm’s dismissal of the John F. Kennedy assassination as “the chickens coming home to roost,” his subsequent suspension from the Nation of Islam, his life-changing pilgrimage to Mecca (where he became El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz), his electrifyingly moving salat at a mosque in Cairo, the CIA’s dogged surveillance of him during his time in Mecca and Africa, are signposts of a life in flux. However, it was the earnest determination of Lee and his collaborators that turned Malcolm X into not just a film but also a chance to actually inhabit an iconic life. From the firebombing of Malcolm’s family home in Queens (a cinematic bookend with the incineration of his childhood home) to his tragic assassination inside the Audubon Ballroom in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, Malcolm X is in and of itself a pilgrimage of the human spirit, and a study of what happens when that spirit is denied full access to freedom.
Lee allows us to watch this journey of Malcolm X from hustler to holy man as a slow transformation. But the passage is also put into sharp relief in the scenes between Washington and Delroy Lindo, whose towering interpretation of the fearsome but elegiac Harlem gangster West Indian Archie is heartbreaking. Archie is both a father figure and a street-corner rival to Malcolm, going from trying to kill his ambitious and cutthroat young charge, after being conned by him in a numbers racket, to asking for his empathy years later, when Malcolm visits him. Archie has been whittled down by the street life and is now a destitute Black gangster king, lonely and enfeebled.
Three decades on, we can see that Malcolm X is at its heart the story of an American superhero. A complex and multilayered American superhero, admired by everyone from the kids in a Harlem classroom at the end of the film (including Washington’s seven-year-old son, John David Washington, who went on to star in Lee’s 2018 BlacKkKlansman) to the legendary anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela, shown teaching another room of schoolchildren, in Soweto, South Africa, about the virtues of Malcolm X. The film will endure because it is a request for America to live up to everything it claims to be, to the ideals of liberty and freedom and equality that continue to be elusive. It is for that reason that this is more than just a film for me. It is personal confirmation of my life as a Black man in the United States of America.
Allow me to elaborate.
I grew up in the 1960s in the northwestern part of Manhattan, which we knew then as Little Washington Heights. My neighborhood was like the United Nations in miniature. Sherman’s Bar-B-Q hugged the corner of 165th and Amsterdam. Sherman Hibbitt owned five locations in Harlem, serving everyone from the Beatles to the Isley Brothers. When Mr. Hibbitt climbed into his cherry-red Jaguar XJ6, he looked like the Black 007. Next to Sherman’s was a small Baptist church, and next to that was Meyer’s Meat Market, where the friendly proprietor would calmly exclaim, in his thick German accent, “Hello! Who’s next?” On 164th was Rosado’s corner store, owned by a kind native of the Dominican Republic. Upon entering, patrons were welcomed into a world filled with the sounds of Celia Cruz and the delicious fragrance of mofongo. My family and I lived in the middle of the block, at 2106 Amsterdam Avenue. Apartment 3C. Shotgun flat. Right next to the staircase to hear the rats engage in their four-story steeplechase each night.
Across the street from me was Moe’s Candy Shop. Moe, a Jewish man in his midfifties, served the crowds of kids after school. On Fridays, I would buy Spider-Man and Superman toy model kits, to assemble at home with my dad. When the Superman kit didn’t include paint that matched my mahogany-brown skin—only the pink “flesh” color—my dad walked with me back to Moe’s and purchased a small bottle of paint in a hue that made him smile. He looked at me and said, “We’re going to paint Superman black.”
The first time I ever saw my dad cry was on February 21, 1965. It was a Sunday. My dad came into the apartment, dressed in his dark-gray suit from Bond’s men’s store, and sat on the couch next to my mom, as my younger brother, Brent, and I watched him break down in tears. “They killed him, Jo! They killed Malcolm X!” The Audubon Ballroom was right around the corner from where we lived, and the cops had turned my dad and other Black men away from the entrance. Brent and I looked at each other and started crying, too, as did my mom.
When I was in sixth grade—1970—there was a book fair at my middle school. My dad gave me a five-dollar bill and a one-dollar bill, with instructions to purchase a book titled The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley. When I brought the book home and gave it to my dad, he gave it right back to me. “This is for you, son. I want you to read it, even if you don’t understand everything in it. After that, I want you to write a book report for me. And then we will talk about it.” Reading that book, writing the book report for my dad, and receiving his patient instruction on the man known as Malcolm X changed my life in ways that I still reflect on to this very day.
I also vividly remember my mom, my dad, Brent, and me watching an explosive episode of the influential New York neighborhood-affairs show Like It Is, hosted by the renowned journalist Gil Noble, on a Sunday in 1983. The program was titled “The Covert War Against Malcolm X,” and Noble unraveled the web of intrigue surrounding the FBI and CIA surveillance of Malcolm X and his family. We were all glued to the screen. Before that episode, my mom was Team MLK. She and my dad used to have engaging arguments regarding Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But not that day. My mom shook her head softly in anger. “This country is something,” she said. And then we ate a dinner of collard greens, fried whitings, Jiffy cornbread, and potato salad. In silence.
Flash forward to 1992. Brent had just seen Malcolm X. So had my dad. They raved about the film, and my dad was almost overcome by memories of that time. I was in Los Angeles, at the Nikko Hotel on La Cienega Boulevard, working on a rewrite of the original screenplay for Sugar Hill. I was about to go and see Malcolm X in Westwood. My mom was going to see it with some of her fellow parishioners from Mother AME Zion Church in Harlem. The next day, she called me, choked up. “Barry, you tell that Spike Lee that he did an amazing job with that movie. When the film was over and the lights went up, nobody moved. Everyone was crying. Tell Spike he did a great job.”
I had the same experience when I saw Malcolm X at the theater in Westwood. I was disoriented, as the walls of the theater seemed to spin around me like a revelatory roulette of truth, an effect intensified by the silent explosion of tears that filled the space, which was full of folks glued to their seats. We were all trying to process and contextualize three-and-a-half hours that had become a universal moment in time. When my sons (“Suns”), Timothy and Matthew, watched it on DVD during their last year of middle school, they were riveted by Lee’s filmmaking and how he orchestrated this cinematic piece of American history.
This November 2022 release of Malcolm X will be bittersweet for me. Not just because of everything our superhero Malcolm X/El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz fought for: access for Black Americans to a more-often-than-not inaccessible American dream. Yes, there was a President Barack Obama. But there was also a screaming George Floyd, being murdered in front of the world as he pleaded to his own mom, who had gone on to glory before he did. There was also the November 2021 exoneration of Muhammad Abdul Aziz, who (along with the late Khalil Islam) was wrongfully convicted of assassinating Malcolm X and served twenty years in jail. The release will also be bittersweet for me because I won’t get a chance to discuss the film once again with my dad, my Sun Timothy, my mom, or my brother Brent, all of whom have passed away. Sometimes the contours of grief can be chiseled into a monument of great and lasting memories, as my memories—and so many others’—are engraved in Spike Lee’s transcendent magnum opus.
Like memories of painting Superman Black.
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