MALCOLM X  (1992)
Scene Analysis
Tape 2: 1:56:41
The Message

(film clip)

[1]        This scene that Spike Lee entitles "Black Intelligence" is about Malcolm's message; maybe more important, however, is how this scene reflects the message that Lee is trying to get across.  Most of the criticism concerning Lee's portrayal of Malcolm X revolves around how he comes across as "palatable" and "non-threatening" to white audiences.  Malcolm X fiercely indicted American capitalism and colonialism.  He often promoted radical solutions to America's race problem, including the complete separation of races.  But what was Malcolm trying to do?  Why did he devote his life to speaking out against America's history of racial violence and hatred?  Was it because he hated white people?  Or was it because he loved black people, his people?  Spike Lee appears to believe the latter.

[2]        Malcolm X is three hours and twenty minutes long -- long even by today's trend of long two-hour-plus epics.  In his book about the making of Malcolm X, By Any Means Necessary, Lee says that Warner Bros. wanted the movie to be less than two and a half hours in duration.  Even at three and change, it is impossible to present Malcolm's views and philosophies completely.  This scene of "Black Intelligence," however, serves as a basis for understanding Malcolm's purpose and his rise to a position in American society from which his voice could be heard.  None of the speeches in this scene actually occurred as they are presented in the film; rather, they are composites of speeches Malcolm made over the course of his life.  So, therefore, in creating the composite, Lee is clearly, and unapologetically, choosing which aspects of Malcolm's ideology to bring forth to the audience.

[3]        The first noteworthy aspect of this scene is Malcolm's growing notoriety and drawing power.  Flanked by bodyguards, and in front of two-dozen fellow Muslims, Malcolm speaks to the largest audience yet so far in the film.  His growing national political significance is also on display as we find reporters and television cameras intensely recording his speech from the front row of the crowd.  The camera pans from the large audience assembled in Harlem Square, as we hear their responses to Malcolm's words, to a close-up of him delivering his speech.

[4]        Malcolm indicts American white society for its role in the degraded condition of the urban ghetto.  He asserts that he and his fellow black folk are not part of American society -- that first and foremost they are black.  W.E.B. DuBois says in The Souls of Black Folk that the greatest problem facing his race is the problem of "double consciousness."  DuBois sees black people as viewing themselves through the eyes of white society.  This is exactly what Malcolm is asserting in his speech.  The problems of drugs, gambling, and prostitution are symptoms of the greater problem of "double consciousness."  When he says that politicians send these vices to "pacify" the black community, he is really saying that these are all historically white institutions.The black community turns to drugs and alcohol as way to seprarate themselves from themselves, to see themselves through their own eyes.  This scene shows how Malcolm believes that our government is perfectly content with the fact that the urban landscape is fraught with vice, while simply paying lipservice to the problems facing black folk.  America is not interested in having African-Americans become Americans.  Lee is stressing in this scene that the first step towards the liberation of the black race involves the liberation of the self from quick and easy alleviation that vice and temptation provide.

[5]       Next we find Malcolm in front of an even larger audience, in fact, a huge audience, and this time with Elijah Muhammad present.  Again we find that in each subsequent speech in the film Malcolm is speaking before larger and larger crowds, showing his growing prominence.  In this speech Malcolm defends both himself and Muhammad against charges of promoting hate and "black supremacy."  Instead he tells his audience that he is "love teaching" and that his teaching is a result of Elijah Muhammad's guidance.  We are granted a further glimpse into the deep adoration and obedience he feels towards Muhammad, who quietly sits, nodding his head.

[6]        When the scene cuts to Betty and their firstborn infant daughter, Attilah, reading a letter from Malcolm, we learn of his successful efforts in expanding the Nation of Islam.  This scene also depicts the familial sacrificesMalcolm has made in order to improve the condition of his people, as well as the sacrifices he makes in the name of Elijah Muhammad. Betty is shown as caring mother and wife, patiently waiting for Malcolm's return.  She is seen as the ideal Muslim woman, putting the needs of her husband before those of herself.

[7]        This scene also serves to illustrate Malcolm's feeling towards other leaders of the Civil Rights movement.  Televison clips and soundbites of men such as Dr. Martin Luther King serve as the backdrop as Malcolm indicts them as "hen-pecking, Uncle Tom, Negroes."  His main issue with them is not so much with their stance on non-violent resistance, but with their message of "love thy enemy."  This simply will not work for Malcolm.

[8]      Why is he so forceful here in asserting that loving the enemy is not the answer?  The answer can be found in the footage of police dogs attacking black men, of black men being beaten and lynched.  The issue here is violence against his people.  Malcolm is not promoting violence and hate in the broad sense.  He says that, rather, he is teaching the black community to love themselves; in so doing, a consequence might be that they will hate those who hate them and retaliate against those who strike them violently.  Self-respect is his message.  If all his people can do in the face of violence and oppression is turn the other cheek, well, then, inevitably a certain degree of self-respect will be lost.  His words, juxtaposed with the scenes of violence, make the audience understand where he is coming from, and maybe this is why he seems less than radical.  I mean, what's so radical about defending oneself from violence and hate?

[9]        Here is a quote from Lee's By Any Means Necessary that I feel really gets to the heart of this scene, and this film.  Lee says:

People asked me if I was advocating violence like Malcolm X did.  I laugh at that.  What do you think?  Is that all Malcolm X was advocating?  Or was he advocating a total black self-respect, a mind to do whatever was necessary to better yourself or uplift the race!  Remember that when he came along, Black people were being beaten and lynched and strung from trees by the double digits, brutalized all over the map, treated like the bald-headed stepchildren of America.  And Malcolm X was having none of that.  He didn't want to hear that.  So he said, okay, first things first.  By any means necessary.  You gotta be alive in order to get ahead, in order to get your rights, don't you?  (4)
While some of Malcolm's political fire and ire are glossed over in the film, it is what Spike Lee talks about here that comes out in the film, and in this scene especially.  I guess we should wonder what the film would be like had it focused on the details of Malcolm's politics.  An even better question in regard to filmic biography is this: What's more important, the historic accuracy and details or the heart of this man and his message?
 

Work Cited

Lee, Spike, with Ralph Wiley.  By Any Means Necessary.  New York: Hyperion, 1992.
 
 

Copyright (c) 2003 by John "Jaycee" Culhane, Undergraduate Student at Lehigh University.

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