Malcolm X Film

Malcolm X Film - l i i fi NEAR THE BEGINNING OF SPIKE...

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Unformatted text preview: l i i fi NEAR THE BEGINNING OF SPIKE Larc‘r. cinema biography, Malcolm X’s fathr-I' dies. As idealized in the film, Earl Little is a race leader, Willing to brave white Oppn sition to promote Marcus Garvey’s Uni versal Negro Improvement Association. The film’s flashbacks and narration by the Malcolm character leave no doubt that white racists murdered Little. The Autobiography of Malcolm X, written with Alex Haley’s assistance and pulr lished posthumously, paints a far less ido- alized portrait of Little. As remembered by his son, Little was an abusive husband and father who “savagely” beat his children. ———————- . Malcolm X (Belize! Washington) Betty $habazz (Angela Basset-t) Malcolm, 19405 Malcolm’s Memory of His Father My father was a big, sixufoot-four, very black man. He had only one eye. How he had lost the other one l have never known. He was from Reynolds, Georgia, where he had left school after the third or maybe fourth grade. . . . One of the reasons I’ve always felt that my father favored me was that to the best of my remembrance, it was only me that he sometimes took with him to the Garvey U.N.l.A. meetings which he held quietly in people's homes. . . . I noticed how differently they all acted, although sometimes they Were the same people who jumped and shouted in church. But in these meetings both they and my father were more intense, more intelligent and down to earth. It made me feel the same way. . . . lremember how the meetings always closed with my father saying, several times, and the people chanting after him, “Up, you mighty race. you can accom- plish what you willl" From The Autobiography of Malcolm X After his father’s death in 1931, Malcolm watched his family fall apart. The strain of feeding and caring for seven children proved too much for Louise Little. Although she resisted as best she could pressure from social workers to place her children in fos- ter homes, her psychological decline finally forced her admission to the Kalamazoo State Mental Hospital in December 1938. At the time his mother was committed, Malcolm was living in a white juvenile “ home. When his half—sister Ella came to _ visit from Boston, where she lived, Malcolm i thought she was “the first really proud black woman I had ever seen in my life." In 'I? 1940, when he was fifteen, Malcolm made ' his first trip to Boston. On his return to Michigan, he noticed and became annoyed by treatment he had previously shrugged off; “Where ‘nigger' had slipped off my back before, wherever I heard it now, I stopped and looked at whoever said it. And they looked surprised that I did.” l‘l Il' The transformation of The AUtobiography of Malcolm X into Spike Lee’s film took _ almost a quarter of a century._ Some admir— ers of Malcolm argued that only a black writer and director could do justice to his story. James Baldwin, the most prominent African—American writer of the period, pre .pared the initial script, but his screenplay—later published as One Day, When l Was Lost (1972)——included a vast number of flashbacks and historical scenes that would have been prohibitively expen- sive to film. During the early 19703, a white screenwriter, Arnold Peri, wrote anoth- er script, but the project lost favor in Hollywood as the nationfs interest in black militancy waned. More than a decade later, Warner Brothers finally agreed to finance the film, and Lee was chosen to direct. (The announcement was made after Lee had publicly insisted that a black director should make Malcolm X.) I ' Denzel Washington I r 1 \_./ 279 ctavnonna CARSON Elijah Muhammad The Natidn or [slam Mecca-born silk'p‘eddler Wallace D. Fard emigrated to the Unlted=States sometime around 1930: a year later, he founded the-Nation of Islam in Detroit. Ferd taught his followers that blacks were members of a superior race descended from Muslims of Afro-Asia. He claimed that he was a messenger sent by Allah to save his lost people from the “white devils” who were making their lives miserable. Fard insisted that Christianity was a false religion used by whites to enslave blacks. By 1934, the Black Muslim movement had grown to about eight thousand members. That year, Fard disappeared mysteriouSiy and was suc- ceeded by Elijah Poole, the thirty-seveniyear—old son of a Baptist preacher. Poole had moved north from Georgia in 1923 and was living on relief in, metroit when he first met Fard. After becoming Ea d's assistant minister, Poole took the name 7h Mohammad. When he succeeded Fard, Muhammad added the title “Messenger of Allah to theqlgostfound Nation of lslam in the Wilderness of pith America." . ‘ "Because of dissent within the Detroit temple, Muhammad soon moved to Chicago, where he established Temple No. 2 and spread Fard's mes- sage‘that, in order to overcome racial discrimina- tion, blacks must become independent of their white “slave masters.” During World War II, Muhammad counseled his followers to refuse to fight for the United States. He was convicted of encouraging resistance to the draft and served three and a half years in prison. After his release in 1946, Muhammad began an intensive recruit- ment drive. especially in prisons, where the Black Muslim message of racial pride and economic Independence had particular appeal. Several of Malcolm's siblings converted to the Nation of Islam during this period. and Malcolm was himself Introduced to the faith while in prison by his broth~ er Reginald. "The hardest test I ever faced in my life was praying." Malcolm later said. “You under~ stand. My comprehending, my believing the teachings of Mr. Muhammad had only required my mind's saying to me, ‘That’s rightl‘ or ‘l never thought of that.‘ But bending my knees to pray— thet act—well, that took me a week.” The film’s most engaging scenes depict Malcolm’s life as a hustler and later his speechmaking on behalf of the Nation of Islam. It largely ignores his activities outside the Nation. Instead of clarifying his mature political perspective, the film emphasizes his earlier cynicism, racial pessimism, and uncritical acceptance of Elijah Muhammad’s teachings. The film treats Malcolm X’s break with Muhammad as a son’s disillusionment a morally flawed surrogate father, but Malcolm left the N ation for political as well as personal reasons. The Autobiography makes it clear that before he learned of Muhammad’s marital infidelifics, Malcolm had already become dissatisfied with his leader’s policy of nonengagement, which not only prevented members of the group from participating in civil rights protests but even forbade voting. Malcolm’s sardonic verbal attacks on national black leaders—excerpts from which enliven the film—were harshly critical, but Malcolm’s ties with militant civil rights activists actually became increasingly close late in his life. ' As the southern black civil rights movement grew in scale during 1963, Malcolm recognized that the nonengagement policy was hurting his recruitment efforts in black communities. In the Autobiography, Malcolm admits his dis- appointment in the failure 6‘ _ w . . of the Nation of Islam to first ImpI'BSSIOIl become involved in the expanding freedom sung. was how could a Black gle. “I felt that, wherever ' black people committed man about the " themselves, the Little . ' Rocks and the Birthing; government, Whlte hams and 'other places. pcople,'and act so bold, militantly disciplined ‘9” Muslims should also be and not be 5110': at. there—for all the world to - see, and respect, and dis- cuss. It could be heard increasingly in the Negro communities: ‘Those Muslims talk tough, but they never do anything, unless somebody bothers Muslims.’ ” This telling criticism of the Nation of Islam’s stance regarding politi- cal action appears in the film, but Lee’s misleading handling of it reflects his unwillingness to examine critically Malcolm’s black nationalist rhetoric as a Muslim minister. In the film, the criticism precedes the only scene in which Malcolm and his fellow Musliins actually stand up to white authorities. Malcolm is shown demanding and getting hospital treatment for a member of the Nation, Brother Johnson (Johnson Hinton), who was beaten by New York City police in 1957. Although the incident confirms the notion that the Nation of Islam did not engage in militant action unless its members were threatened, Lee stages the event to suggest that the Nation was far more willing to challenge'white authority than it was. ' Muhammad Ali ‘ MALCOLM X Malcolm initially defended Elijah Muhammad’s nonengagement policy and fiercely attacked Martin Luther King, Jr.’s strategy of nonviolent resistance, but he later recognized that the Nation offered no real alterna- tive to black activists who were facing vicious white racists in the South. It was easier to talk about armed self-defense in New York than to face Bull Connor’s police dogs in Birmingham. Indeed, even though the film ignores this fact, Malcolm knew that the Nation of Islam was not above making deals with white people when such deals served its leaders’ inter- ests. Near the end of his life, Malcolm admitted that, even while criticiz- ing civil rights activists for working with white liberals, he once, on Elijah Muhammad’s orders, negotiated a mutual noninterference agreement with Ku KluX Iflan leaders in Atlanta. Like Marcus Garvey’s in the 1920s, Muhammad’s insistence that all whites were devils made it possible for him to justify dealing with the worst of them. Although the film depicts Malcolm’s period of independence from the Nation mainly through scenes of foreboding, such as repeated threaten- ing telephone calls, his final months consisted of much more than waiting for martyrdom. Among the many important episodes of Malcolm’s last year that the film mentions only in passing, if at all, are: - his brief meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr., at the us. Capitol; t his crucial “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech delivered at a symposium sponsored by the Congress of Racial Equality; 0 his attendance at a, meeting of the Organization of African Unity and subsequent talks with leaders of Egypt, Tanzania, Nigeria, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, and Uganda; 0 his day—long October 1964 meeting in Nairobi with leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the resulting coopera- tion between SNCC and Malcolm’s newly formed Organization of Afro American Unity; 0 the December 1964 appearance of Fannie Lou Hamer and other Mississippi civil rights activists as Malcolm's honored guests at an 'OAAU meeting in Harlem. The film shows Malcolm watching televised scenes of black protest activities (including some that occurred after his death!) but remarkably does not mention his February 1965 trip to Selma, Alabama, where he addressed young protesters and expressed support for the voting rights struggle. While in Selma, he met with Coretta Scott King, whose husband has then in jail. Malcolm affirmed his desire to assist King’s voting rights efforts, explaining that if whites knew that Malcolm was the alternative, “It might be easier for them to accept Martin's proposals.” Malcolm’s increasing political involvement was further indicated in the weeks \_./ CLAYBOIINE CARSON Writing the . Autobiography Alex Haley first began writing during his twenty— year tour of duty in the US. Coast Guard (1939—59)—to hold off the boredom of long voyages, he said. The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965}, based on his extensive interviews with Malcolm, was Haley's first major work: One night, Malcolm X arrived nearly out on i 1 his feet from fatigue. For two hours. he paced the floor delivering a tirade against Negro leaders who were attacking Elijah Muhammad and himself. i don’t know what gave me the inspiration to say once he paused for breath, “i wonder if you'd tell me something about your mother?” Abruptly he quit pacing, and the look he shot at me made me sense that some- how the chance question had hit him. When i look back at it now, I believe I must have caught him so physically weak that his defenses were vulnerable. Slowly, Malcolm began to talk, now _ walking in a tight-circle. "She was always standing over the stove, trying to stretch whatever we had to eat. We stayed so hungry that we were dizzy. i remember the color of dresses she used to wear—they ‘ _ were a kind of faded—out gray. . . ." And i 1 he kept on talking until dawn, so tired that " ‘ the big feet would often stumble in their pacing. . . . After that night he never again hesitated to tell me even the most inti: ' mate details of his personal life, over the next two years. 281 Malcolm sends “greetings from Kenya." Ahmad in 1964 During the last year of his life, Malcolm X made two trips to the Middle East and Africa. In the aftermath of his split from the Nation of Eslam, he sought to build a new spiritual and political base from which to lead his followers. His first trip, in April 1954, began with the hafl, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. In Mecca, Malcolm experi- enced a revolution in his system of beliefs: Witnessing men of all colorswrown, yellow. red, black, and white—worshiping together as brothers made him realize that not all whites were devils. Accepting that American racism was not a function of whiteness per se, Malcolm began to consider the possibility of a reconciliation between the races in the United States. On the other hand, Malcolm was not quite ready to forgive white America. in fact, one pur- pose of his trips was to encourage the newly independent nations of Africa to push for UN con- demnation of the United States for human rights abuses against its biack citizens. Malcolm's inter~ nationalist, pan-African speeches were well received, and during the August 1964 meeting of the Organization of African Unity in Cairo, Malcolm was embraced as a legitimate ambassador of black America. After visiting a number of heads of state-— including Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Alhaji Isa Wall of Nigeria, and Prince Faysal of Saudi Arabia—Malcolm returned to the United States, bringing with him a new lslamic name to match his new beliefs: He would be EI-Hafi Malik EIvShabazz. 282 before his assassination by the telegram he sent to the head of the American Nazi party: “I am no longer held in check from fighting white supremacists by Elijah Muhammad’s separationist Black Muslim Movement, and if your present racist agitation of our people there in Alabama causes physical harm to Reverend King or any other Black Americans . . . you and your KKK friends will be met with maximurr physical retaliation.” Malcolm’s political militancy led to increasing governmental repres sion and escalating threats fiom members of the Nation of Islam. Lee’s handling of the assassination reflects his overall failure to indicate why Malcolm’s independent political course caused him to attract such deadly enemies. The film shows various members of the Nation of Islam preparing to kill Malcolm, while also hint- ing that white operatives were involved. Malcolm is Shown being followed, pre- sumably by CIA agents, while on his trip to Mecca and Africa. We see a bug in Malcolm’s New York City hotel room. When Malcolm and his wife, Betty, discuss the many threats they have received, Malcolm specu- lates, “The more I keep thinking about the things that have been happen- ing lately, I’m not at all sure it’s solely the Muslims. I trained them, l know what they can and cannot do, and they can’t do some of the stuf that’s recently been going on.” “I remember Malcolm literally crying out one night. He said, ‘I’m trying to turn the corner, but they won’t 9’ 3, let me. Alex Hale] t is hardly revelatory for the film to suggest that the FBI and the CIA saw Malcolm as a threat, but speculation about government-spon- sored conspiracy obscures the extent to which Malcolm’s death resulted from a mentality that allowed some black people to define others as race traitors. Malcolm was a source as well as a victim of the Nation 01 Islam’s often vicious rhetorical militancy. His former protege, Louis X (later Farrakhan), declared in late 1964 that Malcolm was a Judas “wor- thy of death.” Such self—righteous vilification created a climate that made Malcolm’s death inevitable. Despite its reputation as an antiwhite group the Nation of Islam directed nearly all of its violence against black people particularly defectors. Malcolm’s death was a precursor of the kind 0: internecine warfare that weakened the Black Power movement ant increased its vulnerability to outside attack. Although Malcolm ultimately struggled to find “a common solution to a common problem,” the file. does not show him working in concert with other black political groups MALCOLM X In the film, Malcolm never completely leaves behind the smug self-right- eousness of his years as a hustler and proselytizer. As a result, many young viewers may prefer to emulate the self-destructive rebelliousness of Malcolm’s youth or the racist demagoguery of his years in the Nation of Islam rather than his mature statesmanship. Some may even mistake Farrakhan as Malcolm’s modern-day counterpart; Spike Lee frames Malcolm’s life story with contemporary scenes: opening footage of Ins Angeles police beating Rodney King and an epi- logue showing Nelson Mandela, in front of a classroom filled with South African children, affirming Malcolm’s call for liberation “by any means necessary.” This iconic mixture gives his film a greater sense of political importance than it would otherwise have had, but its political message is nevertheless ambiguous. Lee’s strongest images suggest the immutabili— ty of white racism (King’s beating) rather than possibility of overcoming it (Mandela). His film’s Malcolm ends his life resigned to his fate rather than displaying confidence in his hard-won polificai understanding. The film’s Malcolm becomes, like the filmmaker himself, a social critic rather than. a political insurgent. Malcolm helped to create his own myth during a period when fundamental political change seemed feasible. Spike Lee has revised Malcolm’s myth for a time when political cynicism prevails. Malcolm X thus reflects the current tendency in African— American life to supplant politics with attitude—that is, to express diffuse racial resentment rather than to engage in collective action to achieve racial advancement. Background Reading Clayborne Carson, Malcolm X: no FBI File (Carroll & Graf, 1991) Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (Grove, 1965) 1992/USA/color DIRECTOR: Spike Lee; PRODUCER: Marvin Worth, Spike Lee; SCREENPLAY: Arnold Peri, Spike Lee; STUDIO: Warner. VIDEO: Warner, RUNNING TIME: 201 min. CLAVBOIINE CARSON N Later... In the years since Maicoim X's assassination, his legacy has been pitted against that of Martin Luther King, Jr.—-the biack nationalist versus the integrationist, the proponent of liberation “by any means necessary” versus the advocate of Gandhian nonviolence. Contemporary followers have tended to divide themselves into mutually exclusive competing groups, inheriting elthet Malcolm’s ideological legacy or Martin’s—but never both. Devotees of Malcolm's rhetoric often ignore his own retrospective criticisms of his Nation of islam demagoguery. Similarly. Martin's disciples often overstate the extent to which he controlled the mass struggles that brought him to public attention. Not surprisingly, Malcolm's legacy has been affirmed most strongly by African Americans who share his cynicism about the future of black—white relations in the United States. During the 19705 and 19805, black nationalists and rap artists injected Malcolm’s name and image into African- American youth culture. preparing the way for Spike Lee's film. Despite the commercialization of “X” caps and other memorabilia. Malcolm remains a provocative icon. in contrast to the grass-roots celebrations of Maicoim, Martin's legacy has been sustained by African Americans who continue to believe in the American dream. Since 1986, the federal govern- ment has given its stoiid imprimatur to an official celebration of Martin's birth. Once a controversial protest leader, Martin has become the innocuous black equivaient of Washington and Lincoln. in recent years, some African-American leaders and intellectuals have recognized that the two ieaders were multifaceted, that they failed to achieve many of their objectives. and that they offered complementary rather than conflicting advice regarding problems that still confront African Americans. Three decades after Malcolm's death, his call for strong, militant. black—controlled institutions has been only partly realized. while the decline of the black family and the black communi- ty has left black Americans less able to achieve Martin's dream of racial equality. Within this con- text, Malcolm's tactical disagreements with Martin have come to mean little; it is their mutual com- mitment to politically effective black action that merits attention. 283 5': :2 ii 3‘ . ,mm.__mmm__WWnu.~s......t_..).t....\.._.._.w.s.MW... ...
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Malcolm X Film - l i i fi NEAR THE BEGINNING OF SPIKE...

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