…and the quest to see everything

Black Masks: Lee’s Malcolm X

ph. Warner

Disgusting Muslim terrorist Malcolm X (Denzel Washington) was once Malcolm ‘Red’ Little, actor. He was Bogart to Shorty’s (Spike Lee) Cagney, the two occasionally switching roles. He’s also Burt Lancaster to a pure woman’s Deborah Kerr.

“Have you ever met one white man who wasn’t evil?” Yes, Sophia (Kate Vernon) was bitchy to Molly Ringwald, but evil? I’ve gone both ways on whether Malcolm X depicts white people as evil. Sophia loves Malcolm because he gives her freedom, but yes, she does treat him like a pet while he waits for their relationship to self-destruct. Although, in lame-evoking Frantz Fanon, we look at the outer ugliness of the ‘black man’ instead of the inner ugliness of the ‘white woman’ seducing him, intentionally or otherwise. ‘Inhuman’ as a word fits better, the child services officer behaving out of  hearsay, but with no desire to see Malcolm and his siblings stay together or have a decent home. Speaking of decent home, Sophia marries a white man for money, these white persons as much slaves as their black counterparts.

This scene is everything, their anger beautifully clashing like the third act of a Puccini opera.

I first saw this for the Islam section of our Grade 11 World Religions class. The film, Lee’s direction and Washington’ performance to me was the Angry Black Man, pushing eggs in front on the white sailor’s face on the train (in his mind anyway), reciting inflammatory sermons against the white devil, insulting the white beatnik in the university he is giving a speech to. That scene, by the way, can be a subtle and possibly inadvertent reference to “King Lear,” the beatnik’s question as Lear’s search for validation while Malcolm, as a dissenting Cordelia, gives her the painful answer she needs. Nonetheless he changes with his separation from the Nation of Islam, removing racism from his mind.

Many things have happened between then and now, including a “Mad Men” episode where those characters don’t even bat an eye at this influential man’s death. This rewatch gives the man, the film and those behind it more dimension. We’re not supposed to like him in those ugly moments, pondering, say, that young woman whom Malcolm brushes aside, her face lingering towards the camera for one more second to see the slow emotional damage he might have done to her. But there’s also Washington’s youthful grin while he’s around Sophia, working the train or when he’s learning something new. His narration like a man reaching enlightenment even when remembering Malcolm’s painful memories. Hesitating to raise his voice in times of conflict. That’s also Lee’s purpose in the epilogue. Yes, the director is comparing himself with his subject, showing the world that he, just like Mr. X, isn’t always angry. Lee shows Mr. X smiling, laughing and becoming, to more people around him, a compassionate person.

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5 responses

  1. Saw this years ago. Not sure I got it dwelling in my teenage angst. Should watch again.

    I heard a rumour that Washington didn’t want to play King because he did this, and I agree.

    June 4, 2011 at 3:55 am

  2. Really enjoyed this. That’s a nice reading of the epilogue. I never went in for the epilogue because I felt the film should have ended when the actual narrative ended but this makes me re-think it.

    Also, that scene you mention of the brushing aside of the white girl…I watched this movie in the theater as a teen who had just read the autobiography and I recall every minority laughing at that scene and the rest of us not laughing. That’s all I’ll say.

    June 4, 2011 at 11:03 am

  3. Anna: I don’t know if my teen angst wavered by the time I saw this movie. I think yes, some people might think it hasn’t left yet.

    Anyway, watching the epilogue for the first time years ago made me think that Malcolm X made me think that the man looked more like Laurence Fishburne than Denzel. My lazy casting if htere was ever an abortion of an MLK biopic is either a younger, skinnier Terry Crews or a more mature, solemn Damon Wayans.

    Nicholas: I still can’t embrace the epilogue 100%, but this newer understanding makes me closer to it. Also, what parts were the audience laughing at? Were they the same age?

    June 4, 2011 at 7:19 pm

  4. Pingback: Biography Revives Push to Reopen Malcolm X Case « Interrace Magazine

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