Watching Malcolm X

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.


And Letters: Review of The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

I looked forward to reading Mohsin Hamid’s second novel published in 2007, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, having read and enjoyed his first novel, Moth Smoke.  What struck me with Moth Smoke was Hamid’s confidence as a writer.  Reading Moth Smoke never gave me that slight uneasiness that results from reading a new writer who hasn’t quite grown into their writing shoes.  With a more experienced writer, in contrast, you can walk to your shelf and pull off any novel by say, an Ann Patchett or a John Irving,  comfortable in knowing you are in capable storytelling hands.  Hamid is such a novelist.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist exudes the same confidence as Moth Smoke. Which is not to say that Hamid over-reaches or is shy about using unconventional storytelling techniques.  This short -184 pages- novel consists entirely of one side of a conversation between the Pakistani narrator and an American stranger over the course of one evening in a cafe in Lahore.

The tension and uneasiness that lies between all things Pakistani and all things American under-girds The Reluctant Fundamentalist as it did in Moth Smoke. Yet, the conversation is not an angry rant or confrontation.  The narrator, Changez, tells the American stranger of his  experience of being a Princeton-educated Pakistani man in New York with a promising career in a prestigious American firm.  While Changez  always feels culturally different from most of his American colleagues and friends, the benefits of his lifestyle seem to him worth any compromises.  His emotional roller coaster of angst, dissatisfaction, and guilt only begins after he has fallen in love with a troubled American young woman who cannot love him back.

As an older and wiser Changez relates his saga to the American stranger in a Lahore cafe, he acknowledges the American’s discomfort, wariness and suspicions, and attempts to allay the man’s fears. Yet, despite Changez’s likableness, the accessibility of his story, one can’t help feel the creepiness and danger inherent in the c conversation.  I vacillated between feeling compassion for Changez and scanning for veiled threats between the lines.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is the story of lost love, broken hearts, and the guilt that accompanies the lust for success and money.  It is about the cultural abyss between the haves and the have-nots and the tidal pull of patriotism and loyalty.    No matter how well we can identify with this Middle Eastern man’s feelings and experience, we are still left with “us” v. “them”.  No matter how much we like Changez, like the American stranger, we can never let down our guard.  But, then, isn’t that where bigotry begins?  Fear becomes an excuse for suspicion, suspicion breeds contempt, and contempt precludes any chance of connection.

Like Moth Smoke, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is more than a story.   It’s a guided meditation.  Hamid’s skillful storytelling allows us a safe space in which to examine thoughts and feelings that we otherwise might not acknowledge even to ourselves.