Malcolm X (movie review)
On February 21, 1965, a public meeting was interrupted by a disturbance in the audience. Suddenly shots rang out, and one of the heroes of the Black Civil Rights movement was murdered.
I'd been given a cursory glance at the life of Malcolm X in high school history. Mostly he was presented as a kind of antithesis of Martin Luther King; where King preached integration, X promoted separation. Where King said turn the other cheek, X said don't turn the other cheek any more. Where King passionately advocated non-violence, Malcolm X's best-known line was "by any means necessary".
Spike Lee's intense portrayal of Malcolm X gives so much more depth than any high school history lesson. Here we learned that what goes into a life is often what comes out. Malcolm Little experienced terrorism at the hands of white people as a child. His father was murdered by the Klan. He had to live the demeaning life of the jolly black man while in mixed society.
Some have accused Spike Lee of taking too long with this film. It's three hours and twenty minutes; long for any feature film. But I'm glad he did that. I just feel very privileged to get to know more about this man - this man who is simultaneously misunderstood and respected around the world.
What impressed me about him?
- Intelligence. This man was fiercely intelligent, despite any setbacks. He used that intelligence when he was a petty criminal, and he used it when he was a religious proselytiser. His oratory is fantastic. Check out some speeches from the movie here, here, here and here.
- Perseverance. Here was a man whose life was saved by a belief system, which he then found was built on a wrong foundation. That sort of thing can mess with your head. He had to deal with it in a highly charged atmosphere, and in the public eye. I think he handled his switch from the Nation of Islam to being an "ordinary" Muslim very well.
- Integrity. "God's word is not a hustle" That's what the character Brother Baines (an amalgam of several real-life individuals) told Malcolm in jail. Malcolm recounted those words years later to that same Brother. Malcolm knew what he considered to be truth; he would not compromise.
- Compassion. Even as a racist, Malcolm was sincere and principled in his beliefs. He saw all white people as devils, yet he didn't promote hatred for them, merely disdain. His trip to Mecca after leaving the Nation of Islam showed him that people - whatever their colour - were all individuals answerable to God. He publicly repented of his racism and said towards the end of his life that he counted white fellow Muslims as friends.
Denzel Washington does a wonderful job portraying Malcolm X in all his phases of life - from the late 1940s right up till 1965. From portraying a crack addict and criminal through being a spiritual leader and speaker who was almost worshipped, to being an individualist and intellectual, to being a martyr who knows he is about to meet his death.
It was especially good to see Malcolm X just weeks after seeing parts of the same story in Ali. Malcolm X played an important role in Muhammad Ali's life, but the movie Ali wasn't able to give all the reasons behind X's fallout with Elijah Mohammed, or his assassination. I'm glad I've gotten a fuller version of the story now - like walking around a sculpture.