Liberate your mind.
If history has taught us anything, it was that Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. had starkly different methods to fighting racism in America. Yet they were so similar in so many other ways despite all of their differences. For instance, both men have experienced firsthand the boot and lashes of white America. Both were men of faith that were compelled to action because of what they believed. Both fought fiercely and passionately for the day that black men would be free from persecution and hatred. And both were shot and killed at 39 years old before they would ever see that day realized.
But of course, Malcolm X is not remembered by many for marching for the same causes that Martin Luther King Jr. did. Malcolm is not remembered for advocating for his fellow black men, for his fight against the evils of racism, and for his rousing speeches and words burning with passion and fire. Instead, he’s remembered because his words were filled with contention and confrontation, not the piety and the hope as Dr. King’s speeches were. Regardless of which ideology you do or don’t agree with, there’s no denying the one truth that both men share: they understood all too well of what it meant to be a black man in America.
In Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, Denzel Washington portrays the Muslim minister in an epic encapsulation of his whole life. The movie covers everything from his traumatic childhood where his family was hunted by white supremacists, to his robbery days as “Detroit Red,” to his discovery of Islam during his time in prison, to his emergence in the civil rights movement, all the way to his last days ministering before he was ruthlessly gunned down by Thomas Hagan and his crew.
Seeing Malcolm’s life play out like this gives perspective into who he was, where he came from, and what happened in his life to shape him into the leader he’s widely recognized as today. Writer-director Spike Lee illustrates Malcolm’s life story with intensity and conviction, fully committed to showing you who he was and who he wasn’t. Lee stylizes his scenes with flair and pizzazz, with Malcolm and his buddies dressed in colorful outfits, shucking and jiving down the streets in Boston while the smoke and police sirens linger in the background. But Lee’s film design isn’t gimmicky or exploitative of Malcolm X. Like Lee’s earlier films Do The Right Thing and Mo’ Better Blues, they speak to the era they’re representing and add authenticity to Malcolm’s story.
The scenes that deal with Malcolm’s faith are especially moving and touching. When he’s first introduced to Islam in his prison cell, it’s an emotionally-stirring moment where Malcolm faces who he is and how he needs to make a change in his life. When he later confronts the hypocrisies of the Nation of Islam, he becomes disillusioned to what message he’s been preaching and what his faith really represents. And when he later travels to Mecca and encounters Muslims of all ethnicities and cultures, Malcolm experiences a spiritual revival of Islam and what it means to him. It’s a poignant redemption arc that shows how he grew from Malcolm Little to becoming Malcolm X.
I can’t talk about Malcolm X without mentioning the man who plays him. Denzel Washington is simply stunning as the civil rights activist. Whether he’s portraying him in high school trying to pick up white women, running a numbers game as a gangster, or standing against oppression in the streets as an outspoken civil rights advocate, Denzel portrays each chapter of Malcolm’s life with vigor and authenticity. He isn’t playing one character so much as he is playing several characters and their many transformations throughout their lives, and he fully commits himself to every single aspect of those characters. I find it fascinating that in the really captivating moments where he was preaching to crowds and protestors, I never once thought it was Denzel reciting someone else’s words. I only saw Malcolm X.
This leads to the film’s greatest strength, and that is its honesty. With a figure as controversial as Malcolm X, it would have been too easy to shy away from the hard conversations Malcolm X forced us to have and sanitize his story for the comfort of neutral moviegoers. But Spike Lee doesn’t do that. Instead, he lays out the entirety of Malcolm X’s legacy, and he doesn’t shy away from its highs or lows. It’s no secret that Malcolm X made many disparaging remarks to many individuals throughout his life, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., President John F. Kennedy, and white America as a whole.
Yet the movie doesn’t virtue signal as to whether Malcolm was right or wrong in the statements he’s made: it just shows it the way it was and lets the audience decide for themselves. I’m not going to comment much on it myself, because my job as a film critic is to review the movie, not the person it’s portraying. I will say that if Malcolm X’s words bother you more than the lynchings, the police brutality, the white nationalism, and the racist institutions he was fighting against, then you need to evaluate whether it’s the words that bother you so much or the cause behind them.
Whatever conclusions you come to about his life, Malcolm X is a powerful film: dramatic, well-acted, and faithfully executed. The film forces you to face uncomfortable questions regarding America’s racist history, and many people may not like facing those truths. My view of it is that if Malcolm X couldn’t shy away from it, neither can we. We could all learn something from those that we don’t see eye-to-eye with. Perhaps we could start with Malcolm X.