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Malcolm X

"We've never seen no democracy - all we've seen is hypocrisy. We don't see any American dream. We've experienced only the American nightmare."

That was how the 1992 Spike Lee biographical film "Malcolm X" had opened with, a series of disturbing imagery featuring police brutality against black Americans and the American flag being burned away to form the letter X. Looking back now that I've finished the film, it's almost hilariously obvious why such an ostentatious opening was needed, not merely to highlight the kind of police violence that still exists today, but more likely, to highlight the kind of polluted image we have of the activist known as X.

In my research (while watching the film) regarding Malcolm's Muslim background, I came across a couple of interesting articles; some of them criticized the "extremist" (and filmmaker Spike Lee in regards to feminism) while others defended his tarnished image many of us still bear today. Many would remember Malcolm as the militant counterpart to Martin Luther King Jr, the Magneto to Professor X, the Batman to Superman.

One such article by Omar Suleiman on "Al Jazeera" (a news website in the Middle East), made an interesting observation. In his article, he noted that he gave his students two sets of quotes. The first one, "Ignorance of each other is what has made unity impossible in the past. Therefore, we need enlightenment. We need more light about each other. Light creates understanding, understanding creates love, love creates patience, and patience creates unity. Once we have more knowledge (light) about each other, we will stop condemning each other and a United front will be brought about," sounds like something our beloved Dr. King would say. Meanwhile, the latter, "The majority of white Americans consider themselves sincerely committed to justice for the N****. They believe that American society is essentially hospitable to fair play and to steady growth toward a middle-class Utopia embodying racial harmony. But unfortunately this is a fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity," is a more extremist view befitting Malcolm. Right? Unfortunately, the reverse is the truth. Much like the author's students (and I'm sure a number of you), I mistook the true source of each quote. History and historians tend to favor simplifying the truth for convenience, but as we know, reality is hardly simple or convenient.

I was further surprised to learn that Malcolm had intentionally allowed himself to be demonised to further the narrative that MLK was on the side of justice, whereas he... was the villain everyone could loathe. A silence martyr. I was surprised, but not confused by this decision. Watching the film, it made a lot of sense that Malcolm would be a man of such integrity. In hindsight, Malcolm's existence, his actions and, ultimately, his martyrdom were integral to Martin's Civil Rights Movement. A comment on YouTube (of all places) said it well, that "MLK was the voice of "Give us our rights," whereas Malcolm X was the voice of "Or else." Both men made great sacrifices to bring us to where we are today in 2020, but truth be told, I prefer Spike Lee's "Malcolm X" to "Selma", the latter of which feels like a higher quality Hallmark special.

Spike Lee's Malcolm X (Denzel Washington), on the other hand, is a more thorough examination of Malcolm's life contemplating just what kind of man Malcolm is and what kind of man he seeks to be, chronicling his years as a troubled kid growing up in Boston, his time in prison after a series of robberies, his meeting with "Nation of Islam" leader, Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman, Jr), his rise as an activist, and ultimately, his assassination. The last of which is a significant portrayal that separates this film from the more hopeful "Selma" (in fact, it's a lot more brutal and graphic than I expected).

I've said in my Selma review that the film's optimistic tone was an approach that befits MLK, and I still don't regret my words. It was fitting for the man, and I was glad that the film remembered him for the glory of how he lived, not how he died (although there was a brief footnote describing his murder). But Malcolm X was a different case. Malcolm was unjustifiably vilified by history, and many had voiced out that Lee might misportray him in the time leading up to the film's release. Thankfully, that wasn't the case. In the last few scenes leading up to the finale, Malcolm seemed almost prophetic of his death, like he knew he was going to be killed the moment he stepped up to that podium, uncoincidentally in the same manner Jesus knew of his betrayal. Spike portrayed him in such a way that it's left to the audience to interpret what Malcolm's final thoughts must be as he contemplated the kind of man he must become for his people, even if it would cost his life. This was made all the more tragic when I learned of his (possible) willingness to be demonized for the success of MLK.

So yes, I do think that the film needed such a violent footnote to create the appropriate gut-punch and whiplash. After following his journey and his struggle from a small-time crook to an angry extremist to his discovery of equality and brotherhood among men of all colors, I feel that it was important that his violent end was witnessed on-screen as a reminder of the injustice done not only to black people, but also his name and legacy. It was fitting then the true ending of the film was a montage of footages where African children were cheering his name while holding up a Malcolm X poster, and right as Nelson Mandela speaks of his legend in school, the kids consecutively shouts in individual shots, "I am Malcolm X!"

But if I could be frank... the Bill Cosby shot was unfortunately dated. Big oof.