Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don't even call it violence when it's self defense. I call it intelligence.
When Spike Lee concluded Do the Right Thing with the paired quotations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, Lee ignited one of the many controversies that have marked —some might say marred—his film career. By countering King's support for nonviolent protest with X's rationalization for the use of violence, Lee was advancing a justification for the critical action in the film undertaken by Mookie (importantly, the character played by Lee)—the initiation of a race riot. Lee recently explained his attitude toward the disparate views offered in the quotations: "I felt akin to Malcolm. I couldn't get with that total nonviolent doctrine of King, which was disastrous."
Anyone who has followed Lee's theatrically released films throughout the last half-dozen years [She's Gotta Have It (1986), School Daze (1988), Do the Right Thing (1989), Mo' Better Blues (1990), and Jungle Fever (1991)] would not be surprised by Lee's allegiance to the teachings of Malcolm X. He has sprinkled the words, images, and philosophy of Malcolm X in every one of his movies. However, Lee's desire had always been to devote an entire film to a profile of Malcolm X. As Lee states in his book, By Any Means Necessary, concerning the making of Malcolm X: "There was always a connectedness to this movie that was vague, somewhere off in the future."
Although critically-acclaimed director Norman Jewison, best known for Moonstruck and A Soldier's Story, had already signed-on to make a movie starring Denzel Washington as Malcolm X, Lee, resorting to any means necessary, obtained the assignment to direct the film based upon Alex Haley's 1965 "as-told-to" Autobiography of Malcolm X by threatening Warner Brothers with a harassment campaign through the media. Playing the race card, Lee informed The New York Times that no white man should be allowed to direct a black film. Lee declared: "It's wrong with a capital W. Blacks have to control these films." Angrily, Jewison relented under the pressure. As well, Lee eventually secured for himself the scriptwriting duty from Charles Fuller, who had also worked on A Soldier's Story. Achieving the total control he is used to enjoying, Lee was thus able to fashion the image of Malcolm X he had always wanted to present to the public.
Spike Lee's manipulation of the media for his advantage has become commonplace. The popularity of the "X" as a fashion statement on baseball caps, T-shirts, and other articles of clothing among some in society is a direct result of a two-year media blitz by Lee, cleverly producing continuous promotion for his movie and himself, valuable advertising that cost Lee nothing. In American entertainment, Spike Lee is to racial politics what Madonna is to sexual politics—an exhibitionist whose self-promotion, self-importance, and frequent self-indulgence distorts the subject matter at issue and, rather than creating consensus, creates controversy by polarizing opinion. In By Any Means Necessary Lee writes, "The only person who does marketing better than me ... is Madonna. She's the champ." Like Madonna, Lee attempts to attract attention through outrageous expression: regrettably, his long list of racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic comments, some vile and profane, is legendary.
As one might expect, Lee's film version of Malcolm X's story is as controversial as any of his previous works. Perhaps most significantly, Lee frames the life of Malcolm X with two propagandistic sequences. First, he projects an introduction containing the notorious videotape of the Rodney King incident and the burning of an American flag. Then Lee presents a closing segment displaying newsreel examples of white racism during the civil rights struggles of the Sixties, footage of the real Malcolm X, chanting Afrocentric teenagers, fourth-grade students rising in a classroom to declare their solidarity with Malcolm X, and Nelson Mandela speaking the lines leading up to X's infamous closing statement, "by any means necessary"—a phrase, interestingly enough, Mandela reportedly refused to speak, unwilling to associate himself with violence. However, in a recent Esquire interview Lee declared of Mandela's homeland: "Black South Africans are gonna have to kill people .... I'll be rejoicing. Who knows? We might see the same tactics here someday." In a famous article published by New York magazine after the release of Do the Right Thing, Joe Klein accused Lee of carelessly inviting violence from young blacks in that city. Clearly, Lee's attitude toward the presence of violence in contemporary society ranges from insightful to inciting.
Conversely, the rest of the film represents what some critics have labeled "a sugar-coated Malcolm X." This softening of X's image is easily seen in the first phase of the film, his criminal days in Boston and New York. Rather than portraying with any kind of realism the degraded pimp or the dope-dealing "coke-head" prone to violence one encounters reading the autobiography, Lee romanticizes X's early years of crime and immorality. In fact, at times during the first hour of the film, Lee's version, complete with beautifully scored, carefully choreographed dance-hall numbers and comical criminal capers, appears to be more reminiscent of Guys and Dolls than the Autobiography of Malcolm X. Later in the film, Malcolm X's political rhetoric is depicted more moderately than history suggests. Denzel Washington, once again offering a superb performance and demonstrating an acting excellence equaled by few, illustrates some of the anger exhibited by Malcolm X. However, the script does not accurately extend for examination the individual about whom Martin Luther King once commented, "Malcolm has done himself and our people a great disservice"—a line echoed in the film by a civil rights leader whom Malcolm X derogatorily mocked and whom Lee's direction holds up for ridicule. Indeed, in his 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech, King seemed to be addressing Malcolm X when he noted: "In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred."
Although many may profess an inability to detect Malcolm X's racist, anti-Christian, and anti-Semitic behavior or language in his practice and preaching, the multitude of mean messages expressing racial hatred and religious intolerance throughout most of his life are as indisputable as the air one breathes but cannot touch, taste, or smell. As Marshall Frady has written recently in an extensive profile of Malcolm X for New Yorker magazine, "Malcolm's seemed a vision of humankind's nature reduced to the basest, most minimal terms of anger and retribution for abuse .... Indeed, it does no service either to the reality of Malcolm or to history, to try to moderate in memory the racial vituperativeness of his oratory then." Even in the last six months of Malcolm X's life, after his celebrated visit to Mecca, a time to which some point as an indication of his transformation—if only from extremist to radical—Malcolm X still endorsed divisiveness. Theologian Albert Cleage, who worked with Malcolm X, denies a transformation occurred, commenting, "if in Mecca he had decided that blacks and whites can unite, then his life at that moment would have become meaningless in terms of the world struggle of black people." Just before his murder in 1965, Malcolm X's public pronouncements continued to promote separatist, anti-Christian, and anti-Semitic attitudes.
By the light of contemporary standards, Malcolm X also might be seen as a misogynist for the sexual behavior early in his life, and later on for his narrow, cynical views on the inherent nature of women, easily exemplified by his statement, "All women, by their nature, are fragile and weak," or for his insistence on limiting women's roles in society. Malcolm X believed "you never can fully trust any woman .... Whatever else a woman is, I don't care who the woman is, it starts with her being vain."
Lee's film ignores Malcolm X's dim view of women and tries to explain away his racial and religious animosity by flashing back to incidents representing hatred and violence against Malcolm X's family during his childhood years. However, Lee's account alters some information recounted by Malcolm X in his autobiography and ignores recent research revealing facts that dispute many of the accusations of racist persecution claimed by Malcolm X. For example, in his 1991 biography, Malcolm, Bruce Perry refutes Lee's scenes which depict Malcolm X's father being murdered by white racists and which show Malcolm X's family home being torched by the Ku Klux Klan. In fact, Perry discloses that Malcolm X met covertly with the Ku Klux Klan in 1961 hoping to obtain cooperation in their mutual desire for a separatist society. Furthermore, Perry also offers evidence that the 1965 fire set to the black leader's New York home may have been set by Malcolm X, himself, for personal gain in publicity or for vengeance against the Nation of Islam, which was about to repossess the property.
The blending of fact and fiction in a film presentation billing itself as historical biography is a disturbing trend in filmmaking. Repeatedly, and often for practical purposes, Lee has drawn comparisons between his film and Oliver Stone's 1991 movie, JFK, significantly, Lee also cited JFK to Warner Brothers when hoping to be granted a similar budget and three-hour length for his own film. However, the two directors, who do admire each other's work, have additional similarities that are hard to overlook. Both are extremely talented filmmakers, each possessing passion and the artist's eye. In fact, one might conclude that the two are occasionally overly didactic and too interested in impressing the viewer with their technical expertise. Although Malcolm X is mostly conventional, Lee's use of flashback cuts and the annoying matte shot that has been inserted in just about every one of his films ultimately distract from, rather than enhance, the narrative. Undeniably, Malcolm X contains numerous examples that display a great moviemaker at work; yet, like all Lee's previous works, Malcolm X is flawed and not a great film.
The pair of directors also suffer a distinct weakness in their filmmaking: sometimes they are blindly driven by the political issues on behalf of which they wish to persuade, allowing impairment of their narratives and character development. As a consequence, their films at times become dogmatic. Nevertheless, one must concede that in Malcolm X at least Lee finally has found a character with a legitimate reason to preach to the camera. In the movies by Stone and Lee, inaccuracies mount, and facts sometimes are sacrificed completely for the sake of making a political point. Stone's JFK abounds with conspiracy plots that are unsubstantiated; likewise, Malcolm X implies a number of secret plots that remain unexplained. Despite evidence to the contrary, Lee allows the viewer to believe the government cooperated in the assassination. Like Stone's The Doors, celebrating singer Jim Morrison in an exercise of hero-worship that becomes muddled and loses all sense of objectivity, Lee's overly adoring homage to Malcolm X also strays from any objective perspective. (Pre-release information indicates Danny DeVito's Hoffa also rearranges history to offer a more sympathetic view, presenting the shady union leader as "lovable." In addition, critic Michael Medved reports that Sir Richard Attenborough's forthcoming Chaplin, a biography of Charlie Chaplin, manipulates facts to emphasize a more politically-correct point of view.) Finally, at times some of these films tend to slip from the historical toward the hysterical. As a product of their many lapses and inaccuracies, the credibility of these directors is increasingly called into question.
While directors like Lee and Stone continue to proffer their stilted views as Hollywood social lessons or cinema agitprop, like much of recent revisionism, their films will exist as politically correct, but historically incorrect. Recently, Carl Rowan suggested in his syndicated column: 'The whole Malcolm X phenomenon is a glaring, sometimes dismaying, case of moviemakers and others revising history and making a man who had dubious impact in life appear to be a towering social and political figure long after his death." As a couple of critics have commented on Lee's film: "good movie, bad history." Nevertheless, as the last few years have proven, perhaps this political correctness at the expense of accuracy is a sure-fire formula for Academy Award consideration.
Time Warner recently found itself involved in an uncomfortable situation due to its support of rapper Ice-T's "Cop Killer," a work endorsed by Lee. Additionally, the conglomerate's backing of JFK and Madonna's soft-porn Sex resulted in much unfavorable publicity. One executive at Time Warner currently identifies his corporation with pride as "a home . . . for provocoteurs"; yet, some journalists, such as Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post, consider the company "a manufacturer and merchant of toxic products." Therefore, Warner Brothers tried unsuccessfully to convince Lee to remove the Rodney King videotape and the flag burning scene from the opening of the film. (Previously, Universal Pictures had successfully convinced Lee to remove an offensive and profane prologue from Jungle Fever before its release.) However, the studio, apparently pleased to see the overall moderation of Malcolm X as represented in Lee's version, now considers the film Warner Brothers' Oscar candidate and has distributed promotional materials exploiting that moderation in an attempt to deflect expected criticism and attract audience approval. By contrast, author Amiri Baraka has called for a boycott of the film, declaring its moderating revisionism dilutes the powerful message of Malcolm X in hopes of making the movie more acceptable to the vast white audience Lee needs to cover the film's $33-million expense. Speaking of Malcolm X, Gerald Early, director of African and Afro-American Studies at Washington University warns "against the temptation to remake the past and the seduction of fraudulent identities."
Maybe one of the most disturbing elements surrounding the revival of Malcolm X, particularly among young urban blacks, concerns an inability to accept the more positive influence Malcolm X's memory certainly should exert. Black educators seem especially disappointed that X's message urging abstinence from drugs, alcohol, and pre-marital sex continues to be unheard, and that his definition of manhood, including the command that fathers attain an education and take responsibility to provide positive examples for their children, is misinterpreted by some as simply a call for macho anger. Today's disheartening statistics, reported by Newsweek, reveal that nearly 80% of poor black families are headed by women and, although blacks are only 12% of the total population, 47% of the nation's inmates are black. As images of arrested drug dealers wearing Malcolm X apparel appear regularly on the nightly news, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates laments the response to Malcolm X by many: "What's superficial is people running around with X hats on who ain't read the autobiography, who don't know anything about Malcolm, who embrace him as a figure of rage." Denzel Washington noted more bluntly, "It saddens me to think about how many X hats are out there and nothing between the ears." Rap singers like Sister Souljah, Ice-T, Public Enemy, NWA, Ice Cube, and others encourage militant actions. Some incorporate excerpts of Malcolm X's most fiery speeches as samplings on their recordings, further promoting the message of violence, usually to the exclusion of a message of responsibility. As one rapper, Kam, told The New York Times, "That's the only Malcolm I can say I personally respect."
One positive outcome of the publicity engulfing Spike Lee's movie, however, will undoubtedly be a strengthening of the ongoing emergence of black filmmakers in Hollywood. Already, the influence of Lee's success has fostered a growing crop of young black directors with interesting films. In 1991 more movies by black directors were released by Hollywood than in the entire decade before. Although many of the movies did not receive wide release, most of the new wave of black films in the following list are now available on video-cassette: Joseph Vasquez's Hangin' with the Homeboys, Charles Burnett's To Sleep with Anger, Mario Van Peebles' New Jack City, Bill Duke's A Rage in Harlem, Michael Schultz's Livin' Large!, Matty Rush's Straight Out of Brooklyn, John Singleton's Boyz N the Hood, Charles Lane's True Identity, Robert Townsend's The Five Heartbeats, Ernest Dickerson's Juice, Julie Dash's Daughters in the Dust, Wendell Harris's Chameleon Street, and Topper Carew's Talkin' Dirty after Dark.
As is the case with most beginning filmmakers, the sophistication and maturity of these films are sometimes lacking, and the quality is quite uneven. (After all, John Singleton was only 23 years old when his film was released and Matty Rich a mere 19 years old!) Still, this impressive group of films already contains more than just promise. Two achieved commercial success in their theatrical release: New Jack City, produced for only $8.5 million, earned $50 million at the box office, and Boyz N the Hood, produced at a cost of just $6 million, brought in almost $60 million at the box office. In addition, Singleton received two Academy Award nominations for Boyz N the Hood—Best Direction and Original Screenplay—and won the New York Film Critics Award for Best New Director.
Most of these directors attribute their opportunities to Spike Lee and openly express their admiration for him as a role model. About Lee's influence, Singleton comments, "I've always looked up to Spike Lee. Spike combines his knowledge of our rich literary and musical culture into a strong, Afrocentric vision .... Spike made a whole generation of young black people wake up and realize that all it takes is a movie to start a revolution." Many of these filmmakers share Lee's belief in the teachings of Malcolm X and, like Lee, incorporate X's messages into their films. Unfortunately, like many others, some of these directors tend to emphasize Malcolm X's "by any means necessary" philosophy and the use of violence as a solution to urban problems. Therefore, a film like New Jack City deteriorates into a series of extremely gruesome scenes and an orgy of blood. As a consequence, some of the films' premiere showings were marred by numerous shootings, injuries, and some deaths. In contrast, Charles Lane detests the impression that films about blacks need to be "politically angry, impoverished, violent and use a lot of profanity."
The most substantial film of the new class thus far has proven to be Boyz N the Hood. Although this film's opening night also was tarnished by violence, including two deaths, the focus of the film is on the lives wasted in a violent, drug-filled sub-culture like that in South-Central Los Angeles. In fact, the film begins with a graphic sharing the depressing fact that one out of twenty-one young black males will be murdered, most by other black youths. Refreshingly, the movie's main character rejects such a lifestyle, respects women, and elects education as the only viable option for escape from poverty. Singleton's call for responsible behavior, especially by young black fathers, echoes the most positive example of Malcolm X's teachings. Despite the film's obvious flaws—what Time critic Richard Corliss has labeled Singleton's "lame film-making," partly because of its lapses into preachiness when the male authority figure proposes as truth Malcolm X's claim that inner-city violence, drug use, and prostitution are the products of a genocidal conspiracy by white society—the characters are more engaging and the narrative more emotionally moving than any yet put forth on the screen by Spike Lee. Wisely, the answers suggested by Singleton to combat urban problems revolve around love rather than hate, family rather than gangs.
Perhaps the time has come for these new directors to step out from under Spike Lee's shadow and into the light, where they might have the opportunity to grow even more fruitful. One would hope that in the future young black filmmakers and moviegoers will depart from the negative, divisive, or destructive path of Malcolm X's "by any means necessary" philosophy encouraged by Spike Lee, accept instead X's often overlooked message of responsible behavior, and embrace the marvelous philosophy of Martin Luther King, as reflected in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize: "Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love."