Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. For March, we celebrate the birthday (and the decades-long filmography) of one of America’s most pioneering Black filmmakers, Spike Lee. Read the rest of our coverage here.
Black people have a lot to be angry about. One day it’s police brutality in the streets, another is the polite brutality of microaggressions from even the most “liberal-minded” people. The reasons to be angry seemingly never stop. That anger is then frequently thrown back in our faces and used to construct narratives about a supposed inherent animalistic aggression which makes us inferior and even inhuman. In a world where we constantly being told to calm down Spike Lee’s Malcolm X maintains its relevance by giving a detailed portrait of that rage and the complexities therein, with Malcolm as its avatar
One of the first things that Lee’s film establishes is that Black anger is inevitable. We open on Malcolm’s home getting firebombed by the Ku Klux Klan, shot and lit like a dream, ending with the visually striking image of a home burning alone against the midnight sky. The dream-like visuals give the image a persevering and universal quality. Malcolm X was not the only Black person to have their place of safety burnt to the ground by racists, you could look at the Tulsa Race Massacre, or even as recently as last year there was a series of burnings of Black churches.
These burnings aren’t all physical. Black spaces throughout history have consistently been the targets of attacks, some in more subtle ways like gentrification and others in more grand ways like colonialism. Lee deliberately intertwines Denzel Washington’s fiery performances of some of Malcolm X’s most controversial condemnations of white people with footage of violence against protesters in Birmingham (1963), sharply and aggressively cutting between the two. As Baldwin puts it, “To be black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage.” In contextualizing this rage within centuries of ongoing oppression, Lee shows how this Black rage in the face of this is not only natural and unavoidable – but actually justified.
In contextualizing this rage within centuries of ongoing oppression, Lee shows how this Black rage in the face of this is not only natural and unavoidable – but actually justified.
In Malcolm X, Lee also repeatedly demonstrates how anger is a powerful force. As the film progresses he shows Malcolm amassing increasingly large crowds and there’s shared anger which makes these people, making them into a unified force to be reckoned with. This is most visible when he brings a crowd from the street to a hospital in protest of police brutality, with the shouts of protest coming alongside the swelling Terrence Blanchard score. Just before they leave Washington gestures at the crowd and holds them there, silencing both them and the score. All eyes focus on the police. There is a tense and silent power in that glare – and that power is collective anger.
You can see this in a more international context highlighted in the cameo by the late Nelson Mandela. Apartheid wasn’t broken by Black people being nice enough for the white hegemony to recognize their humanity, it fell through domestic resistance and eventual international efforts driven by an outrage with the despicable treatment of Black South Africans. The same can be said for the resistance movements against colonial oppression across the continent of Africa. Even the most peaceful of liberation movements are built on fundamental anger at the unjust status quo. This is a film which understands how powerful anger can be in creating change in the world.
While anger can be powerful, there’s also an awareness that this can be toxic and misdirected. In Malcolm X, Lee displays this through the aggressive misogyny displayed throughout the film. At first, this is framed through the complex mix of hatred and desire for Sophia (Kate Vernon), a white woman who the young Malcolm Little dates before he’s imprisoned. It can also be seen later in the Nation of Islam, with its patriarchal structure and teachings, as well as the way that Elijah Muhammad, in particular, treats the women of his congregation. This fits within a long and storied history of the mistreatment of women within the Civil Rights Movement (and other similar movements) under the guise of the “reassertion of Black masculinity,” where women (particularly Black women) are made to suffer as a result of men turning that justified anger into misogynistic hatred.
Crucially this hatred is never praised or justified by Lee, particularly in the extended scenes between Washington and Vernon, which are deliberately allowed to be deeply uncomfortable and tense. In this, the film clearly follows Audre Lorde’s distinction between anger and hatred where “Hatred is the fury of those who do not share our goals, and its object is death and destruction. Anger is a grief of distortions between powers and its object is change.” I would still say one of the biggest flaws of the film is that Lee doesn’t push hard enough on the specifically gendered hatred. There’s still a consistent uncritiqued sexism throughout the film which relegates Betty Shabazz to The Sad Wife, even with Angela Bassett’s phenomenal performance in the role. In fixating on Malcolm’s postion as ‘our manhood’, Lee fails to centre the many women in the movement around him and their anger, even whilst nominally decrying the misogyny present in the Civil Rights movement. Much like in She’s Gotta Have It, Lee makes a real attempt at confronting the gender politics of his focus but doesn’t entirely stick the landing.
Despite all this righteous anger, Malcolm X reminds us that this feeling isn’t all that we as Black people have. Alongside the trauma and rage there are moments where Lee’s jovial and frenetic style can come through. This is especially present in the stylized dance scenes, with crowds of Black people just living their lives and enjoying each other’s presence with some electrifying music. There’s also the little moments in the relationships throughout the film. Washington and Spike Lee (playing Shorty, Malcolm’s best friend) have a sweet and playful chemistry that offsets the pain and cruelty. Similarly, in the moments we get of Bassett and Washington’s connection, their fantastic acting allows for love to exist in the midst of oppression. In giving us these little moments of joy and love, Lee ensures that our vision of Malcolm is that of a full human rather than just a furious piece of Black history.
Black people have a lot to be angry about, and in this film, Lee uses Malcolm X to represent that anger. But he also represents our joy and happiness, because that’s what’s key. The anger comes from a place of love and a desire for change – that is Malcolm X.