Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” attempts a biopic of events surrounding the transformation of a small-time criminal into one of America’s most revolutionary Civil Rights activists. Starring Denzel Washington in the titular role, the film begins on a voiceover note denouncing the idea of America as a sheer exercise in hypocrisy and a nightmare for blacks.
In what appears to come straight from one of his fiery speeches, Malcolm charges the white man with unleashing a wave of oppression on black people, being history’s greates kidnapper, rapist and enslaver.
The film makes an adequate documentary fiction attempt at Malcolm’s early phase in life, though taking several liberties with actual events that have been documented in Malcolm’s own autobiographical novel. For instance, in depicting his tryst with a wayward white woman, Sophia, the story omits mentioning the fact that this woman, whose real name was Bea Caragulian, caused him a longer prison sentence than he would have otherwise received had he not been in an interracial relationship.
Instead, Malcolm is shown to be in league with a thug called Shorty. Both of them try to rob a white couple’s home, and get a long prison sentence. Back then, there was an all-pervasive taboo against interracial relationships. However, Spike Lee decides to play it down.
Instead, once he’s in prison, Malcolm develops a close bond with Baines, who educates him about Elijah Muhammed’s teachings concerning the Nation of Islam. At first disinterested, Malcolm slowly begins to question his own identity as a black man in America, questions that always intrigued him to no end but to which, he never had any straight answers.
Malcolm’s association with Baines begins to deliver him a strong sense of reasoning ability; by now he has now come to the same thinking horizon as the rest of the leaders of Nation of Islam.
Soon, Malcolm starts delivering rouding, inflammatory speeches promoting the cause of the Nation of Islam, railing against the white man while increasingly espousing Islamist views. The depiction of these transition events is almost cartoonish as they do not give a background of the factors that compelled Malcolm to suddenly become virulently racist against whites.
Although, an initial scene showed Ku Klux Klan horsemen issuing threats and intimidation to Malcolm’s family, there were other factors from the novel, Malcolm’s own childhood experiences in the racist South, that could have been put together to depict the huge transformation experienced by Malcolm.
In prison, Malcolm experienced an epiphany, a vision by Elijah Muhammed which aimed to make him understand his role and purpose in life, to promote the deliverance of the black man against the “devil’s curse”. In the film’s sequence of events, it doesn’t take very long for Malcolm to develop a sudden dislike of Elijah after realizing his polygamous ways contradicted his own high moral ground. Malcolm’s own father was a black preacher in the South; he no longer wanted to look upon Elijah as a role model.
Malcolm’s radical anti-white views underwent a slow transformation as he goes for a Hajj trip to Mecca. Here, the film beautifully narrates Malcolm’s observation that Muslims of all colors and creeds, gather in Islam’s holy ground to be united in universal brotherhood. The film depicts this visual theme as the one recurring event which completely transformed Malcolm’s anti-white views, thus, helping him moderate his stance over the years. The film then jumps to the conclusion that it is these moderation that got him killed in the end.
In conclusion, the movie successfully portrays the emotional drama surrounding Malcolm’s event-packed life, but to someone who has read the autobiographical novel, it comes across as a bit unconvincing and under-researched.
Malcolm X. Prod. Spike Lee. Perf. Denzel Washington. DVD. Columbia TriStar Home Video, 1992.