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Closing the Gaps with Malcolm X

A Film Review of ‘Malcolm X’

Directed by Spike Lee, with Denzel Washington as Malcolm


Two black men sit in a prison library reading a dictionary.


“Society has given you propaganda,” explains one, ”and you must look behind it. Go behind the words, and dig out the truth.” The other prisoner then reads aloud for him the definitions of black (‘evil’, ‘wicked’, ‘dirty’) and of white (‘pure, ‘honest’, ‘square-dealing’). He cries out in shock: “But this is a white man’s dictionary!” In that moment the orphaned street-hustler and pimp Malcolm Little joined the family of Islam - and Black Nationalist firebrand Malcolm X was born.


Spike Lee’s film is propaganda – in order to dig out the truth, you the viewer must look behind it. Intended to counter the demonisation of Malcolm X, it is so skilfully done that for the intelligent viewer it rises above mere propaganda: it is a superbly scripted and directed film of an angry young man who took several wrong turns, and who was cut down - just as he had begun questioning his path - by the violence that he had earlier begun. ‘Give me liberty, or give me death’ he invited in his final months – and his former Muslim ‘brothers’ gave him his martyrdom in a black nationalist turf war he played a large part in starting.


Most people know of the firebrand Malcolm. They recognise the man who said “the only thing I like integrated is my coffee”; that the country was sitting on a ‘racial powder keg’ that must be ‘taken outside’ or else ‘explode under us all’; who demanded govt provide ‘fertile, productive land for a new black homeland’; who said white men were ‘devils’ (“not some white men, all white men”), and who advocated blacks defend themselves from the white man’s government ‘by any means necessary’; who called on blacks to ‘form rifle clubs to protect their life and property’, and that his chosen form of black nationalism was not  black supremacy, but black intelligence.’


Denzel Washington gives a wonderful performance that lays bare the angry heart of this firebrand, and shows us just how enormously persuasive he was – to hear Malcolm X speak was to have witnessed one of the world’s great orators. But the impact came from his delivery, not his words. These were for the most part predictable, tribalist incantations of anger at ‘four hundred years of white oppression’ – standard stuff you might hear (less powerfully delivered) in Castro speeches, Irish Republican bars, or Maori sovereignty huis.


But we are shown both the earlier, and the later Malcolms – we see where he had come from, and where he might have gone. We see KKK thugs murder his preacher father; the state orphaning him from his mother; we watch his subsequent descent into the pimping, pushing and thieving for which he was jailed. And we see his later life changing - his trip to Mecca and to Africa when he began to slough off much of his racism, an drealise the common humanity of all men. As he realised his errors we too share his revelation that “we should not hate the white man, but love ourselves”; that anger alone is not enough – that, in the final analysis, “for a man to raise himself up, he must first take responsibility for his life. “


We see his realisation that “my sweeping indictments of one race were wrong; in future I will judge men as individuals - freedom, justice, equality, life, liberty, pursuit of happiness – these,” he declared, “are for all people.” He had by this late stage in his life begun to wake up, to realising that blacks must throw off their ‘slave minds’ by themselves; they must by stand on their own two feet rather than demand further dependence – a point New Zealand’s Maori radicals should note well.


Malcolm bemoans what this ‘slave mind’ has done to black people:

“What happened to our men? Men who could have been mathematicians, electricians, physicians – what happened to them? What’s the little boy gonna do when he’s looking for his father and he’s downtown in jail? What’s the little girl gonna do when she’s looking for her mother and she’s selling herself on the street? I’m telling you those devils have made dead souls out of you and I. You’re dead to the knowledge of yourself…Four hundred years is long enough to sit down. It’s time to stand up!”


We are left to wonder at what Malcolm himself might have become if he had not been gunned down in the violence his words begat. He was still standing, but there was no more time left for him. Speaking of Kennedy’s assassination he declared “The white man has planted the seeds of violence, and now the weeds have grown up to choke the chief gardener…the devil’s chickens are coming home to roost.” So were Malcom’s. With his comments on the violent demise of JFK, Malcolm could easily have been delivering his own eulogy. One can only mourn the fact that he was unable to stop what he himself had started, and had only just begun to question.


His own eulogy in this film is spoken by Nelson Mandela:

“We declare our right on this earth to be a man, to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, in this society, on this earth, in this day…which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.”


Spike Lee’s direction in this movie is a triumph. It is at its best a romantic feast – heavily stylised, with great jazz, wonderfully crisp scene setting, and superb script. Despite its overt propagandising it tells the story of a man, and it invites you to be the judge.


As US Afro-American libertarian Senator Chocolate (aka Richard Boddie) says: “I knew him, and, in his heart he was a libertarian, though neither one of us knew what the hell that was in 1965. Watch the movie. Twice ! It happens to be very close to the true experience, in spite of little Spike Lee.”


Watch it, and judge for yourself.