MALCOLM X (1992)
Issue Essay
The Significance in Bringing Malcolm Back from the Dead

by jaycee culhane

The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.
(Milan Kundera)

 [1]        Malcolm X's life revolved around his desire for the voices of himself and his people to be heard.  He struggled against those who worked to keep him silent.  In the end, those forces succeeded to a certain degree, but not before Malcolm left us with enough of his words to keep people talking for centuries.  In fact, in his autobiography, Malcolm left us a permanent loudspeaker, eternally shouting out against injustice and oppression.  Spike Lee's film Malcolm X is another timeless work that strives to keep Malcolm alive and speaking despite all the efforts to silence and marginalize his memory.

[2]        Most white people who lived through the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's will often place Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. side by side as representations of Black activism: the former, a model of Black rage and confrontation, uncompromising in his stance; the latter an example of the peaceful, non-confrontational method towards achieving equal rights -- the "right way."  Martin has been seen as the good guy and Malcolm as the bad.  While Martin usually occupies a few pages in history books, Malcolm is usually found in only paragraphs.  Even after his assassination, Malcolm's detractors seek to keep him quiet.  I visited my high school in Connecticut back in February, Black History Month, and asked my sister and her friends what they knew about Malcolm X.  Those that knew anything replied that he hated white people and that he was assassinated.  When I asked several history teachers about how Malcolm was taught, they admitted that he takes a back seat to Martin Luther King when the Civil Rights discussion begins.  No one can really say why.

[3]        There is just something about Malcolm and the way he spoke and told it like it is.  There is something about the way that Malcolm had no desire to soften his message so that it would be more easily digested.  No, Malcolm came at you swift and hard, and left you really thinking about what he said.  His ideas and politics were radical, and they force one to re-think the whole foundation upon which America is based, both economically and socially.  He forces people (students in particular) to ask some tough questions about themselves and their country.  More importantly, he forces his people to take a good look at themselves and "their" country.  They are forced to ask themselves, "Can I live with dignity and in peace in this country? And if so, by what means can I achieve this?"

[4]        Spike Lee's Malcolm X seeks to bring Malcolm back from the margins in order that he can again assert himself in American society.  The film is based on Malcolm's autobiography, which is the story of his life as he evolves from a petty street hustler to one of the most influential Black leaders of the 20th century.  Malcolm's autobiography, at its heart, is a story about the power of personal growth and responsibility.  I feel that, though at times historically inaccurate and one-dimensional, the film captures the essence of Malcolm's story.

Film is history as vision.  The long tradition of oral history has given us a poetic relationship to the world and our past, while written history, specially in the last two centuries, has created an increasingly linear, scientific world on the page.  Film changes the rules of the historical game, insisting on its own sort of truths which arise from a visual and aural realm that is difficult to capture adequately in words.
(Robert Rosenstone)

 [5]        So where does the film fit in accordance to cinematic history?  Does the movie get it right?  Is Malcolm X an important enough figure in American history to warrant such a film, and, if so, does this film live up to the magnitude of the man?  What is the significance of bringing the history of Malcolm X to life on film and to millions of people?  All these questions lie at the heart of this project and this course.

[6]        Malcolm X was praised by the mainstream media for the way in which Malcolm was brought to life on the big screen.  Critics loved the performances by the key players as well as Spike Lee's straightforward narrative.  The major criticisms of the film seemed to revolve around the same things the mainstream press was applauding it for.  These critics found Malcolm to be too one-dimensional and not radical enough.  After studying his life and his words, I have found that much of Malcolm's radical philosophy on capitalism and separatism, for example, is, at best, only touched on in the film.

[7]        Another criticism of the film was the limited role that the other important people in Malcolm's life played in the film.  In Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, James Loewen warns of the dangers inherent in the heroification of history -- that is to say, the focus on the efforts of individuals over the efforts of groups of people.  Malcolm X has definitely been raised to this platform of hero.  But is this necessarily a bad thing?  In the film, the influence that Malcolm's brothers and sisters had on his conversion to Islam is omitted.  In their place is the fictional character Baines,who turns Malcolm on to Islam and the power of knowledge.  The Baines character also came to represent the betrayal that Malcolm experienced at the hands of the Nation of Islam.

 [8]        What does this all mean?  After all, Spike Lee was quite outspoken regarding the social and political importance of the film and warned audiences that they were in for a controversial ride.  Lee was quoted as saying that the film was going to stay true to the autobiography, and that he was going to let Malcolm speak for himself.  Does this jive with the fact that there are no actual speeches by Malcolm in the film?

Historical films help to shape the thinking of millions.  Often the depiction seen on the screen influence the public's view of historical subjects much more than books.
(Robert Brent Toplin)

 [9]        Lee makes great efforts to illustrate the power of learning and knowledge.  Malcolm was often fond of saying both in his book and in the film that, growing up on the streets, he came across many individuals who had the potential to do great things with their minds, but more often than not those intellects were wasted on trying to hustle a living.  The case of West Indian Archie's uncanny ability to remember figures wasted on number running is a prime example of this.  When Malcolm begins his transformation in prison, it is through the power of words that he is able to grow spiritually and intellectually.  Literally, words fill the screen during the scene in which Malcolm and Baines are reading the dictionary.  They appear bold, black, and strong on the backdrop of the white page.  The symbolism here can't be overlooked.  Each letter seems to represent Black men, struggling to come together with one another to make sense of what they see as the blank page that is White America.

[10]        The significance of Malcolm's metamorphosis cannot be overlooked.  In By Any Means Necessary (14-15), his book on the making of the film, Lee talks about how education and personal growth are considered "White" values by young Black men, the alternative being drug trafficking and gang affiliation.  He says: "some of these young Black people run around talking about how doing well in school, or even going to school is 'acting white.'  I think it's gotten critical now where you have -- I want to say millions, but I'll say a lot of young African Americans across the country, especially boys, who fail classes on purpose because of peer pressure . . . Seems the fashion is that if you're intelligent, if you do well in school, then you are 'acting white.'  But if you fail classes, if you hang out, if you get high -- then you're Black and you're down.  That's where ignorance is championed over intelligence, and that's not where we want to be. That's definitely not what Malcolm X was talking about."  Lee's quote reveals the value he places on education, and it reveals one major aspiration of the film -- to champion intelligence over ignorance.

[11]        One of the most inflammatory remarks that Lee made before the film's release was that young people should take the day off from school in order to see the film as soon as it opens.  How does this statement mesh with Lee's views on education?  The youth of today, both black and white, identify with people like Spike Lee -- the rebel, the underdog, part of the counterculture.  And Malcolm X has become a symbol of Black pride and manhood to countless young African Americans.  Lee knows that his film has the power to influence a lot of people, young people in particular. The buzz his statement and others like it created was apparent at the box office, where Malcolm X grossed close to 10 million dollars in the first weekend (the film went on to gross nearly 50 million dollars in theaters.)  It seems that Mr. Lee would gladly trade one day of school for millions of kids if it meant that a few thousand of them kept going based on what they learned from Malcolm X.

[12]        The Malcolm of the second half of the film is completely transformed from "an animal" to a man of substance and purpose.  He is someone to admire and emulate, not someone to fear and hide from.  It shouldn't make anyone uncomfortable to hear him call White folks "devils" or charge them as "murderers."  But it does.  Many whites sympathetic to the Civil Rights Movement chose to associate themselves with Dr. King because they felt undeserving of Malcolm's ire and sweeping indictments.  This uneasiness the status quo feels towards Malcolm is what keeps him in the margins of history.  Malcolm X, by focusing less on his grievances towards Whites and more on him lifting his people from the dregs of society, while less controversial and incomplete, effectively works to bring Malcolm back from the margins in a way that a book or documentary could never do.


Of all the elements that make up a historical film, fiction, or invention, has to be the most problematic (for historians).  To accept invention is, of course, to change significantly the way we think about history. . . . Accepting the changes in history that mainstream film proposes is not to collapse all standards of historical truth, but to accept another way of understanding our relationship to the past, another way of pursuing that conversation about where we came from, where we are going, who we are.  Film neither replaces written history nor supplements it.  Film stands adjacent to written history, as it does to other forms of dealing with the past such as memory and the oral tradition.
(Robert A. Rosenstone)

[13]         A film, first and foremost, is a story.  Before it is a history or a social criticism, a film is a story.  I think that historians and film critics forget this fact when they have trouble reconciling the changes in filmic histories.  In Malcolm X, the Baines character is essential in portraying Malcolm's conversion to the Nation of Islam and their subsequent falling out. The constructed speeches in the film are actually meant to represent the rhetoric found in the words of Malcolm's autobiography, not his orations.  All these elements of historical manipulation found in the film work to form the story it tells.  I mean, don't we learn just as much from our fiction as we do from our fact?

[14]       And what about that story?  This is the heart of the matter.  Why tell Malcolm's story?  Because Malcolm mustn't be forgotten.  He mustn't be reduced to the dark, menacing figure of hate that so many people see him as today.

[15]       Spike Lee shows us the Malcolm that few know or care to know.  In taking Malcolm's life from the pages of the autobiography and bringing it back to life on the big screen, Lee has humanized the man who has become a symbol.  The result is a re-examination of Malcolm's message, and one finds that it is more than relevant today, and to people of all races and backgrounds.  The film spends considerable time dealing with Malcolm's life as a criminal and drug addict.  This works to show the depths from which he rose to achieve self-liberation.  Malcolm is presented as everyman.  If he can do it, why can't we?

[16]        This film is important because it introduces Malcolm to the public as he was -- a man.  Malcolm X doesn't introduce a one-dimensional figure to the public as some might say.  Rather, the film focuses on one dimension of a complex man while presenting his life as flawed and complicated.  This allows the audience to identify with the faults of character; but, more importantly, people focus on the one dimension of the film and the man that is stressed: the power that one has within one's self to change and to grow.  This power, we find, results in a greater sense of self-respect, and that is the true path to freedom.

Works Cited

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


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

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