Spike Lee’s Malcolm X came out in 1992, much too long ago to write a relevant review. Think of this not as a review, then, but an interpretation out of context. I saw the film for the first time a few days ago. Afterwards, slightly teary and numb, I realized three things. First, I realized I had made it to over 50 years knowing next to nothing about Malcolm X. Second, I realized that Spike Lee must have been born with the ability to punch his audience in the gut. Third, I realized that when you watch a film outside the box created by its immediate cultural construction, it can signify other, more universal truths.
I knew that Malcolm X was a controversial figure; the opposite bookend to Martin Luther King. I knew that he converted to Islam and said things that scared white people. I knew when the movie came out that there was controversy over whether it was too black or not black enough. But that’s about all I knew.
When you go to the theater to see a film, you usually have read reviews or heard things about it so that you go to the theater with certain expectations. In a sense, you’ve already been told how to “read” or see the film. In 1992, I would have gone to see Malcolm X at a theater expecting to decide for myself if he was a scary, militant black figure, or a misunderstood one, portrayed too harshly or too softly. But, through the magic of passing years, I had no such expectations this time, allowing me to experience a different reading of the film.
To me, Malcolm X was about a man searching for who he was and what he believed in (shiny suits, booze and drugs, white girlfriends and money). That didn’t work so well for him, and he landed in prison where he continued his search (converting to Islam, taking pride in being a black man, finding a mentor/idol, becoming an advocate and speech-maker). Perhaps to Malcolm X, at this point in his life, he felt he had arrived; his search over and his life dedicated to advocating and helping others in their search. But, that’s not the way it happened. Malcolm X found out that his mentors were hypocrites not heroes. Suddenly, everything Malcolm believed in was on shaky ground.
What Malcolm X did next is what made the film so powerful to me.
He admitted that he’d been mistaken to trust his mentors. He admitted that some of the positions he’d taken before, he could no longer support. He said, essentially, “I was wrong.” The triumph for Malcolm X was that he was able to throw out the bath water without pitching out the baby, too. He continued to be a fierce advocate for black people, but had the courage to reject the hypocrisy of the leaders in whom he’d invested so much time and devotion, and the skill to determine which pieces of his belief system were corrupt and which still rang true.
Take all the racial and religious and civil rights issues aside, (just aside, not away) and the film has a different, more universal story. Who hasn’t struggled to define themselves and the beliefs they hold? Who hasn’t been disillusioned by those in whom we place our trust? But, how many of us would have, afterwards, turned bitter, become jaded, fed up with the whole lousy thing? The real lesson here is that the story of a black man is the story of us all. Malcolm X stood for many things. His life is something all of us should know more about. But, his story, as told by Spike Lee, is a mythic tale of a hero. Like a true hero, Malcolm X searched, failed, searched again and failed, then searched some more. May we all have such stamina.