the better truth

the better truth

Monday, January 16, 2012

X (1992 Spike Lee film about Malcolm X)

Much Ado About Malcolm

There is a rumor that there exists a person who has not heard of the opening of Spike Lee's X, but it has been unconfirmed. No film in my lifetime has received has much publicity. "Scientific American" seems to be the only periodical which has not given its cover over to Mr. Lee, Denzel Washington (the actor who plays Malcolm X) or Malcolm himself. According to the New York Amsterdam News, one of New York's leading black newspapers: " 'X' merchandising has yielded $100 million in sales from caps, T-shirts, jackets, trading cards, posters, key chains, wristwatches, buttons, drinking mugs, refrigerator magnets, pins and air fresheners." All this prior to the film's opening. Batman eat your heart out. It lacks propriety to liken a movie about a comic book super-hero with one which tells the "real" lifestory of a murdered American revolutionary. Unfortunately the marketing of these films begs the comparison. Seeing all the "X" paraphernalia brought back memories of the "bat" craze. Putting questions of decency aside it is difficult to walk anywhere and not encounter the "X". Students of sociology can wrestle with its significance while students of advertising can marvel its popularity. Students of film, however, have little to mull over. Perhaps the most ironic aspect of X is, filmically speaking, its irrelevance. It is, however, an important work in another context.

Mr. Lee deserves much credit for persuading the Hollywood establishment to serve up some meaty fair. A high budget epic about the life of a black '60s radical is not exactly business as usual. The discussions over the final running time of a 31/2 hours must have been harrowing. Given the movie industry's penchant for making films with no social relevance (a perusal of the newspaper advertisements of the newest crop of Hollywood features makes the case- Under Siege, Candyman, Traces of Red, Dracula, Passenger 57, Aladdin, Home Alone 2…) the significance of Mr. Lee's endeavor should not be underestimated. He fought the good fight and won. Perseverance is a cardinal attribute in being a filmmaker but there is also the craft of filmmaking itself.

A good film biography lets the audience "experience" the subject. (e.g. Lenny, Patton) X gave made me the feeling that I had read an in-depth, favorable, magazine profile. The events were there, but the man wasn't. This was a re-enactment of facts, not an interpretation of a life. Mr. Lee begins with Malcolm's teenage years in Massachusetts. Stylistically he chooses fantasy over reality. Mr. Lee's "Boston: during the war years" is reminiscent of the set of "Guys & Dolls". The director also chooses to cast himself as Malcolm's goofy, but likable, sidekick. The saccharine setting is occasionally punctuated with flashbacks which illustrate Malcolm's brutal childhood. This fairy tale approach, peppered with revelations horrific childhood, does serve to soften the early criminal misdeeds of young Malcolm. It also undercuts the serious achievements of a mature Malcolm. Malcolm's re-incarnation, during his incarceration, marks a stylistic change of gears. The film moves from pure fantasy to contrived reality. Spike & Denzel are no longer sporting zoot suits and executing choreographed dance sequences. Malcolm finds religion and the film takes on a more somber tone. The problem for an audience is accepting the re-born man as "real". The best illustration of this could be seen where the camera pans around a street in Harlem to compare Malcolm X's preaching to that of other pastors. The controversial Rev. Al Sharpton was chosen for a cameo. Politics aside, personalities aside, the Rev. Al was more compelling than Mr. Lee's Malcolm. Sharpton's "realness" highlighted the staginess of the early Malcolm. Rev. Sharpton had him beat from the start; or rather because of the start.

The adult portrayal of Malcolm, although more "real" than the early years, was, nevertheless, contrived. It had the feel those television dramas in which the characters indicate, rather than act. The resulting action becomes forced. This rang true in all the major plot twists: his conversion to Islam, his marriage, his split from the Nation… The acting was professional, the facts were relevant but the overall effect was unconvincing. The confrontation with the New York City Police is a case in point. In this sequence Malcolm hears that the cops have unjustly beaten and seized a fellow Muslim. There are echoes in the crowd of "All you preachers like to talk but when it comes to action you can't deliver". Quickly cut to the police station where Malcolm is being treated rudely by the red neck looking cops. He asks them to look out the window where there are two neatly formed lines of well dressed Muslims. They relent and let him see the prisoner. Malcolm finds him near death and shouts "Get an ambulance!". An ambulance arrives. The cops ask him to dismiss the crowd. He refuses, "Not until I'm satisfied". He turns to the Muslims and shouts "To the Hospital". On they march. The demonstration in front of the hospital is loud and angry. The cops are scared. The captain begs him to dismiss the crowd. A doctor walks out of the hospital and introduces himself as the man in charge. He re-assures him that his companion will recover and is receiving the best care available. Malcolm turns to the angry mob. He holds up his hand and they fall silent. He gives a quick gesture and they march away. The red neck captain stands in disbelief. Despite the logic and factual accuracy, the overriding cause-effect rigidity suffocates the sequence. Life is not that wooden. Nothing is ever that pat and simple. No doubt this incident occurred. Undoubtedly it did not occur as it was shown.

The film's stylistic failures are not as troubling as its structural flaws. Mr. Lee did his homework but not his thinking. He turned in a work which is substantial but not substantive. The most important question a filmmaker needs to address when tackling a biography is: what does this person's life mean to me? Mr. Lee ignored the issue. He gave us what everyone would believe to be the hallmarks of Malcolm X's life (e.g. his father's murder, his family being divided, his imprisonment, his conversion, his marriage…) and asks the audience to figure it all out. Mr. Lee seems decidedly undecided. He gives us the fire of Malcolm's anger in the opening credits and closes with a universalist plea for peace complete with schoolchildren from America and Africa and a guest appearance by Nelson Mandela. This is all sandwiched in between a tepid, sanitized re-enactment of the facts of his life. Mr. Lee never bothered to ask himself the big question. There can be many reasons for the director's vagueness: fear of alienation, fear of offending a particular party, pressure to bend to an accepted point of view… Unfortunately the reason reflected in the film's actual execution would be, laziness.

X is sloppy . There are a number examples of editing which seem motivated by poor planning rather than artistic desire. (e.g. the jump-cut in the middle of the scene in which Malcolm gives his gangster mentor the disputed number, the non-sensical camera angles used to show Malcolm with his "good-girl" lover on the beach, the close-up on a tea cup to indicate a transition to a house…) Even when Lee is using his trademark head-shot montages he seems off the mark. The epilogue contains this stylistic signature by having a series of school children entering frame in close-up repeating the line "I am Malcolm X". The shot begins in a classroom in Harlem and ends in a classroom in Soweto with Nelson Mandela acting as the teacher. This device relies on rapid fire movement for its success. It works beautifully until the camera parks on Mr. Mandela. All that was needed was his visual image to make the point; at most give him a quick line. Instead Mr. Lee breaks the symmetry of the sequence by having him give a small speech. This undercut the effectiveness of the entire epilogue. Less of Mr. Mandela would have given more resonance to the closing. And as a corollary, less of Malcolm would have given more life to the film X. Mr. Lee, in his previous work (e.g. Do the Right Thing) has demonstrated he can do better.

What is Mr. Lee's motive in choosing a movie about Malcolm X? He contends he needed to portray the life a historical figure in order to educate the general public. His critics call it a tasteless exploitation a controversial black figure in order to further Mr. Lee's career. Casting himself as the likable side-kick does little to aid his defense (not mention the drag it puts on the telling of the story). Oliver Stone was harshly criticized for taking liberties with historical characters in J.F.K.. It is easy to accuse Lee of taking the process one step further: literally inserting his persona into what purports to be a historical biography. Aside of this small blemish of blatant vanity, the film reveals a director who is neither saint nor devil . This film is neither a malicious stepping stone or an important cinematic experience. Unlike the plotline of the movie, real life isn't so simple. X is a confusing, mish-mash of contradictions: artistically bland, commercially revolutionary, sociologically important, filmmically insignificant… Perhaps focusing on the film misses the point. Mr. Lee, not Mr. X is the real star here. He didn't need to cast himself in the film. He is firmly ensconced in our gallery of cultural icons. To analyzes the nuts and bolts of X is the equivalent of believing James Dean's importance lies in his contributions to the art of acting. As Public Enemy states on their album "Fear of a Black Planet":

As I walk the street of Hollywood Boulevard,
Thinking how hard it was for those who starred, in the movies
Portraying the roles, of butlers and maids, slaves and holes

Many intelligent black men seemed,
To look uncivilized when on the screen,
Like I guess I figured you, to play some jigaboo
On the plantation, what else can a nigger do.

And black women in this profession,
As for playing a lawyer? Out of the question.
For what they play Aunt Jemima is the perfect term
Even if now she got a perm.

So lets make our own movies like Spike Lee
Cause the roles being offered don't strike me
As nothing the black man could use to earn.
Burn Hollywood Burn!

To say that Spike Lee is a part of the Hollywood establishment misses the point of the song. It would be the equivalent of expecting everyone who wears an X hat to know the facts about Malcolm himself. This is the world of pop-culture where the overriding message wins-out over attention to details. Whether or not Mr. Lee is revolutionary filmmaker with a black consciousness is less important than the fact that he is a black voice that has risen to be heard by America at large. He has made it despite the appalling record of exploitation of blacks in the film industry. In a similar vein, the wearing of the X signifies a tribute to a black man who stood up to the white establishment. Anyone who wonders why such a point should be made might have a conversation with someone waiting on line for X. As a veteran movie-goer the crowds possess a more serious attitude towards this film. This isn't entertainment in the usual sense, this is perceived as "important". In the Times Square theater where I viewed it, there were the usual cat-calls from the rowdies, but not one audience member left during the entire 31/2 hours. It is easy to take Mr. Lee to task technically. There will always be raging debates about his historical accuracy and his personal morality. But all this fails to take note of his effectively using film as a springboard for difficult social commentary. Whether one likes the X, the alternative is far more terrifying. We all have Mr. Lee to thank for liberating us from the "bat".

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