PG-13, and a pretty intense PG-13. The assassination of Malcolm X alone is almost worthy of an R-rating. There's a lot of crime and a lot of talk about violence. This isn't sugar-coated, white knighting racism either. This really gets down to the nitty gritty elements of institutionalized racism. It's an uncomfortable subject and it doesn't pull a lot of punches. Sure, it's PG-13 and I'll stand by that rating. But it isn't an easy movie to watch by any means. PG-13.
DIRECTOR: Spike Lee
I've been on a Spike kick of late. BLM has been on my mind almost constantly and I've been trying to challenge myself on some of the movies. Normally, I have a bit of an aversion to biopics. Biopics seem to be a bit saccharine and safe. There are some more impressive ones than others. But when a director tries to take a complicated life and give it a formulaic narrative that brings closure in the span of a movie length, it always comes across as a bit artificial. I don't know if real people have character arcs exactly as the movies kind of show us. While Malcolm X has elements of the biopic in it, it feels far more challenging than its peers. The titular Malcolm X does have a bit of a character arc, but it feels more of a series of baby steps reflecting the frustrating elements of reality.
I will admit that I was woefully ignorant about the life of Malcolm X before watching the movie. That's part of my white privilege and I'm calling myself out for it. In my head, I always understood the metaphor presented in the Marvel Comics X-Men stories, of Martin Luther King being Charles Xavier and Malcolm X embodied in Magneto. I knew that King was the advocate for non-violence. X was the one who threatened war if attacked. I also always remembered that photo being shown throughout Lee's magnum opus, Do the Right Thing. It's odd to think that Lee made Do the Right Thing three years before. There's the image of King and X friendly as ever. There's the quote at the end of the movie to get you thinking. When I watched Malcolm X in context of Lee's journey with the character, I thought it might have been an answer to the ambiguous ending of Do the Right Thing. But Lee doesn't give it so cut and dry.
Lee presents Malcolm X through a view of love and respect. There's no denying that. This is a respectful view that treats Malcolm X as the hero that he is. But like most heroes, it isn't necessarily easy to be a hero all the time. There are events in our lives that change us and force us to look at our politics through a different light. Malcolm X starts in this place of willful ignorance. Again, I knew nothing about him going into this movie, but I always thought that his story would parallel that of John Lewis or King himself. I thought that he might have been one of those people built for greatness. But a good chunk of the movie deals with Malcolm X, the criminal. This is the man that the civil rights leader Malcolm X would grow to despise because he represented everything that was dehumanizing about the black man. According to X himself, he would be the kind of person who saw himself as an animal, living out the role that the civilized white man wanted him to play. He was out for himself. He was living this life of pleasure and greed. But it's in prison that he finds value.
Maybe Malcolm X needs a little bit of context as well. I recommend Ava DuVernay's 13th in regards to what prison does to Malcolm X. But that experience in prison awakens him. Lee seems to be slightly tied into the story of Saul / Paul on the road to Damascus because I'm not seeing that motif flow through other films like Da 5 Bloods. Yet, the movie is fundamentally tied to Malcolm X's faith journey through the Nation of Islam. Lee creates the movie for people like me, who are unaware of the intricacies of Malcolm X's story. Perhaps it is the way that Malcolm X dictated his words to Alex Haley, but Mr. Baines comes across as this heroic sage influence. He's that archetype. Malcolm was lost and then Baines opened his eyes to this wider world. Everything that he thought was true ultimately wasn't. But Lee doesn't foreshadow Baines's change of character. We don't see that ugliness inside the prison. Instead, we see this hand to enlightenment.
This is such a moment for me as a Catholic. There's this element of Islam that is terrifying. Baines comes to Malcolm X and convincingly tells him that every white person is evil. Heck, with what I'm going through right now, I can't even tell Baines that he's wrong. There's a motif throughout the movie of the white man being evil. There's a moment, and I felt touched, where a white woman confronts Malcolm X and tells him that he's right. She wants to help in any way that she can and X establishes there's nothing that she can do. There's this moment where I look at history and believe, like Malcolm X, that he's right. We have passed the point of redemption and it is damning. But the film doesn't end with Malcolm X in this spot.
Malcolm X isn't a biopic about this great leader who changed society. That is the way that history views him and it is a byproduct of someone who was serious about what he believed in, but also understood that faith and understanding were a growing process. It's such an interesting dynamic, that Malcolm X never really lost what he believed in, but was willing to shift from a position of absolute rightness to a place of vulnerability. The movie has X grow from absolutely accusatory of white culture to allowing the concept of allies. If Lee has one thing to say, it's that the issue of race isn't meant to be an easy idea. Malcolm X is right in both situations, as paradoxical as that seems. It never allows the story of race to be this easy thing, like White Knight films tend to lean into. It's an idea that people are good, society is bad.
It's a tank of a film. It really is. It's three-and-a-half hour movie and it doesn't really feel like one film. No surprise, I didn't watch it in one sitting. But it is something that really needs to be watched. There was a time that I thought that Denzel Washington was overhyped. He is something absolutely special in this film. Maybe it's because he's a younger guy and his career is getting off the ground, but he works like a maniac in this film. With a biopic, I'm sure that there's a temptation to just do an imitation of the real person. Again, I don't know Malcolm X's mannerisms. But there's a struggle throughout this film to make Malcolm X a real dude. He's so conflicted and challenged with these moment to moment feelings. He's a member of the Nation of Islam. He's a follower of someone who would end up leading to his death, at least according to the film. He has this great respect for his faith, but it also would lead him to do some regressive things towards women. We see this challenge as he says one thing, but is conflicted about the core elements of that tenet. It's really interesting to watch this complex faith crises that he deals with throughout the movie.
Also, I'm really interested in the Elijah Mohammed stuff. Like, I knew nothing about that stuff. There's this element of a movement behind Elijah Mohammed, but it also really reads like a cult throughout the movie. It's this dark, true-crime element behind the movie as a whole. Lee's use of the "Get your hand out of my pocket" becomes this terrifying throughline. I don't really know the history of it, but it is such a powerful smash cut twice that I want to know every detail of what was going on in those moments. It's so odd that Malcolm X could become this great voice for a cause, only to be ostracized by jealousy from his best friends. I don't know if Lee is commenting on the self-sabotaging element of a cause, but it's very disturbing to think how quickly people turned their backs on Malcolm X.
I adored yet another Spike Lee Joint. It's starting to become a thing. Maybe it's because I haven't seen some of the lesser known Spike Lee films, but his hits are hits for a reason. Yeah, it's a tank. But it is a tank that works because it dares you to examine yourself while watching it. It's not just a history lesson, but a challenge for today. There's something bigger about the movie as a whole and Lee knows that. With the insane cameos that he has in the movie, this was a moment in cinematic history. It makes me question what my dad would have thought about this movie at the time. Regardless, it is absolutely essential watching.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.