I thought Malcolm X was fantastic. While researching the joint’s critical reception, I was pleased to discover that many critics had similar reactions. Even those with serious qualms with the film generally seemed pretty damned pleased that a major Hollywood studio was producing and financing a movie commemorating the life of Malcolm X. One reviewer wrote, “That this man is the subject of the first big budget Hollywood movie on the life of a black historical figure is, in and of itself, nothing short of a coup” (Yousman 2014).
Once they laud the film for its very existence, however, many reviewers become much more critical. Interestingly, the majority of this criticism is geared toward pointing out not what Lee did wrong in the film, but rather what he did not do; what Lee failed to depict on screen.
While reading through these critiques of the film, my instincts tell me to rush to Lee’s defense. Of course one filmmaker armed with one film cannot do justice to a man’s entire life. Some aspects of Malcolm’s life must be abridged, and others must be omitted entirely. But most of the criticism goes at least a little deeper. Critics allege that Lee omits certain types of information; that Lee’s are not randomly determined.
In this post, I will focus on one critique in particular: the critique that Lee prioritized portraying Malcolm’s personal maturation over portraying Malcolm’s political beliefs. Critics allege that “Lee attempted to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, thus avoiding the most radical, dangerous aspects of X’s life and ending up presenting a diluted version, safe for mass consumption but… essentially defanged.” Another reviewer corroborates this analysis, writing, “The effect is to depoliticize a historical figure whose claim on public attention was his political insurgency” (Yousman 2014). Finally, a review in TIME magazine noted that, “the big surprise about Malcolm X is how ordinary it is.”
In terms of both content and style of the film, these writers have a point. Lee begins with a bang: the screen is dark, and then the audience hears Muslim prayers and then Denzel-Washington-as-Malcolm-X begins to speak. He declares, “I charge the white man with being the greatest murderer on earth. I charge the white man with being the greatest kidnapper on earth… I’m not an American, you’re not an American. You are one of the 22 million black people who are victims of America.” As this voiceover plays, Lee displays grainy footage of the Rodney King incident interspersed with images of an American flag slowly burning into the shape of an X. According to one reviewer, this juxtaposition conveys the notion that, “America equals racial brutality and oppression.”
After this sensationalist start, however, the film changes pace. The movie begins to construct its tripartite structure, first depicting Malcolm Little’s transformation from troubled youth to streetwise hustler, then portraying his time as the Nation of Islam preacher Malcolm X, and finally his evolution to the orthodox political nationalist El Hadj Malik Al-Shabazz.
This focus on personal development is exactly Lee’s intent. In an interview with Henry Louis Gates, Lee explains that, “We show them all… We want to show the total evolution of what made him, we want to show the three or four different people he was along the line. People tend to have one view of Malcolm, but he had many different views over his life… We want to show all the Malcolms.”
The danger of this approach is that the audience does not fully see any of the Malcolms; that in narrowing in so closely on Malcolm’s personal transformation, Lee fails to depict other elements of Malcolm’s life, such as his revolutionary and ever-evolving views on global politics and the plight of “Afro-Americans.” Assessing the significance of this failure requires answering a fundamental but subjective question: what is the importance of Malcolm X? For many, his importance were his political writings and speeches. Many remember X for effectively linking the oppression of “Afro-Americans” to historical Western colonialism and insisting on a global rather than domestic approach to this Afro-American rights. For these people, Lee’s Malcolm X may disappoint. For others, however, and certainly for Lee, much of the importance of the man is his simply the man himself. It is his transformation; his incisiveness; his wit; his warmth; his flaws; his willingness to evolve; his power; his magnetism; his courage. For these audiences, Lee’s loving portrayal of Malcolm will surely prove satisfying.
Yousman, Bill. “Lee Goes Big: Identity and Ideology.” The Spike Lee Enigma. New York: Peter Lang, 2014. 124-56. Print.