FILMS

Generation X

Spike Lee revives a fiery black martyr

Brian D. Johnson November 23 1992
FILMS

Generation X

Spike Lee revives a fiery black martyr

Brian D. Johnson November 23 1992

Generation X

Spike Lee revives a fiery black martyr

FILMS

X: it signifies the unknown. And for Malcolm X, the black nationalist leader who changed his name from Malcolm Little, it stood for an African identity erased by centuries of slavery. Now, 27 years after his assassination, X stands for a lot more. It has become an icon and a trademark for his children’s generation. A symbol of defiance, X marks the spot where Black Power was bom. It commemorates a martyr who has eclipsed Martin Luther King in the minds of many young blacks. Emblazoned on hats, shirts, mugs, potato chips and air-fresheners, X has also become a commodity, another variable in America’s algebra of excess. But this week it regains some meaning with the release of Malcolm X, the eagerly awaited movie by American director Spike Lee, whose original baseball cap turned the X into the most effective Hollywood gimmick since the Batman bat. On the whole, the movie lives up to expecta-

tions. With an ungainly length of nearly 3V2 hours, Malcolm X is demanding fare. It is a sprawling, sometimes awkward epic, marred by touches of self-indulgence. But it is a passionate, inspirational and beautifully acted piece of work. Based on The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1964), which was written with author Alex Haley, the movie gives full scope to a powerful story. And its star, Denzel Washington, delivers a sensational performance. Not only does he bear an uncanny resemblance to Malcolm X, but the actor incarnates his spirit with intelligence, warmth and subtle humor. Washington keeps the character credible no matter how heroic Lee’s portrait becomes.

Meanwhile, in making Malcolm X, Lee seems to have adopted his subject’s credo, “By any means necessary.” His ambitious, $43million movie is the product of a crisis-ridden shoot, with locations ranging from Manhattan to Mecca. To bring it to the screen, Lee had to

appease both studio executives and Black Muslim leaders. And the movie itself offers a coalition of styles, ranging from Hollywood musical to Harlem manifesto. It combines entertainment, political drama, a history lesson—and outright propaganda. “This film is propaganda,” said Lee in a round of Maclean ’s interviews with him and his cast last week in New York City. “We are taking a stand.”

The movie opens with an incendiary image that underscores Lee’s genius for mixing promotion with provocation. An American flag fills the screen. Gradually, flames lick through the fabric, burning the stars and stripes into the shape of an X. Intercut with the sequence is the now-infamous video of the Rodney King beating, accompanied by a recording of a Malcolm X speech that ends with, “I don’t see the American Dream, I see the American nightmare.”

But in the end, the movie is more uplifting than inflammatory. Its hero is a man who shakes off a life of petty crime and emerges from prison to make an indelible mark on history—a man in constant evolution, broadening his black nationalism to embrace racial tolerance in the months before his death. The movie omits some of his more regrettable moves, including his clandestine meeting with Ku Klux Klan officials in 1961 to solicit their support for segregation. And it leaves out ^ his more offensive extremes I of anti-white rhetoric. “But 1 white America comes into “ the movie thinking that’s all £ Malcolm was anyway,” says g Lee, “and we’re not going to o solidify that. At the same time, I don’t think we candycoated Malcolm X either.” Like last year’s JFK, which challenged the assumption that the Kennedy assassination was the work of one Cold War crackpot, and like next month’s Hoff a, which resurrects Teamsters legend Jimmy Hoffa as a hero, Malcolm X turns a Sixties myth upside down. Presenting a kinder, gentler Malcolm, the movie tries to destroy the perception that he was a man of violence. “He wasn’t violent,” says Washington, whose portrayal is layered with civility and tenderness. “He said if someone is blowing up your church and killing your babies and lynching your father, and your government is unwilling to protect you, then you should protect yourself. That’s not violence. That’s intelligence.”

Bom in Omaha, Neb., in 1925, Malcolm Little was raised on the receiving end of racial violence. In the movie, he is haunted by flashbacks to his boyhood—of the Klan’s night riders swooping down on his family home with torches, and of his father, Earl Little, dying

under the wheels of a streetcar, allegedly a victim of white vigilantes. “It has always been my belief that I too will die by violence,” Malcolm X predicts in his autobiography.

But the first part of the movie unfolds as a flamboyant romp through Malcolm’s early days as a street hustler in a red zoot suit. Betraying his black girlfriend, he enjoys heartless sex with a malleable blonde named Sophia (Kate Vernon). And, under the wing of a West Indian gangster (played with finesse by Delroy Lindo), he becomes a racketeer.

In an apparent attempt to expand the movie’s epic scale, Lee stages a couple of gratuitous spectacles, including a dance-hall scene that looks like it has dropped out of a vintage musical. The director also performs a distracting cameo as Shorty, Malcolm’s partner in crime. But as Malcolm begins his jail term, on 14 counts of burglary, the Hollywood colors drain from the screen, and the real drama takes hold.

In prison, Malcolm is converted to the Nation of Islam by a convict named Baines (Albert Hall), a charismatic disciple of black nationalist leader Elijah Muhammad.

Malcolm adopts Islam’s puritanical code and devotes himself to reading. He copies out the entire Webster’s dictionary page by page. And, after 6V2 years behind bars, he walks free in 1952, armed with a political education and a moral doctrine. He is a polite, articulate man in a dark suit who has given up drinking, swearing and fornication—and who has decided that the white race is the curse of civilization.

Out of prison, Malcolm marries Betty (Angela Bassett), an Islamic woman who meets with his leader’s approval. While she bears him six children, he becomes a tireless spokesman for the Nation of Islam, swelling its ranks with ardent speeches, and striking fear into the heart of white America. Upstaging Elijah (AÍ Freeman Jr.), Malcolm provokes resentment in the Nation of Islam. And after he exposes Elijah as a womanizer, it expels him.

The story’s final chapter unfolds as heartbreaking tragedy. On a pilgrimage to Mecca, Malcolm expands his horizons, coming home with a pan-African program that favors integration with whites. But he is shadowed by constant death threats. Ten months after his return from Mecca, his wife and children watch him cut down by a hail of bullets in New York’s Audubon Ballroom. Quoting Malcolm X’s own reflections before his death, the movie implies that larger forces than the Muslim leadership were behind his assassination. Although Lee’s film does not dwell on the conspiracy angle, the director maintains that the Nation of Islam “had help from the CIA and the FBI. They tapped his phones. They knew what was happening

and just let it happen—at the very least that was their involvement.”

Portraying the Nation of Islam, meanwhile, required some delicacy. Lee consulted with its leader, Louis Farrakhan, and hired Nation members for security on the set. Still, although Farrakhan warned him that the movie must not malign Elijah, Lee’s portrayal is less than saintly. “One of Elijah’s weaknesses was young women,” says the director. “The Nation’s party line is that his eight or nine secretaries were his wives. But I’m not buying that. If they were his wives, why were they thrown out of the Nation when they got pregnant?”

In making the movie, Lee has displayed a bravado and tenacity worthy of Malcolm X himself. In 1990, he scooped the project away from Canadian director Norman Jewison, who

had already enlisted Washington as his star. “We had dinner in New York,” Lee recalls, “and Norman was gracious enough to back out. A white director would not get the Nation of Islam to talk to him. More importantly, he can never know what it means to be called a nigger, to not be able to get a cab in New York City, to see white people in cars lock their doors when you approach.”

Teaming up with producer Marvin Worth, who had been trying to make Malcolm X since 1967, Lee rewrote a script originally penned by novelist James Baldwin, who died in 1987. Lee asked for a $42-million budget, but Warner Bros, drew the line at $35 million. Lee forged ahead anyway, and as the production went more than $6 million over budget, the studio’s financial guarantors moved to shut it down. Lee called up friends including Bill Cosby, Michael Jordan and Oprah Winfrey, who helped bail him out. Raising the spectre of Hollywood racism, Lee took his fight with Warner Bros, to the media. While the studio insisted that the movie be no longer than 2xh hours, Lee said that it deserved to be just as long as the marathon JFK. They also tried to

talk him out of filming Nelson Mandela in South Africa for the epilogue. On both issues, Lee got his way.

Even after the movie was completed, Lee generated more headlines by saying that he would prefer to be interviewed by AfricanAmerican journalists. Meanwhile, he has come under fire from black intellectuals, such as Amiri Baraka, who said that he was too “bourgeois” to film Malcolm X. “I’ve never had a bourgeoisie mentality nor a bourgeoisie upbringing,” says Lee. “My father was a jazz musician. Even though he had a wife and five children to support he wasn't going to play some type of music he didn’t want to play.” In fact, creating controversy is a big part of Lee’s marketing wizardry. And, as a promoter, he claims that he is rivalled only by Madonna.

“But if I had breasts,” Lee adds with a cackle, “if I had some titties, watch out.” Some critics have called Lee a misogynist for his treatment of women onscreen. In Malcolm X, however, he has a hero whose sexism was inseparable from both his era and his Nation of Islam creed. “You might say Malcolm was retro as far as women were concerned,” says Lee. Still, the movie portrays him as a loving family man. And, as his wife, Angela Bassett displays an assertive streak. In fact, after seeing the movie, Malcolm X’s widow, Betty Shabazz, told Maclean’s, “I have always wanted to be like that. Had I been that assertive I never would have ended up as Mrs. X.”

But both Shabazz and her eldest daughter, Attallah, say that the film captures Malcolm. “For people who only knew my father as someone behind a podium,” says Attallah, “I think it offers his heartbeat.” Indeed, the emotional intimacy of Washington’s performance, especially in the final hour, is what makes Malcolm X so powerful. Against formidable odds, Lee has created black America’s first political epic. And by sweetening his hero a little, he is only doing what white Hollywood has done with its heroes for years.

During his life, Malcolm X was an uncontainable force. Now he is suddenly contained—by Hollywood, by the media and by the selling of his surname. But his message has lost none of its relevance. “There are more black people in poverty than ever before,” Lee points out, “and more black men in prisons than in colleges. The resurgence of Malcolm X is filling a void felt by young African-Americans.” And, although he shrugs off any comparison to his hero with prudent modesty, Spike Lee has helped fill the void left by Malcolm X.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON in New York City