Black History Month

Malcolm X’s World, and the World Around Us

“I am not a racist. I am against every form of racism and segregation, every form of discrimination. I believe in human beings, and that all human beings should be respected as such, regardless of their color.”

Malcolm Little was special. The only different looking kid in his class, and the top student in it, too. In school, at the very least, he looked special. That is, if you go by the dictionary definition of the word. “Distinguished by some unusual quality; readily distinguishable from others of the same category; being other than the usual.” He most certainly was. If you panned around, the other students might blend into the walls, or be indistinguishable from one another, or both. They might as well be the white streaks marking up the chalkboard, implanting blemishes to later be erased from the black surface but certain to leave behind a residue impossible to fully remove.

Malcolm, though… let it be reiterated, he was special. The son of a Christian preacher – a man who was murdered by the white supremacist Black Legion, which would go unprosecuted for their heinous crime – he was split up from his mother and siblings, all dispersed between varying foster care homes. Special indeed. “Distinguished by some unusual quality.” What about Malcolm, to those that were considered “the masses” around him, wasn’t unusual? He had no father, no mother. No siblings, no home that he could truly call his. No respect from his teacher, who spurned him unlike how he treated his other students due to his Blackness.

He was called the n-word so much that he began to assume there was nothing wrong with it.

He thought it was his name.

At the same time, he was considered and spoken of like he was invisible. He existed just as Ralph Ellison wrote of the Black experience in his 1952 masterwork, “Invisible Man”: “I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe: Nor am I one of your Hollywood movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids, and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.

“Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me, they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.” Everything and anything except Malcolm.

But he wasn’t necessarily invisible, not intrinsically, so much as he was brushed aside, cast off like a speck of dust, which he was made to feel about as big as. He was treated not as an equal, and not as a person. In his soul, for quite a while, Malcolm was nobody.

Until one day, he discovered who he was. As Ellison wrote, “When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.”

“Don’t be in a hurry to condemn because he doesn’t do what you do or think as you think or as fast. There was a time when you didn’t know what you know today.”

Seventy-one minutes of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X have passed when Malcolm Little (Denzel Washington) is asked a consequential question: has he ever looked up the word “black” in the dictionary?

Uninterested in what seems to be a futile task, Malcolm asks fellow prisoner, Baines (Albert Hall), “For what?” It’s with that classic Denzel flippancy – you know the tone – where he so effortlessly exudes indifference and confidence, somehow simultaneously. But he’s not Denzel here; he’s a pre-conversion Malcolm Little, who will someday be reborn into Malcolm X, and someday after that be reborn into el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, as he discovers and begins to live by the teachings of the honorable Elijah Muhammad. In this performance, Washington has undergone a transformation quite unlike what we might have also called transformations by actors in the past, even today. It’s a bit kitschy, how quickly we resort to saying an actor “became *insert historical name here*” in a biopic when, really, they’ve delivered tasteless mimicry. This is different, and it should be noted as such. Washington is not merely donning a pair of browline glasses, but personifying a spirit. We watch as that spirit changes over the course of 202 minutes; you’d be hard-pressed to note a moment where it doesn’t look like Washington is changing along with it.

Here, the Malcolm we find has been sentenced to ten years in prison for larceny and breaking and entering. He’s gone the way of a defector. When guards ask him to recite his number, he refuses. They gift him 10 days in solitary confinement; he asks for 10 more. Was Malcolm just too proud? Smug? Probably. Having affianced to the crime game – drug dealing, pimping, gambling, et al – for years prior to his arrest, Malcolm always ensured that his hair was bleached to a reddish color. He slicked it back and strutted around town with pomp and grandeur. He had a high opinion of himself; his ego inflated with every glance he garnered when walking past the counter at a Harlem bar.

But he was finally pressed in prison. He was held accountable for his Blackness, and how he carried himself, when Baines (a composite character, likely inspired by Malcolm’s brothers Wilfred, Philbert, and Reginald, several of whom wrote to Malcolm about the Nation of Islam while he was in prison, and Malcolm’s real convict companion, John Bembry) pushed him to open a dictionary and find “black.”

He leads Washington’s Malcolm to the prison library. He recites the definition: “Destitute of light; devoid of color; enveloped in darkness, hence dismal or gloomy, as the future looked black.” There are more alternate definitions: “Soiled with dirt; foul. Sullen; hostile; forbidding as a black day. Foully or outrageously wicked, as black cruelty. Indicating disgrace, dishonor, or culpability.

“Let’s look up white.”

After flipping through a few pages, Malcolm reads, “‘White: of the color of pure snow,’ uh, ‘reflecting all the rays of the spectrum. The opposite of black.’ Uh, ‘free from spot or blemish; innocent; pure…’” He stops, considering what he’s just read. “Huh, this is something. ‘Without evil intent; harmless; honest; square-dealing; honorable.’ Wait a minute, this is written by white folks, though, isn’t it?”

Given what he ascertained from his prior conversations with his new pupil – “Everything the white man taught you, you believed” – Baines smirks, understandably, but painfully, given what he’s about to note.

“There’s no Black man’s book,” he says.

“So, what are we reading this one for?”

Baines tells him, “Because the truth is lying there, if you read behind the words. You’ve got to take everything the white man says and use it against him.”

Malcolm begins to read through the first page of the dictionary, word by word. We have every right to be as alarmed as he is. That the aardvark is deemed an “earth pig,” not to mention one from Africa; that an abacus is reduced to a Chinese calculating instrument; that “Abaddon,” really a Hebrew God of destruction, is called “the place of the lost; a bottomless pit.” The unfamiliar, no matter the alternate definitions, is positioned in a negative light. Destitute of light, rather.

At least in Lee’s film, it appears that Malcolm awoke when he opened this dictionary. It’s not quite the Good Book you think of when you hear about spiritual awakening, but mind you, Malcolm is no Christian. Lee tracks Malcolm throughout his education and his educating, but perhaps no scene in the film depicts what it was like for the soon-to-be minister and leader to finally stir, to recognize what he may have been missing from the jump. What had he neglected while running around with Shorty (played by Lee) and West Indian Archie (Delroy Lindo), his first mentor, a man who would ultimately try to have him killed? It’s well-understood that Spike Lee is perhaps our most dynamic living filmmaker, and it’s in these sequences – those that detail Malcolm’s edification and rise to becoming Malcolm X — where he fulfills the essentials of biopic filmmaking. As Roger Ebert wrote in 1992, it “does three things at once: It entertains, it educates, and it inspires.”

“A race of people is like an individual man; until it uses its own talent, takes pride in its own history, expresses its own culture, affirms its own selfhood, it can never fulfill itself.”

I’ve always been more interested in how a biopic educates, particularly when it’s covering a person I’m unfamiliar with, or in most cases, a person I could know more about. What I knew of Malcolm X prior to watching Malcolm X was limited; I had a Wikipedia blurb’s understanding. I knew of the Islamic teachings, of his assassination, that his resting place was but a day’s drive from my house.

I had no idea that he was once called “Red,” or that he was once a drug dealer, a pimp, a robber. I knew he was imprisoned. Ignorantly, I just assumed it was because of how Black activists were treated before my time (I use “were” loosely). I was half right; I was wrong about him being an activist at that point in his life. He was a hustler, a criminal. Even more than that, he was performing his own mimicry, like actors in failed biopics, trying so desperately to be something they’re not. Better yet: urgently posing as something they can never be.

When Lee and Washington drag their feet through the street and snap their fingers to the beat of Terence Blanchard’s jazzy score early on in the film, they’re giving dynamite caricatures of men that look like background performers in Singin’ in the Rain. The score is different here than what you have in the film’s introduction; blaring trumpets imply that daunting themes lie ahead, as an American flag burns its way down to an X as Malcolm X speaks in the background. But here, it’s slinky and vibrant as the men it nudges to tap their toes. Their suits – technicolored, designed by the inimitable Ruth E. Carter – would reflect off of snowbanks and blind passing bikers. Their snappy march would turn the heads of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire; “say, doll, where’s the jig?” White women loved them, their swagger, and their ability to parade without exuding any sense of external fear. They’d eventually be arrested for that “crime.”

They’d be arrested for being Black men and behaving with a gallant polish that was socially reserved for the personalities of white men.

On those very scenes, here’s K. Austin Collins, writing for The Ringer in 2017:

“We receive all of this in big, booming, glorious filmmaking, a deliberate throwback not only to the kind of grand studio storytelling that Malcolm X wants to invoke, but also to the images and myths Malcolm himself mimicked in his interactions, style, and behavior before converting to Islam. The movie performs the kind of life that Malcolm will eventually leave behind. To understand the all-encompassing weight of it, Lee steeps us in it. When Malcolm and Shorty (played by Spike Lee) play cops and robbers in the park, it’s in zoot suits, and their voices are aping the likes of Bogart and Cagney. They aren’t playing around as black criminals; it’s white criminals they’re mimicking. Movie criminals, specifically. Life needn’t always imitate art, but what Lee’s getting after in all this, by way of Malcolm’s own ideas, is that whiteness is a fantasy that black folks didn’t yet know they didn’t have to live. The straightened hair, the suits, the attitudes, the lust for white women: Lee’s filmmaking makes it feel like racial drag. And Malcolm’s later teachings will only affirm that idea.”

White: of the color of pure snow; reflecting all the rays of the spectrum; the opposite of black; free from spot or blemish; innocent; pure; without evil intent; harmless; honest; square-dealing; honorable.

Malcolm Little, as he played racial drag, dancing around like Bogart and Cagney: the opposite of black.

If whiteness was a fantasy, one that Black folks didn’t yet know they weren’t obligated to live out, then Malcolm’s tutelage would be the restorative elixir to break the spell, and Spike Lee, its potion master. Lee, as a filmmaker, is constructively riotous, incendiary, and the architect, in Collins’ words, of the types of works that “could incite riots – but they would never have been the cause, being themselves a symptom of a great anger.” Watching Malcolm skip through the park with another Black companion, both masquerading as anything but what they truly were, might be enough to prove Lee’s furious narrativity right. By 1992, though, did anyone require a Hollywood epic to summate what anger was already there?

In pondering this concept, I found myself internally broaching a similar idea: In 2047, will we need a Hollywood epic to help us contextualize the persistent social unrest we still experience in America today? By then, it will have been the same duration of time since George Floyd’s murder that it was, in 1992, since el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz was assassinated in the midst of an impassioned speech in 1965. The man who was Malcolm – a son, husband, and father – could at least look out at his wife and young children one final time before he was killed. George Floyd could only call for his mother, a hopeless and eviscerating moment that Twitter users fed on and newscasts warned their viewers about beforehand, as if anyone should have elected to look away.

Is that what we’ll need? Or can we help to reset our national course towards annihilation from within?

Are we too far gone?

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“There is no better than adversity. Every defeat, every heartbreak, every loss, contains its own seed, its own lesson on how to improve your performance next time.”

Malcolm X is so intimately associated with Spike Lee that few have even bothered to note that, originally, it wasn’t his film to direct. Not until he made it his, rightfully and courageously. Norman Jewison, the Oscar-winning (and white) director whose films In the Heat of the Night and A Soldier’s Story had both dealt with the “theme” of race before, was the original director. Lee fought it; he won. He would direct Malcolm X as only he could: as a Black filmmaker.

“Being African-American,” he told Roger Ebert, “well, I don’t think a white director knows what it feels like to be an African-American. You might think you know, but you will never know what it means to be black in this country.”

The Hollywood executives that screened Lee’s four-hour cut of a film that would eventually run only three hours and 22 minutes couldn’t have known. That was in Los Angeles on April 29, 1992, seven months before the film would be released in theaters. Also in Los Angeles on that day: four Los Angeles police officers who beat a man named Rodney King with their nightsticks were acquitted; jurors deemed an 81-second video of the incident failed to represent the entire story. Hours after the ruling, a riot broke out on the corner of Florence and Normandie. At 8:45 p.m. that evening, Los Angeles entered a state of emergency as it burned.

When I first watched Malcolm X, I did so because I felt as though I should dare to learn. What better way to do so then to watch a film about a trailblazer than as the world was ablaze? As I pressed play, 25 minutes from my house, sections of Rochester were burning as nonviolent protests turned violent. When the film ended, I turned on the news and saw a car with smoke billowing out of each window. People – masked and unmasked, all screaming – sprinted behind a brave reporter who was on location as riots broke out behind him. He was white.

Days before, for eight minutes and 46 seconds, Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck until Floyd took his last breath. I felt that, in an effort to comprehend the senselessness, I could watch and learn, quite literally, from cinema. And I can’t say that watching Malcolm X totally served as a proper precursor for my education, but it felt right in the moment, just as it has each viewing since. Frankly, while there were surely better ways to manage, I wasn’t sure what else to try.

I’ve yet to come close to scratching the surface of my own activism, or at least my attempts to lift up others who “get it.” And I’ve yet to come to terms with the fact that, just like everyone else, I spoke up more assertively when it became “the norm.” For some – for Malcolm – it had always been the norm. The pain; the suffering; the fear. I hardly understood what it meant to be oppressed. I can’t say I understand, or that I ever will.

Time passes, and I still wonder if we’re too far gone. I have a difficult time saying no.

And time passes, too, in Malcolm X, nearing the conclusion we know to be near and yet grimace all the same. Having married his wife, Betty (Angela Bassett) and had a child, Malcolm finds himself home, tie slightly undone, but mind still racing. Betty can see it, and not being a woman at all interested in mincing words, she calls her husband on what she can read on his face. “You’re in trouble,” she says. Malcolm is, but he asks, “How you do know that?” Betty replies, “Because I know you.”

“Look, Betty, I just want peace.”

He wants peace and aims for it while others deem his teachings, those taken from the honorable Elijah Muhammad, the gospel of a terrorist. Malcolm faces death 24 hours a day, as Betty says, but his staunchest oblivion was toward betrayal. He was assassinated on February 21, 1965, betrayed by undercover audience members at his speech that day. Almost 56 years to the day, his lawyers and family members released new evidence they claimed shows the NYPD and FBI conspired in his murder. A letter written from the deathbed of Raymond Wood, who was hired by the NYPD in 1964 and tasked with infiltrating civil rights organizations, read, “Under the direction of my handlers, I was told to encourage leaders and members of the civil rights groups to commit felonious acts.”

Killing Malcolm X, el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, was his duty. Silencing a Black voice – one of the Black voices in America – was to appear covertly on the back of his paycheck that Friday.

When Malcolm was moments from being killed, he knew he was in trouble. He knew he hadn’t done all he would have been capable of, either. But at no point did he allow himself to return to the place he once was, to the slick red hair, or the polyester, ruby-red digs. Nor would he return to the point when he thought he knew the definition of the word “black.” Instead, he’d only go ahead and make it his mission to redefine it.

Take a look now. The difference is subtle. But it’s getting there.

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