Rating: PG-13, Time: 3hr 22min, Director: Spike Lee, Cast on IMDb
Why review this movie now?
If you haven't seen Malcolm X then you are really missing out. I saw it when it came out as it was very close to the events of Rodney King back in Los Angeles, where the police beat this black guy after a high speed chase on video. This was all pre-video phones which we have seen capture all kinds of police violence in the later years of Obama administration.
How closely do you think they portrayed the real Malcolm X, played by Denzel Washington in the film?
Denzel has a fairly close resemblance to Malcolm, so that was a good foundation to the character. I think it depends if a director develops what goes into the character. Spike Lee doesn't shy away from showing Malcolm's descent into criminality as a young youth. He uses flashbacks to his early youth such as his father's murder and being steered away from studying to be a lawyer despite being the class president in high school. Another great scene he uses is the suicidal Russian Roulette scene that plays out in the autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley. A limitation in film is that time is of the essence. You likely couldn't have played out too much of his childhood or it would be a 4 hour film that most wouldn't watch out of boredom. But his life is so wild.
What do you make of the father's lynching?
As noted in the book, there wasn't clear evidence, but seeing as the local KKK did harass the family for preaching the practices of Marcus Garvey. Especially as most of his uncles died as well at the hands of the police. It's a great background that may have been a bit more developed to drive home the point of the racism Malcolm found himself in. Of course, any American will know what the director is talking about, but for long term sake, it would have been better to play out some of these scenes like why his father followed Marcus Garvey and how these early event led up to the change in Malcolm X while in jail. In future generations, the subtlety of racist background may be overlooked. Kind of like when we watch films of the 1920s and 30s and wonder what life was really like. I'm sure they self-censored as well, which may impede us on our understanding of that day decades removed.
What do you make of the dance scene of nice girl Laura and bad girl Sophia?
In the film its a bit shorter, but stays true to the book. He basically dances once with this proper white girl (that isn't a prostitute) and realizes how the crowd gives him much greater statue just from being next to a white girl. He ends up dumping his black Christian girlfriend for this white slut. In the end, it leads the black girl to come undone by the racism they live in that black males value being with white girls over their own race. This scene captures the party scene of the era as well with the wild zoot suits and Lindy Hop style dancing. It is definitely a character build to how Malcolm X later changes as he reflects on his youthful inadequacies.
y never foresaw that the chickens would
Do you think he covered too much time on the criminal life of Malcolm X?
Well, you do need time to develop Malcolm from this country boy to city slicker turned to crime to support a drug habit. Also this lays out the attraction of Malcolm to the teachings of Nation of Islam preached in prison. Another important thing is to show the big time numbers ran by West Indian Archie played by Delroy Lindo. This is Malcolm's first encounter with a successful black business man and epidomizes his largest height of his criminal behavior before falling astray of Archie in a bad bet denial scene. Malcolm dwells on the possibility Archie could have had on the stock market vs. running an illegal numbers game in Harlem.
What do you make of the coverage of Nation of Islam?
Well, being a black nationalist movement of high success on the coattails of Malcolm X, it is a crucial era for Malcolm. It likely would have been a smaller movement if Malcolm X had lived a long life. He was shot down right after criticizing the 2nd founder Elijah Muhammed. Elijah was uncovered to be having multiple affairs with young secretaries that destoys Malcolm's faith in the leader. Then he makes the following statement that changed his destiny again:
“President Kennedy never foresaw that the chickens would come home to roost so soon...Being an old farm boy myself, chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad; they always made me glad.” Kenned
Minutes before the assassination of JFK in Dallas.
At this point the NOI leader has to silence Malcolm X, which leads to Malcolm deciding on leaving the group to travel to Arabia to visit Mecca and then on to Africa. This leads to his realization that muslims from the area of origin practice together in a spirit of raceless communion. He realizes here that the direction of Nation of Islam is on the wrong foot in that perhaps America could one day in the future become united.
What did you think of how the Oscars went that year?
Well, just looking to the importance of the film and the impact Malcolm X made in his own lifetime, you think wow, this should have gotten a lot of awards. The best director and film went to Clint Eastwood for Unforgiven, an excellent film, but nothing unexpected from Clint, and I love that film. The best actor went to Al Pacino for Scent of a Woman and Denzel got nominated. Al Pacino is likely difficult to beat, but this was likely one of the best roles for Denzel. Another thing is its not nominated for Feature Documentary. Spike Lee made the film into more of a classic plot type film, but all these elements are based off the real-life Malcolm X, so I think it should have been nominated at the least there as well. And they say Hollywood isn't racist. As Malcolm X might say back in the day,
"South Africa preached separation and lived it. Hollywood says they represent all America, but doesn't nominate films on America's racist past."
Here is Spike Lee's reaction in 2016 to the Oscars:
“But, how is it possible for the 2nd consecutive year all 20 contenders under the actor category are white?” he wrote. “And let’s not even get into the other branches. 40 white actors in 2 years and no flava at all. We can’t act?! WTF!!”
Have you ever met Spike Lee?
Funny enough I did almost. I got invited to see the preliminary screening of Chi-raq in San Francisco. So we wait for about an hour for them to choose which cinema you go to to preview the film. I think they diversify the crowds so they represent certain demographics. We are near the front of the 300-400 person line and I decide to get some popcorn before we go in. I go and stand behind this group near the popcorn lines and some guy from the group says "the line is over there". I say "ok" and walk over to the true line. Once I get back to the line, I notice that Spike Lee was there in the 2nd fake popcorn line in a hoodie (to keep anonymous at the film). The funny part is once we get in the cinema they give you all these rules about the preview: you can't discuss it, no blogging, etc. Some audience member keeps asking questions, so he immediately gets kicked out. I was dying laughing at this idiot asking questions for a free screening.
I may never get invited back to see another preview, but its a cool story to tell anyway.
Have you ever painted about Malcolm X?
Yes, I just started returning to my Political Pop style that incorporates pop imagery, movies and politics into one work. Who better than Malcolm X to do a painting on. My take has imagery from Malcolm's life in the background: NOI, the local Detroit KKK that killed his father, Conk recipe, famous black icons used in food like Aunt Jemina and Uncle Ben as well as counter images Gerbel baby vs. Spike Lee's Bamboozled baby. I have friends and enemies in there as well: JFK, Muhammed Ali and references to music while he was a hoodlam: Cotton Club in Harlem and Strange Fruit album cover. My idea is to blend all these icons into a language representing X, while not using words. These logos have their own stories that dive deep into Americana of the era.
What do you say to critics like maybe Spike Lee?
Well, Spike has issues with directors like Tarantino portraying slavery in Django Unchained. I get what he's talking about in the sense of authentic voice and not continuing the white interpretation that white-washes history. In Tarantino's case, I think he really covered slavery very well in a great fictional story. To say we are trapped by our skin color is a racist dictonomy as well. So I say I can paint Malcolm X as long as I remain true to his character and philosophy.