The film follows the arc of X’s life from his unfortunate childhood to his days as an indolent and criminal youth to his years in prison and finally to his life as a minister for the Nation of Islam. The boy who grows up smoking, drinking, using drugs, and engaging in organized crime becomes converted to a faith in black supremacy through the efforts of one fellow inmate, an apostle of Elijah Muhammad.
Elijah Muhammad was the second leader of the Nation of Islam, an American Muslim offshoot founded in 1930. He reigned for 45 years, preaching a doctrine recognized by no other Islam sect. The film exposes a large number of the religion’s articles of faith, which in large part are bizarre at best and violently racist at worst. Malcolm Little finds himself easily convinced of the white race being comprised fully of devils, and other such nonsense.
The main thrust of the religion, however, is one of empowerment. Even if the faith itself is strange, the message is benign. Black people should put aside all forms of addiction, own the businesses in their communities, and ensure their own education. Eventually X would convert to Sunni Islam and change his mind about racial equality. He would no longer preach a message of segregation, but turn to a more cooperative effort in his last days. There is an interesting argument to made, however, for the extreme views of his original church. It’s entirely possible that without Malcolm X, there would have been no sense of righteous indignation amongst the African American community. Though other Black leaders had attempted to change the state of racism in America, it was Malcolm X who made white people begin to feel afraid. While that fear may no longer be useful, it was an important stage in the drama of segregated America.
This opinion was hard won. Early in the film I resented the message of the Nation of Islam on general principle. But as I listened to Malcolm X in his early sermons, when the main thrust of his message is Black empowerment, I can’t help but agree with him on most of his points. It’s only later in his career when he preaches full segregation that I find myself turned off by his sermons. Even the controversial “Chickens coming home to roost” quote (his response to the assassination of John F. Kennedy) makes a sad sort of sense. In the end, it was the best quote he ever made, because it led to his separation from the Nation of Islam.
Long before this, however, X gives a speech to an all-white university classroom. He denies the common perception that he hates whites. He talks about how his communities need to get off drugs and take care of their families. That is how you gain respect, he says. Any man can make a baby, but it takes discipline and commitment to truly be a father. It means taking care of your family. This is his message. Who can argue with that?
According to the script of the film, the day of the assassination seems foreordained and unavoidable. X and his family have been terrorized for weeks up until this point by members of the Nation of Islam. He has recently left the organization and followed his own path. He has taken the trip to Mecca, he has prayed with men of all colors, and he has changed his mind about the fundamental principles of his faith. He has sworn off his resentments toward both Christian black leaders and sympathetic Whites. He has become an even more potent message for change, as he has undergone so much change himself, and found an even deeper conviction to truth and justice. His talent as a speaker and organizer can more fully impact the nation now that he has embraced the concept of integration and brotherly love. This is, of course, when civilizations tend to kill a man.
The film claims that Malcolm X knew that he was walking to his death that day. Despite the warnings, he decided to go on with a regularly scheduled sermon. He told his security staff not to search the members of the congregation as they entered the temple. He told his personal guard to leave him and run petty errands. He made apologies, embraced his friends, and walked out to the podium from which he would be shot once by a shotgun in the chest, and 16 times by two handguns.
Just before this happens, when he was alone with his personal guard and just before sending him off to make an unnecessary phone call, X says, “It is a time for martyrs.” What Spike Lee is telling us is that rather than maintain strict security, rather than go into hiding, rather than take any practical measure to protect himself, Malcolm X willingly if not eagerly walked into his own death. I believe that we’re supposed to admire his strength and courage. But I have never really bought into the martyr thing. It’s possible that this death amplified his message more than old age and natural causes could have. But then again, how clear is his belief to us today?
I remember the fashion craze which led up to the release of this film. The few Blacks, many of the Polynesians, and thousands of White kids came to school decked out in baseball caps and t-shirts emblazoned with the largest capital X the fabric could fit. I suppose some of them listened to Public Enemy, but I doubt, many of them read the autobiography. Once the movie was released, most of that gear went away. Did the explicit, tangible expression of X’s life as portrayed by Lee stop the X gear? Was his message so complex that kids no longer felt comfortable attempting to make it marketable? Or was the fact that Ebert called it one of the best movies of the decade just too much adult acceptance for hip teenagers to bear?
But I was talking about his martyrdom. Perhaps it will cause more children will learn about the faith he held for equality, and the ability he showed of a black man to overcome an exceedingly difficult upbringing. His father had been killed by the KKK, after all, and his brothers and sisters were all taken from the mother by a heartless social services system. There is indeed a powerful lesson in Malcolm X’s life. Perhaps the manner of death is just as important.
But here’s my problem with it. If he really did know what he was walking into, and if his six young daughters really were sitting in the front row, and he could have avoided it, how does his decision square with his definition of being a father? The man isn’t perfect, for sure. And it’s easy to judge his decisions sitting here all white and male in the Salt Lake exurbs of 2010. I don’t take any of my thoughts here too seriously, because, as I mentioned, all of this information comes from a film, and movies always lie. In the end, the opinion I have is that the film is well-made, Denzel Washington, along with the rest of the cast, is remarkable, and as for Malcolm X, I do admire his strength and courage, even as he left his daughters behind. In the end, I suppose I can only say that he was clearly trying to do one last good thing.