Twenty years is a strange age for a movie. It’s too old to be considered contemporary, but it’s not old enough to really be a classic either. Not that Spike Lee’s Malcolm X seems to be in either category. It’s mostly remembered for Denzel Washington’s lead role that many felt was overlooked for an Oscar. Its legacy certainly pales in comparison to Do The Right Thing, which Spike Lee made three years before it. It’s also a three and a half hour film, in a genre (biopic) that generally produces more award bait than good movies. So why am I, twenty years after the facts, still writing this 1000-word article about Malcolm X? Because I think it’s a great movie, for one very simple reason:
Malcolm X is the first movie I’ve seen about racism that has made me genuinely uncomfortable.
Let’s backtrack to about three weeks ago. After being directed to his writings by a friend, I was breathlessly reading through the backlog of Film Crit Hulk (by the way: if you don’t know Film Crit Hulk, fix that. If he isn’t the best online film critic I know of, he’s certainly the most thorough and original one). In most of his writings he talked about movies I was familiar with, but one title kept popping up that I never heard anyone else talk about. Spike Lee’s Malcolm X.
I had seen Lee’s Do The Right Thing, but found it underwhelming (whole other discussion). However, Hulk was so ecstatic over this movie that I decided to give it a go anyway. The movie tells the life story of the Afro-American activist. It covers his early days as a pimp, his conversion to Islam in prison, his controversial preachings, his falling out with the Nation of Islam and his assassination. Right of the bat, let me tell you that this is an extraordinarily well-made and brave film. Lee doesn’t shy away from the seedier parts of X’s life, nor tries to glorify them in the way so many other biopics do. The writing is incredible, and what Denzel Washington does with the part is just shy of a miracle. The only other time I can remember seeing a character change so completely yet so believably is Tastuya Nakadai in The Human Condition, and he took three times as long to do so.
But all that would have made the film just a very good film. And that’s not why I’m writing about it. It’s because Malcolm X is one of the first films that doesn’t allow me into its subversion.
Let me explain. We, film fans on the internet, tend to think of ourselves as belonging to a sort of counter-culture narrative. We like to think of ourselves as the trailblazers, the avant-garde, those who have seen the light when it comes to good films. Part of this is justified. We know more about films (and about culture in general) than most people. Another part of this comes from the allure of being rebellious and contrarian. There is a very simple reason for this: there are few things as gratifying as knowing better. That is, I suppose, the reason that internet film criticism is so flooded with posts about Why Director A Is Overrated or Why Everyone Is Wrong About Film B. We want to be the ones who know better than the masses. And a lot of our culture supports us in that. We read an Oscar Wilde play and laugh along at the stuck-up Victorians. We listen to Bob Dylan and howl against those who just don’t understand. We watch a John Waters movie and feel empowered against the narrow-minded weirdos of small-town America.
Malcolm X doesn’t work that way.
In case you hadn’t guessed from the cultural references in this article: I am incredibly white. Like, Vanish Oxi Action white. I grew up in a suburb, describe my musical taste as “indie” and feel self-conscious about wearing flip-flops in public. Almost the entire list of Stuff White People Like applies to me. You get the general idea. Now, normally this doesn’t really stand in the way of feeling subversive. I strongly believe in gay rights, so when I watch a film like Milk, I can feel like I am with the underdog. I like to think of myself as artistic, so I can laugh at the pranks Marcel Duchamp used to pull on the art world. I know that this might seem disingenuous, but everyone does this to a degree. We root for the underdog. And that’s fine. Finding out what you disagree with is just as important as finding out what you agree with. The problem with doing this via stories is that it can be very easy to lazily accept the worldview the storyteller sets up for us. And that’s exactly what Malcolm X doesn’t do.
Malcolm X is about someone who is defiantly anti-white. The movie isn’t coy about this either: he describes “the white man” as devils more than once. His political and religious views are radical at best and downright hateful at worst. And yet, we like him. We know where he’s coming from. We’ve been told his story, seen him in the gutter, and want him to succeed. We root for Malcolm. That’s how storytelling works. We see a man who is ambitious and strong but also flawed and human, and we root for him. But then he gets up on stage, and we can’t root for him anymore. Wait, let me rephrase that. I can’t root for him anymore.
Because I’m white.
There is a short scene in the movie, where X goes to speak at Columbia University. An eager white girl walks up to him and asks what she can do to help his struggle. Without missing a beat, he says “Nothing”, and walks on. That girl, like myself, is presented with a man she likes, a man whose personality she admires. And yet, both of us have to face the fact that his ideas very explicitly condemn us and everyone else of our race.
I am not trying to victimize myself here. In the light of the subject matter, that would be beyond childish. What I’m saying is that Malcolm X presented me with a man I admire, but can’t cheer on, because I am the villain in his story. I understand where he came from. I understand his struggle. I understand his subversion. But by my very existence, I can’t be a part of it. I am the square one here.
There is no easy way out for me when thinking about this.
Malcom X is a movie that made me realize I missed an essential part of understanding about the world. This is the highest goal a political film can aspire to. It’s one of the few biopics that doesn’t celebrate its subject, but instead shows us who he really was. The movie is three and a half hours long, which seems like an entirely appropriate time to tell the life story of a man so multi-faceted and complicated as X.
What I’m saying is this. Go see Malcolm X, if you haven’t yet already. It’s a goddamn masterpiece.