PRINT February 1993

Culture Wars

Spike Lee's Malcom X

SHORTLY AFTER THE ASSASSINATION at the Audubon Ballroom, Bayard Rustin predicted that “white America, not the Negro people, will determine Malcolm X’s fate in history.” At the time, the statement seemed ludicrous: white America appeared to have no “use” for Malcolm—not even a changed Malcolm, no longer advocating racial separatism. Today, it has found a use for him. In a field of representation that has always remained a plantation culture where black images are concerned, Malcolm X has been turned into a commodity.

Politically progressive black folks and our allies in struggle recognize that the power of Malcolm X’s thought is threatened when market forces objectify, commodify, and sell his image and ideas. Understanding the power of mass-media images to determine how we see ourselves and how we act, Malcolm himself admonished black folks never to accept images created for them by someone else. It is always better, he said, to form the habit of learning how to see things for yourself. The message is not that black folks should interrogate the images white folks produce, while passively consuming images constructed by black folks; we should look critically at all images. Malcolm encouraged the development of a critical black gaze, one that would confront, challenge, interrogate.

Yet both in the academy and on the street, black admirers of Spike Lee have sought to discredit any voice not unequivocally celebratory of his film Malcolm X. Black critics of the movie risk being seen as traitors to the race, or as personally hostile to Spike. (Lee himself tends to be quick to denounce his critics.) Filmmaker Marlon Riggs, among others, has warned that such silencing prevents the development of black cultural criticism. His comments are worth quoting at length:

At one forum, Spike Lee was asked several questions by a number of people, myself included, about his representations in his movies. The audience went wild with hysterical outbursts to “shut up,” “sit down,” “make your own goddamn movies,” “who are you, this man is doing . . . positive work, why should you be criticizing him?” . . . even when it is clear that the critique is trying to empower and trying to heal certain wounds within our communities, there is not any space within our culture to constructively critique. There is an effort simply to shut people up in order to reify these gods, if you will, who have delivered some image of us which seems to affirm our existence in this world. As if they make up for the lack, but in fact they don’t. They can become part of the hegemony.1

This is certainly true of Spike Lee. Despite continuing hype that depicts him as an outsider struggling against the white movie-industry establishment, Lee is by now an insider, able, say, to force Warner to hire him as director of Malcolm X instead of the white filmmaker initially chosen. The folks at Warner were likely unmoved by Spike’s narrow identity politics—his insistence that for a white man to make the film would be “wrong with a capital W.” Rather, they recognized that his presence would draw the bigger crossover audience, and thus ensure the movie’s financial success.

Committed to megasuccess himself, Lee had to create a work that would address a predominantly white audience. Ironically, then, his film had to resemble other epic Hollywood dramas, especially fictive biographies such as JFK. There is nothing visual in Malcolm X to indicate that a white director could not have made it. This seems especially tragic since Lee’s brilliance has surfaced most when he has combined aspects of real events with fictive dramas, as in Do the Right Thing, providing insightful representations of blackness that emerge from familiarity and have never before been seen on screen.

To appeal to a crossover audience, Lee concentrates on the part of Malcolm’s story that most easily fits Hollywood’s stereotypical representations of black life. Even while he was making the film, critics like Amiri Baraka were concerned that he would focus on Malcolm’s years as a hustler, to entertain white audiences. This early insight has proven astute: the character Lee devises has more in common with Steven Spielberg’s representation of Mister in The Color Purple than with real-life descriptions of Malcolm X. In “Blues for Mr. Spielberg,” Michele Wallace writes, “There’s a gap between what blacks would like to see in movies about themselves and what whites in Hollywood are willing to produce. Instead of serious men and women encountering consequential dilemmas, we’re almost always minstrels, more than a little ridiculous.”2 The comment could equally describe the first half of Malcolm X, with its dance-hall and barbershop scenes. Prophetically, Wallace continues, “I suspect that blacks who wish to make their presence known in American movies will have to seek some middle ground between the stern seriousness of black liberation and the tap dances of Mr. Bojangles and Aunt Jemima.” Clearly this is the middle ground that Lee tries to negotiate in Malcolm X.

Lee’s own presence in the film, as Malcolm’s friend Shorty, intensifies the sense of spectacle. It sometimes seems as though he were competing for attention with Denzel Washington as Malcolm, upstaging him with comic antics. Washington had been cast before Lee joined the project. A box-office draw, he never stops being Denzel; his real-life persona as everybody’s-nice-guy makes it impossible for him to convey the seriousness and intensity of a black man consumed with rage. In casting Washington, the white producers were already making Malcolm less militant, more open, so that white audiences could identify with him.

Once the part of the movie depicting Malcolm’s youth is over, the remainder is a skeletal, imagistic outline of his later political changes. None of his powerful critiques of capitalism and colonialism is dramatized. Also, Lee has not explained why he showed a fictional prison inmate leading Malcolm to Islam instead of Malcolm’s own brother and sister (as Malcolm describes in his autobiography). Indeed, Malcolm’s character is constructed throughout as without family, though members of his family were always present in his life. Presenting Malcolm as a symbolic orphan, Lee erases his complex relations with black women—his mother, his sister—making it appear that the only women important to him were his sexual partners. The effect of excising Malcolm’s engagement with family and community is to cast him as the lone hero, reinscribing him within a venerable Hollywood tradition.

Again, although Malcolm’s widow, Betty Shabazz, told Lee that she and Malcolm did not argue (the Nation of Islam deemed obedience paramount in a wife), the film shows her “reading” him in the same bitchified way that Lee’s previous black women characters talk to their mates. Certain stock, stereotypical, sexist images of both black and white women emerge in the movie——they are either virgins or whores, madonnas or prostitutes. But that, after all, is Hollywood. Perhaps Lee could not portray Malcolm’s sister Ella because Hollywood has not yet created a visual space in which a politically progressive black woman can be imagined.

It is equally true that there is no place for black male militant rage in Hollywood. Finally, it is Malcolm’s militancy that the film erases. Lee seems primarily fascinated not by Malcolm the political revolutionary—not by the critique of racism in conjunction with imperialism and colonialism, and certainly not by the critique of capitalism—but by Malcolm’s early view of racism as a masculinist phallocentric power-struggle between white and black men. Thus the film’s major moment of political resistance is the episode in which Malcolm galvanizes Nation of Islam men in a face-off with white men around the issue of police brutality, scenes in which he is portrayed as a Hitler-type leader, ruling with a leather-clad iron fist. Deflecting attention away from the righteous resistance that catalyzed the confrontation, the film makes it appear that all this is a “dick thing”; yet another shoot-out at the OK Corral. But that, too, is Hollywood, and Hollywood at its best, for this is one of the movie’s more powerful sections.

Lee insists that there is no revisionism here. Boasting that his film will “teach,” educating folks about history, he asserts, “I want our people to be all fired up for this. To get inspired by it. This is not just some regular bullshit Hollywood movie. This is life and death we’re dealing with, this is a mindset, this is what Black people in America have come through.”3 To ensure that Malcolm X would not be a “regular bullshit Hollywood movie” Lee could have insisted on accuracy. Many who see his film do not know the “true story”; his misrepresentations could permanently distort their understanding.

Lee’s conflict is his desire to make a drama that would both convey the spirit and integrity of Malcolm’s life and work and compete with—mirror— Hollywood epics made by white male directors (his mentors). As the film’s coda, stirring documentary footage, compelling testimony, and then South African schoolchildren and Nelson Mandela show that Malcolm’s legacy has global impact; yet Malcolm X as militant black revolutionary has by this time been erased—consumed by images. The Malcolm we see at the film’s end is alone, suicidal, maybe even losing his mind. Richard Dyer has analyzed how Hollywood renders the black image powerless: “Black people’s qualities could be praised to the skies, but they must not be shown to be effective qualities active in the world. . . . they must not be shown to do anything, except perhaps to be destructive in a random sort of way.”4 So Lee’s final images of Malcolm suggest it is foolhardy and naive to think there can be meaningful political revolution—to think that truth and justice will prevail.

In no way subversive, Malcolm X reinscribes the black image within a colonizing framework. But, like other bad movies with powerful subjects, it touches the hearts and minds of folks who bring their own meanings to it, connecting it with their own experience. Young black folks can brag of the way the fictional Malcolm confronts white folks, even as young white folks leave the theater relieved to see that Malcolm was a good guy. Lee’s movie follows the renewed interest in Malcolm generated by hip-hop, contemporary cultural criticism, and various forms of militant activism. These voices are needed resistance against today’s commodifications of Malcolm, and against the renewed attacks on him in the mass media, which are now bombarding us with the notion that ultimately he had no heroic dimension. For example, though Malcolm lets any reader of his autobiography know that during his hustling days he did “unspeakable” acts (the nature of which might be guessed by anyone familiar with street culture), his biographer Bruce Perry assumes that to name these acts is to expose Malcolm as a fraud.’ No doubt Perry’s book shocked many who need to believe their icons are saints, but nothing he revealed diminishes Malcolm’s work to advance the global liberation of black people from white supremacy. Elsewhere, magazines that rarely focus on black life, like The New Yorker, have also run anti-Malcolm pieces. The December Harpers has an article by black scholar Gerald Early; when black folks denounce Malcolm they usually gain credibility in the white press.

Significantly, Lee makes no connection between Malcolm’s personal rage at racism and his compassionate devotion to alleviating black people’s suffering. Malcolm X does not compel empathetic experience of the pain and sorrow of black life in white culture; there’s nothing that would help folks understand the necessity of rage and resistance, nothing that would let them see why, after working all day, Malcolm would walk the streets thinking “about what terrible things have been done to our people here in the United States.” The beating of Rodney King, shown at the start of the film, is a graphic reminder of those “terrible things,” but is quickly displaced by the minstrel show. Thus does Malcolm X seduce us to forget the brutal realities that created black militancy.

As Michele Wallace warns, there is no place in Hollywood movies for the “seriousness of black liberation.” Lee’s film is no exception. It does not compel us to confront, challenge, and change. It encourages us to weep but not to fight. To take liberation seriously we must take seriously the reality of black suffering. Ultimately, it is this reality the film denies.

bell hooks is a feminist cultural critic and theorist who lives in New York and is a professor of women’s studies at Oberlin College, Ohio. Later this spring she will publish a longer version of this piece in Zeta.


1. Marlon Riggs, quoted in Kalamu ya Salaam, “Interview: Marlon Riggs,” Black Film Review 7 no. 3, p. 5.

2. Michele Wallace, “Blues for Mr. Spielberg,” Invisibility Blues: From Pop to Theory, New York: Verso, 1990, p.75.

3. Spike Lee with Ralph Wiley, By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations of the Making of Malcolm X, New York: Hyperion, 1992, p. 68.

4. Richard Dyer, Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society, New York: St. Martin’s, 1986, p. 90.

5. Bruce Perry, Malcolm: The Life of a Man Who Changed Black America, Barrytown, N.Y.: Station Hill Press, 1991.