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Malcolm X, by Spike Lee

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Margaret McNair reviews Malcolm X by Spike Lee

In Malcolm X Spike Lee and his team have created a compelling film drama. It is released in Britain this month. Every reader should go to see it. It is a welcome opportunity to see a US film about a militant black activist made by a black film maker.

At its best the film exposes the pervasive racism in the USA and conveys the horror as well as the daily humiliation confronted by Afro-Americans. Its use of the infamous video footage of Rodney King being battered by white cops in Los Angeles in 1991 is a sharp reminder that the racism Malcolm fought against has not gone away.

In one of the film’s most powerful moments we see Malcolm as a fearless leader giving direction to a spontaneous protest march on a New York police station and later to a march on a hospital demanding adequate medical care for a Muslim brother battered by the cops.

Acting with superb discipline brothers from Malcolm’s Temple provide a security shield to the mass of angry but inexperienced demonstrators. Unfortunately this is one of the few glimpses in the film of Malcolm as a political leader in the Harlem community.

Lee is not primarily concerned with Malcolm’s politics and their legacy. He concentrates on portraying Malcolm as a mythical figure, magically transformed from a busted, coke-fuelled hood into a spellbinding orator and devout convert to Islam. Lee and his co-writer, Arnold Perl, seem bent on depicting Malcolm as a peculiar version of the American archetype of the “self-made man”.

Malcolm himself warned of the dangers of misrepresenting the struggles of past revolutionaries in film. Referring to John Brown, the white anti-slavery campaigner in the USA prior to the civil war, he said:

“They’re trying to make it look like he was a nut, a fanatic. They made a movie on it. I saw the movie on the screen one night. Why, I would be afraid to get near John Brown if I go by what other white folks say about him.”

Spike Lee’s treatment of Malcolm risks having an opposite, but equally wrong effect—of encouraging people to revere Malcolm rather than learn from him.

Malcolm X, originally Malcolm Little, was a petty crook won over to the black nationalism of Elijah Muhammed’s Nation of Islam while he was in prison. On his release in 1952 Malcolm became a key activist. By the end of the 1950s his powers of oratory and organisation had transformed him into one of the Nation’s most famous leaders and an international symbol of revolutionary black nationalism.

The mass struggle for civil rights in the early 1960s and the Muslims’ practical abstention from that struggle eventually led to a split between Malcolm and Elijah Muhammed. Malcolm went on to found the Muslim Mosque Inc. and then the Organisation of Afro-American Unity prior to being murdered by black Muslim assassins in early 1965.

Despite the claims of various socialists that Malcolm, towards the end of his life, became a Marxist, he never transcended revolutionary black nationalism, mixed up with a brand of utopian socialism. But the partial break that he made with black nationalism and his revolutionary commitment to black self-defence, “by any means necessary” were important points of departure for the black struggle.

Malcolm was in the process of breaking from both the religious and nationalist separatism of the Nation of Islam and the reformist strategy of the Martin Luther King-led civil rights movement. The task facing those fighting for black liberation after his death was to complete the break and make the transition to revolutionary Marxism.

It would be a piece of cultural thuggery to demand that Spike Lee’s film should have been a political tract explaining this unfinished evolution. But Lee’s weakness is that in failing to grasp the political dynamics of Malcolm’s evolution he can only offer us a spiritual interpretation of it.

We see nothing of Malcolm’s involvement, albeit limited, with organised labour in New York. In 1962 (while still a loyal member of the Nation) Malcolm lent his support to a strike by hospital ancillary workers struggling to gain recognition of their fledgling union in New York. He actually appeared at a rally after the jailing of one of the union’s key organisers.

We hear nothing of Malcolm’s increasingly open anti-capitalist statements. In its account of his pilgrimage the film focuses almost entirely on the spiritual dimension of the journey to Mecca and all but ignores the development of a world view which solidarised with the period’s ongoing anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles.

A crucial weakness is the superficial treatment of the social context of the 1960s, in particular the mass civil rights movement which rocked the political superstructure of the Jim Crow South.

Here the film begs important questions: what was Malcolm’s perception of the Martin Luther King-led de-segregation campaigns? After his decisive organisational and partial ideological break with the nation of Islam, what relationship did he seek with other black and multi-racial organisations? Instead there are shots of Malcolm clearly enraged but silent before fleeting, televised images of police brutality.

Lee’s version of the events of Malcolm’s final year strongly hints at collaboration between leading members of the Nation of Islam and the FBI/CIA in his assassination on 14 February 1965. There is no doubt that Malcolm and his family endured systematic state harassment in the last two years of his life and there is a good chance that the state was implicated in his murder.

But the film rightly avoids turning itself into a JFK-style conspiracy thriller in favour of explaining why the US State Apparatus so feared the Minister from the Nation’s New York Temple no. 7. He preached a militant message of resistance.

For all its flaws the Malcolm who emerges from the film is not a sanitised Martin Luther King-like national hero to be hypocritically embraced by the US ruling class. The film burns with justified rage against the oppression of Afro-Americans today.

A number of fine acting performances sustain constant interest in the film. Towering amongst these is Denzil Washington as Malcolm. His performance captures diverse aspects of Malcolm’s character from the trapped, self-destructive youth to smouldering religious convert and finally the principled, self-sacrificing fighter for black liberation.

Malcolm X never claimed to be a political theoretician. He was neither given nor did he develop the tools to fully analyse racial oppression and its relationship to class exploitation in the US. Even so his unflinching hostility to the established order—in word and deed—make him a worthy source of inspiration to a new generation of Afro-American, Latino and white working class youth who hate oppression.n