The Autobiography of Malcolm X | Critical Essay by John Locke

This literature criticism consists of approximately 10 pages of analysis & critique of The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
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Critical Essay by John Locke

SOURCE: "Adapting the Autobiography," in Cineaste, Vol. XIX, No. 4, 1993, pp. 5-7.

In the following essay, Locke discusses director Spike Lee's film adaptation of The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

At the core of Spike Lee's [film] Malcolm X is The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a story that draws from the breadth of twentieth-century African-American experience. Like any narrative contemporaneous with a past era, the autobiography contains elements that most moviegoers today would find antiquated or irrelevant. From the outset, then, Lee's intent to tell history is at odds with the needs of a mass market, and the film's transformation of Malcolm X to meet contemporary expectations has significant consequences for historical accuracy and dramatic impact.

The story is fundamentally tripartite in structure: a man leads an aimless, self-destructive life; he experiences enlightenment; he is redeemed. Since enlightenment occurs nearer the middle of the story than the end, Malcolm's prison conversion to the Nation of Islam (NOI) becomes the fulcrum on which the story teeters. Before prison, he is Malcolm Little, humiliated beyond his comprehension by a racially prejudiced society; after prison, he becomes Malcolm X, with the prerogatives of indignation as the impetus to his claim on spiritual confession and political discourse.

For Malcolm's life to make sense in the film, his post-enlightenment anger must be evenly balanced—justified—by the cruelties of his earlier years. Indeed, his childhood is sufficiently traumatic—family harassed by the Ku Klux Klan, house burned down by the racist Black Legion, father murdered, mother driven insane. The film covers these events in flashback, however, relegating them to memory. In the film's present, the adolescent Malcolm seems to be having a pretty good time, despite his involvement in various criminal activities, so the causality between past experience and present behavior, carefully explained in the autobiography, is unclear.

Putting it another way, the film distinguishes injuries inflicted by others and those which are self-imposed. One speaks to circumstance, the other to character. Lee depicts with clarity the horrors of racism that were beyond Malcolm's control, but he minimizes what Malcolm portrays in the autobiography as self-degradation, the acts of an animal. We know Malcolm 'conks' his hair 'to be white;' we see him acting comically hip in public. More serious issues of drug addiction and criminal behavior are glamorized. In the centerpiece drug scene, West Indian Archie introduces Malcolm to cocaine, but the feel is festive, not ominous. We never see Malcolm getting high in order to face his sordid occupations. Lee dampers the gravity of crime by playing the burglary racket for amusement, as when Malcolm perilously slides a ring from his sleeping victim's finger. When the gang members are sentenced for their crimes, Malcolm warms up the scene with chuckles and Shorty delivers the punchline when he mistakes concurrent for consecutive sentences. While entertaining, the light treatment of Malcolm's purported sins undermines his future role as a man returned from the brink.

In the autobiography, Malcolm's white girlfriend, Sophia, represents his repudiation of blackness through his desire for whiteness, a manifestation of self-hatred. That she was a status symbol proved the disease was endemic among his peers. In Malcolm's view, Sophia, too, acts from psychologically suspect motives, to the point of enduring his beatings. But excepting a brief exchange in which Malcolm expresses mistrust of her intentions, the film omits the complexities of their relationship, relieving Sophia of all but her color. Had the film been made in Malcolm's day, scenes of affection between an interracial couple would have shocked the audience. Today, with the taboo diminished, the mere depiction of the otherwise cordial relationship fails as a symbol of his debasement. The meaning of the scenes is cloudy.

Is the film demonstrating a problem that Malcolm will have to overcome; is it establishing his rebelliousness; or is it praising his natural egalitarianism in order to subvert his salvation by the elitist NOI? (As a preacher, he disparages his past dating of white women, but whether that expresses some poignancy in addition to parroting NOI teachings is unclear). As their relationship ends, Malcolm notes that the white judge inflated his burglary sentence to punish him for consorting with white women, completely shifting the import of the relationship from internal to external, from Malcolm's psyche to the injustice of the legal system.

The mystique of the gun weaves thematically through the film. The occasional punctuation of gunshots on the soundtrack—as when Malcolm and Shorty play cops and robbers—ring out Malcolm's destiny, elevating his death by gunshot from circumstance to inevitability. The theme counterpoints the tired association of Malcolm X with violence. We discover throughout the film that, despite Malcolm's reputation and defiant rhetoric, he was far more scholarly than violent. But while dispelling one myth, the film falls back on Hollywood stereotypes that cast the gun as a symbol of power and manhood. It begins with Malcolm's father who fires his pistol over the heads of the men who have torched his house, proclaiming, "I'm a man!" Malcolm receives his first gun in a solemn rite of passage from Archie. The gift of the weapon—Archie's first, as well—bestows the power accruing from Archie's trust and guidance. Later, Malcolm takes control of the burglary ring by bluffing his rival in Russian roulette. After the matter is resolved, and tension relieved, Sophia whispers to Malcolm, "I love you," further endowing the gun with the powers of masculinity. Rather than highlighting Malcolm's fall from civility, as the autobiography portrays this part of his life, these scenes serve the more conventional purpose of boosting the heroic stature of the role. It is not until the assassination itself that the veil of glamor falls from the gun and the prior ill-use of the theme becomes apparent. We see gunplay in all its ugliness as Malcolm is mutilated by the bullets tearing through his body.

The errant poetry of moonlit Klansmen on horseback and the other mythic images from Malcolm's childhood don't register his terror enough to establish a basis for the anger that will eventually burst forth, and what power they do contain is nullified by his guns-and-fun adolescence. For too long a period, he seems to have broken the continuum of adversity and put the past behind him. What remains is a kind of romantic victimization that protects Malcolm's image from the ravages of true degradation. We're told of his suffering but we don't have to see it. Conked hair and a white girlfriend stand in as philosophical surrogates for true pain. Lee grants Malcolm 'star quality' when the drama requires he forgo his dignity, making him special when perhaps he should be pathetically ordinary.

Rather than challenging us to oppose suffering, the glamorization of Malcolm tempts us to covet his suffering as a means toward a fabled existence. To compensate for the dearth of provocations, the film later attempts to connect Malcolm's anger with his past by having him (and others) refer to the degradations caused by his drug abuse, his pimping (which we never see), or his thievery. At one point, Baines asks Malcolm to consider whether he has ever met any whites who weren't evil. Malcolm's apparently confirming thoughts are represented by quick flashbacks of white faces, some of whom, including Sophia, have been favorably portrayed. Such techniques retroactively make his youth seem more damaging than actually shown. Pain is reduced to a debating point.

In prison, with Malcolm's rebirth looming, the film attempts to make up for lost time by putting Malcolm through the hell of solitary confinement in a bare, unlit cell. His life instantly hits bottom where the perfunctory conversion to the NOI can raise him back up. At this point, Malcolm X replaces Malcolm Little and the NOI becomes his focus.

Despite its name, the Nation of Islam is an American original and borrows little from true Islam. Its beliefs encompass an invented history of the races and the goal of self-sufficiency for African-Americans including, most abstractly, a separate black nation. Malcolm's thorough embrace of the Muslim beliefs and practices constituted much of his preaching as a minister in the organization. As in the scenes prior to Malcolm's incarceration, Lee cautiously chooses what to associate with Malcolm. Most of the NOI's more curious concepts, which include the machinations of mad scientists in the shaping of history, and which Malcolm discusses freely in his autobiography, are omitted from Malcolm's dialog. Lee does acknowledge this aspect of the NOI, however, through the words of Baines and Elijah Muhammad, men who will later discredit themselves—and thus their views—by betraying Malcolm. For example, Baines explains to Malcolm that pork should not be eaten because the pig is "a filthy beast, part cat, part rat, and the rest is dog," even though it's Malcolm's observation in the autobiography. In general, the film burdens others with the peculiarities of the NOI and leaves Malcolm with the universal messages of pride and self-discipline, though in reality Malcolm covered the spectrum.

Those who know almost nothing about Malcolm X probably know that he described Caucasians as "white devils." The oft-used term was one of the most biting expressions in his oratory. More than invective, though, the idea that all whites are devils is fundamental to Muslim doctrine. It rationalizes the plight of African-Americans and justifies separatism. Since it became so strongly identified with Malcolm X, it's interesting to see how Lee employs the term. In fact, Malcolm says "white devils" only once in the film, in a narrated letter from prison that, in other ways, amusingly demonstrates Malcolm's naiveté as a fresh convert. Afterwards we hear the term only from other Muslims. Malcolm does refer to "devils" a few times—"the devil's newspaper," "the devil's chickens" (coming home to roost)—but the closest he comes to using the term as a Muslim leader is in response to a reporter's question, "I've said white people are devils," the past tense leaving his current views ambiguous.

By separating the "white" from the "devil," Lee removes the racial philosophy underpinning the NOI's concept of evil, further distancing Malcolm from the 'religion' of the NOI. It implies his weak conviction for the NOI's counter-prejudice, thus preparing him for the idealistic high ground in his later break with the organization. Taken with the down play of Malcolm's (and the NOI's) disparagement of women and Jews by class, the overall softening of his rhetoric increases the chance that a contemporary film audience, drawn from diverse quarters, will find Malcolm appealing.

Malcolm X's departure from the NOI and its aftermath shaped the last year and a half of his life, a fittingly dramatic crisis and conclusion for the story. Superficially, Malcolm's confirmation of rumors about Muslim leader Elijah Muhammad's illegitimate children and Malcolm's tactless remarks about JFK's assassination caused the schism. But whether Malcolm 'quit' or was 'fired' is beside the point. The NOI had developed twin summits of power—Elijah Muhammad, the center of religious authority, and Malcolm X, the center of attention. Eventually one had to give way. The source of the fissure can be traced to Malcolm's mind, a division between his religious and political selves. He began as a preacher but his grass roots recruiting and lightning rod eloquence drew in many followers and the implied threat of a personal constituency. The division in his mind widened into a division in the organization. The threat might have remained benign had not his maturation as a leader within the NOI coincided with the most volatile years of the civil rights movement. While the NOI, and loyal Malcolm, eschewed political activity (calls for an unspecified black state not withstanding), the eyes of black America increasingly looked to Washington for justice. Malcolm's affiliation with the NOI threatened to render him irrelevant as an African-American spokesman. The times pressured him to make the difficult choice between his religious and political inclinations. It was his personal dilemma; it becomes the film's critical issue. If Malcolm X is to claim contemporary relevance, it cannot relegate its hero to a historical sideshow.

Malcolm's second conversion, to true Islam, resulting from a pilgrimage to Mecca, pulls the issue in two directions at once. It affirms his identity as a religious figure; it also allows him to forge an identity apart from the NOI and seek a secular political role. From a religious perspective, a second conversion begs a peculiar question: If God reveals His truth a second time, was He lying the first? What 'was' the vision of Elijah Muhammad, animated and speaking, that brings Malcolm to his knees for the first time? No such supernaturalism lifts the hajj above ritual. As shown, the principal change to Malcolm is a broadening of his outlook to recognize the fundamental equality of people. Now the seeds planted by the earlier presentation of Malcolm bear fruit. Though acknowledged as a full participant in the NOI, the film never fully dramatized his participation. Malcolm may have outgrown the absurdities of the NOI but the film never rooted him in them. He never preaches the NOI version of racial history, the theory of white devils, or any number of extreme views (although he does advocate separatism in one speech). Moreover, the film suppresses the wide differences between the NOI and true Islam. By softening the NOI and by further softening Malcolm's commitment to its philosophy, Lee 'politicizes' the second conversion by reducing it from a sweeping exchange of religions to a more palatable maturation of opinion, a maturation that moves him away from an exclusively religious perspective and towards the mainstream of the civil rights movement. The film allows Malcolm to be seen as having represented the good in the NOI, but an impractical good given the constraints; the separation from the NOI frees him to practice the good while absolving him of a bad he never seemed to believe in anyway.

When Malcolm left the NOI, he entered a political limbo between the organization he could not return to and the civil rights movement he could hardly step into after years of denouncing its proponents. His untimely death resolves his life ambiguously, leaving open forever the question of what he might ultimately have accomplished, and freeing the film to define his potential.

The assassination itself blunts the drama of the conclusion. That Malcolm was murdered by black men is anticlimactic to his movement toward a higher political consciousness. He had been a soldier on the battle lines of race but in the end was killed by his own kind. His demise fails as an opportunity to validate his threat to entrenched white power, his longstanding pessimism toward racial relations, or his status as spokesman for the race. Lee seems to recognize this because he takes a number of steps to invite the possibility that (white) agents of the government sponsored the assassination. A pair of CIA agents trail him in Egypt; we see images of rolling tape recorders, a 'bug' in a lamp shade, FBI agents listening to his phone calls; Malcolm himself blames "larger forces" for the fire-bombing of his house, after first blaming the Muslims; he speaks of, but never specifies, a harassment beyond the NOI's capabilities. None of these facts prove the authorities had Malcolm killed but the implication further raises his viability as a civil rights leader—it sanctions him with the government's fear; it makes him look too dangerous to live.

The autobiography chronicles a series of transformations to the character of Malcolm X but, in true self-reflexive literary fashion, is itself another transformation, an attempt to redefine the past to justify a current posture. Bruce Perry's well-researched recent biography, Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America, assembles a more complete account of his life. It becomes clear from this version that the autobiography is part religious testament (to the virtues of the Muslim life) and part political tract (speaking out as an African-American Everyman), while its historical aspects have been transmuted for the purposes of the broader agenda.

Lee's Malcolm X does no better as history than the autobiography, but refines the book's agenda for a modern audience needing contemporary relevance and streamlined heroes. The Malcolm X of the film is less self-conscious, less square, more romantic, less dogmatic, and less divisive than the autobiographical Malcolm X. Near the end of the film, American and South African school children jump up from their desks to cry, "I am Malcolm X!," and we know they speak of the latter ecumenical man and not the Muslim separatist who came before. The film has forgiven and forgotten the hostile rhetoric of Malcolm's past as his America would not.

Then the film goes on to suggest a new transformation. As Malcolm's visit to the deteriorated, once proud Archie hinted at what an unrepentant Malcolm would have become, so does the appearance of Nelson Mandela, perhaps the world's most respected black leader, propose what Malcolm would have become had he lived to this day. Through the conceit of giving Mandela Malcolm's words rather than letting him speak his own. Mandela becomes the film's living embodiment of Malcolm X, a last-ditch effort to rescue Malcolm from history.

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This section contains 2,832 words
(approx. 10 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by John Locke