Just finished Spike Lee’s 1992 biopic, Malcolm X--I’d added it to my Netflix queue and then forgot about it. I ended up loving it--Spike’s fantastic direction* [God, that opening crane shot of Roxbury!] and Denzel's performance helped me get over the fact that holy crap two full disks with a running time of 3+ hours.
I didn’t know much about Malcolm X other than his reputation as a black separatist and kind of a firebrand. [I had heard about the red hair though! Frustratingly nearly all the pictures I can dig up are in black and white—Denzel publicity stills will have to do for now.]
|Check out that awesome Art Deco jewelry store sign font in the background--|
I know they filmed in NYC but I can't seem to track down that particular location.
The movie takes a pretty candid, unbiased look at his life—his whole life, not just his career after prison [and Malcolm had a pret-ty colorful life before he went to prison]. But my favorite section was the closing sequence, when Malcolm arrives back in the States after making his hajj to Mecca. At this point he has left the Nation of Islam on very poor terms--having firebombed his house, someone is now planning his murder. The explosive pop of the flashbulbs at the press conference, the constant ringing of the telephone in the Shabazz household and in his hotel room, daring Malcolm or his wife to risk hearing another hissed threat, another promise of death--it is genuinely nerve-wracking.
Then the murderers show up at the Audubon Ballroom the day before to case the joint, lurking in stairwells and checking out exits as a room full of black teenagers do the Jerk and the Monkey to the exuberant, relentless “Shotgun” by Junior Walker and the All-Stars—and the camera does a dizzying, tight 360 turn on Malcolm’s face as he is forced to acknowledge what is closing in on him.
I said shotgun!
Shoot 'im 'fore he run now...
Do the jerk, baby
Do the jerk now
Put on your red dress and then you go down yonder...
I said buy yourself a shotgun now, we're gonna break it down baby now
We're gonna load it up baby now
And then you shoot 'im 'fore he run now...
And over all this is the shrill sound of the telephone, constantly ringing. It's a brilliant scene. It’s unbearably claustrophobic--it's hard to breathe.
And then Lee brings us to tears with a marvelous sequence of Malcolm on his way to the Ballroom and knowing, somehow, that today is the day. He's in his car at first, hunched over the wheel of his car wondering whence his fate will come. That car next to me? Those men driving behind me? Who's pulling up next to me? And then we see him walking his last few steps, his final march, toward the Audubon. It's a dolly shot [the camera and the actor are wheeled along a track] and it gives Malcolm's last march an incredible grace, an elegaic dignity, as Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come" floats overhead.
One of the saddest** things about Malcolm’s murder—besides, of course, that three men pumped numerous rounds into him knowing his four little girls were watching—was how...pointless it was, how unnecessary. Unlike, say, Martin Luther King Jr. or Abraham Lincoln, Malcolm wasn’t murdered because of his principles. The killers were angry because of Malcolm’s break with the NOI, and his growing stature--in other words, it came down to junior high school drama. Certainly Malcolm X has a complicated legacy and among Americans in general nowhere near the saintlike status of Martin Luther King [but then I suspect he would not have wanted that kind of approval]. But it cannot be denied that he was gifted and intelligent, a thinker and speaker who never stopped challenging himself and evolving, who went to prison and became a better man, who traveled across the world on his pilgrimage and came back a better man. A man with that kind of promise, those gifts to offer--not just his community but all of us--was gunned down...because of drama. [It’s nearly as depressing as John Lennon’s murder—that voice, that talent, snuffed out because some useless tub of butter wanted to be famous.]
We have to keep in mind at all times that we are not fighting for integration, nor are we fighting for separation. We are fighting for recognition...for the right to live as free humans in this society.
*I’m a biiiig fan of Spike Lee’s work--the man just loves making movies and it shows in his work. Started with the fantastic Summer of Sam [about 1977, a seminal year in NYC history what with the Blackout, the Yankees and Mr. October and…oh, yeah, the Son of Sam], then went on to the awesome School Daze [raise your hand if you have “Good and Bad Hair” as one of your YouTube favorites--oh, I see you in the back row, hellz yeah!] and his wonderful documentaries, the heartbreaking Four Little Girls in particular.
**I find it indescribably sad that this past week, as I was writing this, Malcolm's grandson and namesake was found dead in Mexico City, beaten to death over a bar bill. Malcolm Shabazz had a terribly troubled past and was in fact responsible at the age of 12 for the death of his grandmother, Betty Shabazz, Malcom X's widow. Going back further, Malcolm X's mother was committed for mental illness after her husband, Malcolm's father, was murdered by white racists, so there may have been a genetic component there. So much sadness for one family. May those six little girls [twins were born after Malcolm was assassinated] find some peace.