Removing the Bite from Brother Malcolm

I wrote this as a response to a recent piece I read in the Guardian.

“Things get blurry” – Spike Lee on working on Malcolm X

Spike Lee set out to adapt the autobiography of Malcolm X to the big screen which might explain why it misses out so much of his later life.  But given this, it is not hard to see why the film has been called ‘the second assassination of Malcolm X’ and why it is one of Spike Lee’s most conventional films.  Either way a movie can only serve as an introduction to a subject and if this is yours there is going to be a great over-emphasis on the ‘Big Red’ phase.  Thus posing the danger that you might not appreciate Malcolm’s international thrust and could easily fall prey to the insinuation that his killing was just a bunch of black folks falling out.  The film contained some powerful scenes, like the dictionary scene, but the film wasn’t powerful.  And this despite not having to totally rely on Warner Brothers because Afro-American celebrities put up much money; the racism of Hollywood is as real now as it was in the early 1990s.

If you look into the history you will find that numerous scripts for a film version of Malcolm’s life have been written and turned down by Hollywood, including one by James Baldwin, so why was 1992 the right moment?  There can be little denying that the movie aimed to commercialise Malcolm X with tee-shirts, hats, and memorabilia all pre-ordained.  Spike Lee set out to please Hollywood with the film, to make an epic and gain some degree of acceptance, but in terms of awards and nominations he didn’t succeed.  Despite Warner Brother’s expectations for swells of an angry black audience dollar, upping the security on opening night in New York, the film faded quite quickly from memory because it wasn’t controversial or epic enough.  Some very sharp questions were left out on numerous dynamics, including on the Nation of Islam and Minister Farrakhan, possibly due to Spike Lee’s personal connection to them.  We know that Spike bowed to pressure over sex scenes in the film; so what of other, more potent, alterations? 

When reviewing the film we need to bring up issues it left out and why they were left out.  It’s not simply about time constraints in a 202 minute film or money.  With the life and legacy Malcolm X left behind it wasn’t good enough to simply do a run-of-the-mill Hollywood blockbuster; attempting to institutionalise a ‘dangerous figure’ (to middle class whites and non-whites alike).  The narrative is contemporary and alive.  Malcolm X was one of the first to radically criticise the media in addition to the political system to such a significant audience and this needed to come across.  I wasn’t looking for answers to the assassination but I didn’t want to see Spike Lee turn Malcolm X into an institutionalised poster boy like the watered down version of Martin Luther King Jr we are fed.

The flaws of Spike Lee in this film come through most poignantly when a white girl asks Malcolm, ‘what can I do?’ and he replies, ‘nothing’.  Spike Lee opens up this dialogue without closing it.  Whereas in his autobiography Malcolm follows through saying he wishes he knew where she was so he could go apologise.  As a result it is clear that Spike Lee is on a racial thrill ride for Hollywood.  It strikes me that those who knew Malcolm X knew he wasn’t perfect but it was the manner in which he tackled the situations he found himself in and questioned his own understandings.  Similarly, Malcolm X wasn’t simply travelling to African countries as some tourist might but meeting with the revolutionary leaders in those countries and talking with them at length; discussing various issues including Israel/Palestine.  These details are missing in abundance.  Because art is propaganda Spike Lee maintains the propaganda of middle-America.

The film was politically and economically mandated by Hollywood and the bottom line is that the film has nothing to do with reality but everything to do with what middle-America want to say about Malcolm X.  Malcolm X was a revolutionary and as a result his ideas were not easy to assimilate, certainly not for a Hollywood production.  I would’ve liked to see a film that concentrated on the periods of transition in Malcolm’s life not a neat highlight reel of compartments; ‘Big Red’, finding Islam, and political assassination.  In a time when globalisation is popularly criticised it would’ve been good to hear Malcolm’s ideas of internationalism as much as his ideas on racism.  But an Afro-American cannot be so complex surely, certainly not on screen. 

So the question for me is, if a film adaptation of Malcolm X’s life was made today would it still miss so many interesting and powerful parts of his narrative and his lasting impact?



It’s Logical: Times Are A-Changing

Ten years ago it wasn’t planes hitting buildings that made it hard to separate Islam from terrorism.  It was the deliberate formulation by politicians and an obedient corporate media following the doctrine of shock that told us Muslims equal terror.  Those that opposed the cries for war and sought to layer a dialogue for non-violence were easily dismissed and side-lined; in some cases alternative voices were never even considered let alone heard.  Since then some journalists have reconsidered their earlier work and backtracked but most of the mob have sought to maintain the cross-party line; subtly and explicitly Muslims equal terror.  Today there are token column inches noting contributions from Islamic people and cultures, but as with the business of sexualising girls-women, and increasingly boys-men, such tokenism serves only to maintain an illusion of fairness.

In such a context it is often hard to see the stars for the clouds, to know where fresh and meaningful voices will arise from.

As is normal the strongest voices come from the oppressed, not from elite journalistic mediators or their government bosses.  The most articulate voices are not from the confines of an academic page or within the walls of parliamentary aristocracy; meaningful voices rise up from an oppressed people using a magical combination of art, performance and politics.  Step forward Logic, step forward Lowkey.  The beats, the lyrics and the crowd all played their part in accomplishing more in a single night than most lecturers-students or corporate media-consumers achieve over years.  There was a sense of purpose and direction, of strength in diversity; combinations not permitted in the mainstream rush to fit into a middle class bubble.  Some might say that at the end of the day this was a hip hop gig complete with screaming groupies and moody hip hop heads…  Bullshit was it.  Although it indeed contained industry elements of cool and hard-hitting, conversations were being brought up in a central Southampton nightclub that are near impossible to have in other contexts. 

Logic and Lowkey didn’t bang on out Israel/Palestine all night, it was all in context, but for this writing the subject simply highlights a shift in dialogue more easily.  When I was regularly going to hip hop nights Israel/Palestine was a subject that would never have come up, a simple as-salaam alaikum might’ve got you slap as easily as it would’ve been ignored.  Now cats are rapping about jinn and the crowd are joining in like freedom of speech actually exists!  One of the most poignant moments came when Logic performed a remix of ‘Begging You’ and the crowd were singing ‘put your loving arms around Palestine’.  Doesn’t sound quite right does it?  Check the link below to hear what I mean.  The songs aren’t simply a collection of rants but thoughtout polemicals, as is suggested by the subtle mention of the Chicago School of thought in Lowkey’s ‘Obama-Nation’.

This wasn’t crap protest music; this was a serious hip hop night for serious hip hop heads.  Some great sampling, fantastic beats, timely lyrics, with on-point free-styling to boot.  There was respect to the forebearers of UK hip hop and on the day that Heavy D passed it is good to know how far the artistry has come… And that hip hop isn’t just alive but growing stronger.  Rest assured that the night can be remembered for the music and atmosphere or the political content, but should be remembered for both.  More than this, as I find with all the best things it leaves you wanting to get more involved.  Like a nostalgic reminiscing of a drum’n’bass rave the night reverberated in the chest in more ways than one.  Check out Logic and Lowkey on tour if you get a chance. 

It’s not hard to see why people have said in the past that hip and reggae artists are the people’s journalists.  Clearly Islam does not equate to violence.  Clearly there is strength in diversity.

Times are changing.  This is the UK.  This is hip hop.


Logic – ‘Begging You’ (remix):

Logic was the highlight for me: