25 years ago today Spike Lee’s Malcolm X was released in theatres. The fact that it even made it to theatres is remarkable. Unlike Martin Luther King, who has benefitted from revisionist history, Malcolm X was a figure not looked upon with the same rose coloured glasses.
X’s use of his platform to bring awareness to racial disparity in America rubbed many the wrong way. Considered an outspoken activist who was too “militant” and “divisive,” coded language used to denote his non-conformity, it is not a surprise that Lee had to jump through numerous hoops in order to get the film made. These same words have been associated with Lee at various points in his career. The fact that Lee had to throw in his own money, and solicit funds from the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, Prince, Bill Cosby and Janet Jackson to name a few, to finish the film speaks volumes.
It is doubtful that Norman Jewison, who was originally tapped to direct the film, would have face the same push back Lee did over the budget and creative direction of the film. Yes, his cinematic vision for the film was grand, but Lee’s film represented a type of biopic that was rarely seen on screen.
If you do a google search for biopics you get a myriad of individuals who run the gambit from historical figures (Lincoln; Braveheart) to entertainers (Chaplin; The Doors) to authors (Capote; Shakespeare in Love) to criminals (The Wolf of Wall Street; Goodfellas) to brilliant minds (The Imitation Game; A Beautiful Mind). However, the bulk of these are predominantly about white individuals. The vast list of biopics reduces considerably when you focus on people of colour. Outside of entertainers or sports figures, which continues to reinforce a longstanding stereotype, there has only been a handful of films that explore the lives of black figures.
Lee’s Malcolm X helped to open the door, if only a crack as it took another 22 years for the Martin Luther King Jr. film Selma to be made, for more diverse real-life figures to be immortalized on film.
Malcolm X was an ambitious film that was both a sweeping epic and distinctively a Spike Lee Joint. The film features wonderful moments of dramatic tension, messages of empowerment, critiques on the way power corrupts even the most well-meaning movements, great cinematography, an elaborate dance number and even a cameo by Nelson Mandela. While the three hours and twenty-two minutes running time still feels a bit bloated, especially when documenting the early hustler years, Denzel Washington’s electrifying performance is mesmerizing from begin to end.
Clearly the film tapped into a void in the marketplace. It was not hard to see the countless number of individuals decked out in “X” ball caps and t-shirts after the film was released. What the studio could not foresee was that Lee’s film was not merely a biopic, but an event. It was one of the few films that I recall my entire family, including aunt, uncle and cousin going, to see together. It was more than a film to us, it was history. One that needed to be revisited and learned from.
How much has society overall learned is still up for debate. When Lee opened the film with images of Rodney King being beaten by police and Malcolm X speaking to why the white man is the most violent thing on earth, while the American flag burned to form an X, it was considered controversial at the time.
Years later that opening, and much of the film itself, feels shockingly timely. Society has still not dealt with many of the issues raised in this film. Yes, America had its first black president, but issues of police brutality, systemic economic divide among racial lines, and the fear of black activism are still the source of much divide in the land. One needs to only see the recent FBI report on Black Identity Extremists being a threat to America for proof of the latter.
In a society where, unarmed black men and women are getting shot at an alarming rate and thousands of khaki wearing men and women carry torches while chanting racist slogans, one can only imagine Malcolm X shaking his head at the fact that activist groups like Black Lives Matter are considered the biggest threat to society.
It has been 49 years since the end of the civil rights movement and yet the fight for the true equality that X wanted before he was assassinated continues.
As Malcolm X eloquently pointed out, we may not have landed on Plymouth Rock, but we are still dealing with the ramifications of Plymouth Rock landing on us.
Malcolm X screens as part of TIFF Cinematheque’s Black Star series running from November 3, 2017 to December 22, 2017.