The movie starts with a passionate monologue from Malcolm X, which immediately captures the attention and imagination of the audience. The story starts from Malcolm X’s childhood days, when his father was a local leader who believed in Back to Africa theme. His father also used to raise the cause of black women in America, who were sexually abused by white men in the centuries gone by. This is the reason, Malcolm explains, his mother (a mulatto) marries his much darker father, as a way of removing the stain of ‘whiteness’ from the progeny. Despite this, Malcolm’s own early attractions toward white women – the case of Sophia being the most prominent – betray a confusion and lack of conformity with the sentiments of his own family and community. His preference for a straight hair as opposed to the curly African hair was also seen as aping the white man and his features. But soon his father attracts enemies due to his dissident views and is murdered when Malcolm was barely a teenager.
After his father’s death, his mother slowly loses her mind and the children increasingly become delinquent. It is in this backdrop of difficult early life that Malcolm X grows up under government care. He also gets involved in many burglaries and other petty crime. But even under these challenging circumstances, young Malcolm develops a unique and charismatic personality, which is most evident in his penchant for dance to the tunes of jazz music. The well choreographed jazz and dance sequence in the early part of the movie is especially superb. Moreover, the blues background music score throughout the movie is quite haunting – one of the highlights of the film. Another impressive technical feature is the interweaving narrative style, which cuts back and forth between his childhood years and adult years. This technique helps put the theme of racial oppression in historical perspective.
This historically significant film dramatizes the key events and transformations in the life of Malcolm X – the firebrand black leader who would introduce radical religious, cultural and political alternatives to the cause of African American community. While some other prominent leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr envisioned harmonious and equitable co-existence with their white compatriots, Malcolm X’ radical views impinged on separate nationhood for all blacks. Moreover, he advocated a separate religion, namely that of Islam, as a way of identifying with black brotherhood. He also differed from Martin Luther King Jr, in that he did not condemn resort to violence or forceful action if the need arises. This is in sharp contrast to the underlying philosophy of the Civil Rights movement, where African American exhibited non-violent civil disobedience as a way of marking their protest.
There are many memorable events and characters in the movie. The character of Elijah Mohammad, played by Al Freeman Jr, is especially quite memorable. Elijah Mohammad’s prophetic words, as brought out by the compassionate prison mate proves to be a pivotal moment in the life of Malcolm X, as the former opens up the mind and soul of the young protegee to the realities of American society. It is due to the inspirational influence of Elijah Mohammad that Malcolm X abandon’s Christianity and embraces Islam. This new religious identification is a way of separating the black community with a Christian theology that is propagandized by the whites.
Other support characters too play their part in consolidating and highlighting Malcolm X’s personality and charm. For example, Malcolm X’s white girlfriend Sophia is an interesting character, in that, though she has an intimate relationship with the former, she is later looked upon as a member of the enemy community. It was under the useful tutelage of an enlightened fellow prisoner that Malcolm X awakes to the true nature of his suffering. It is at that point he was able to see that aping white folk and consuming their poison (manifest in the form of wine, cigarettes and women) will never fetch him lasting happiness. A radical new outlook and a revolutionary deviation from the status quo is what are required.
The film-making has its strengths and weaknesses. One of the outstanding features of the film is the appropriate use of background music to accentuate the unfolding drama onscreen. The jazz and blues undertones that accompany the entire narrative are particularly well crafted. The editing is of average quality though and the screenplay is loosely handled. Perhaps the director Spike Lee compromised on cinematic appeal in order to upkeep historical accuracy. The movie is also close to 3 hrs in length, which is quite long by conventional Hollywood standards. Towards the end, it felt that the narrative is stretched out at places and could have been trimmed down without compromising on the core content.
Coming to my personal reaction to the film, after watching it I learnt that Malcolm X is one of the controversial yet inspirational characters in twentieth century American history. The racial oppression of African Americans is a well established fact throughout the nation’s existence. Starting from the first importation of black slaves into the New World, this community has continued to suffer under the iron hold of their white masters. Although their status has gradually improved over the years (the recent election of Barack Obama as President serving as testimony to this assertion) some of Malcolm X’ core grievances remains relevant to this day. In this respect the time I spent watching this movie has helped me get educated about minority issues in America.