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?