The journey to racial equality in the United States has been an effort largely led by the African American community, who shared a common goal – abolishing segregation and securing citizenship rights enumerated within the Constitution and federal law for once and for all. This journey to racial equality in the United States is often associated with the African-American Civil Rights Movement. However, during the African-American Civil Rights Movement, there were people who were more conspicuous than others. One activist who played a prominent role in the African-American Movement was Malcolm X. In 1992, Spike Lee – film director, producer, writer, and actor – directed Malcolm X. He played the role of Malcolm “Shorty” Jarvis, a long-time friend of Malcolm X in reality. Denzel Washington played the role of “Malcolm X” in the film.
The Film Malcolm X is set in Boston, MA during 1946, when Malcolm Little, along with Malcolm “Shorty” Jarvis, roamed the streets and went into local clubs while working as a server on a train. Spike Lee captures Malcolm Little’s childhood by inserting flashbacks into the narrative. In one scene, Malcolm Little has a flashback of his father – a Baptist minister who was also a civil rights activist. His activities led to several threats, such as the burning of their house, and even to his death. Malcolm Little’s mother suffered an emotional breakdown which led to her being put into a mental institution, and Malcolm Little, along with his siblings, were sent to different foster homes and orphanages. Growing up in the foster home, Malcolm Little gets a good education. Later, he meets a white woman and moves to Harlem. One night, Malcolm Little gets into an altercation at a bar and draws the attention West Indian Archie, a hustler and drug dealer who wants to recruit him. Malcolm becomes a hustler, drug dealer, and drug user but eventually betrays West Indian Archie. Malcolm Little runs away from Archie, who is intent on killing him and hides with the help of Sophia. Malcolm Little feels that he needs to do something while he is at the hideout, so he conspires to rob some rich white men. Malcolm Little has “Shorty”, Sophia, Rudy and “Shorty’s” girlfriend help him with this burglary. However, Rudy snitches them all out to the cops – resulting in Malcolm Little and “Shorty” being sentenced to 10 years in prison for burglary. While in prison, Malcolm meets Baines who enlightens him by introducing him to the Nation of Islam (NOI). Malcolm Little converts to Islam and starts writing to Elijah Muhammad – African American religious leader of the Nation of Islam.
After finishing his sentence, Malcolm Little meets Elijah Muhammad and commences to preach the word of the NOI. At this point, Malcolm Little decides to modify his name because he believes that “Little” is a slave name. He replaces “Little” with “X” – “X” symbolizing his unknown tribe. He is now referred to as “Malcolm X”. Soon after joining the NOI, Malcolm X meets Betty Shabazz, who is apart of the NOI. They marry and have six children. Charismatic and articulate in spreading the word of the NOI, Malcolm X is then appointed to be a minister and national spokesman for the Nation of Islam by Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm X receives lots of media attention, but this becomes a complication amongst the NOI as some believe that Malcolm X is trying to replace Elijah Muhammad. However, Malcolm X also finds out that Elijah Muhammad is having affairs with two women within the NOI, making him feel betrayed as he had immortalized him as a living prophet. After the death of President John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X makes an inappropriate remark about his death to the media, which leads to Elijah Muhammad “silencing” Malcolm X. Malcolm X decided to split from the NOI on March 12th,1964. He founds his own organization, Muslim Mosque Corporation, and then decides to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca. The pilgrimage to Mecca is life changing to Malcolm X as he made “brothers” that were “white with blue eyes”. After arriving back to the U.S., Malcolm X plans on uniting the African American community and helping out other activists – whom he had bashed when he was a part of the NOI. His goal is to unite all people who are being subjugated to discrimination. Malcolm X is even open to the idea of working with white people who believe in the same cause. However, tension between Malcolm X and the NOI grow. In fact, the FBI is helping the NOI to kill Malcolm X. His house in New York was set on fire while Malcolm X and his family are sleeping, but they escape the fire without injuries. Then on the 21st February, 1964, Malcolm X is giving his speech at Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom, when three gunmen succeed in killing Malcolm X. He was shot several times while still on stage.
Although director Spike Lee does an excellent job of capturing all the critical events throughout Malcolm X lifespan in the film. Spike Lee leaves out some minor details that are significant about Malcolm X’s life. For instance, Spike Lee doesn’t state the date on which Malcolm X was born – May 19, 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska. Also, Spike Lee doesn’t state the name of Malcolm X’s father – Earl Little – or his mother – Louise Norton Little. This is of great significance because Earl Little was an avid supporter of Black Nationalist leader, Marcus Garvey, according to “An Abridged Biography of Malcolm X” (malcolmx.com). Many people don’t realize that Malcolm X was raised by well educated and activist people. However, the film Malcolm X does point out the philosophy of Marcus Garvey – to have all people of African descent return to their home, Africa, as freedom could not be achieved in America. Another critical event that Spike Lee misinterprets in the film is who introduced Malcolm X to the Nation of Islam. In Malcolm X, the character Baines introduces Malcolm X to the NOI, but in reality, Malcolm X’s brother is the one who introduces him to the NOI. “Malcolm’s brother Reginald would visit and discuss his recent conversion to the Muslim religion” (malcolmx.com). Despite these facts being left out the film, Malcolm X still won several awards – 1992 MTV Movie Awards, 1992 New York Film Critics Circle, and 1993 Berlin International Film Festival according to New York Times Critics’ Pick (nytimes.com).
Spike Lee is one of few black film directors and producers who have succeeded in the film industry. With his own film production company – 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks – Spike Lee has revolutionized Modern Black Cinema. According to “ABOUT US”, Spike Lee founded 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks “after gaining box office success and critical acclaim from … his first feature film She’s Gotta Have it” (40acres.com). The name of the company, 40 Acres and a Mule. refers to the promise by the government to give all freed African American slaves land and a mule in compensation for the unpaid labor during slavery so that they could advance in life – but this project was shutdown in the process. That is, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks has a larger connotation. The name of his company is a reminder that the U.S. government has failed to keep its promise to the African American community. Spike Lee has been known for producing and directing controversial films – “films that explore race relations, political issues and urban crime and violence” (biographry.com). Therefore, Spike Lee being heavily involved in making Malcolm X.
One of the reasons why I was drawn to the film, Malcolm X, is that I only knew that Malcolm X was a prominent activist in the African-American Civil Rights Movement. In watching Malcolm X, I was able to further my understanding of him as a person, especially before he joined the Nation of Islam. I did not know that Malcolm X had a dark past, that he was a hustler or that he had gone to prison. I only knew about his good deeds. Coming from a migrant family, I’ve experienced some discrimination because of my ethnicity, Mexican. I’ve been called a “Spick” or “Beaner”, both derogatory terms to describe a Mexican. Friends of mine have used these terms to describe me, but in a joking matter; and although I just laugh it off, they are not terms that I enjoy being called. Even Pandora, an internet radio, often recommends Hispanic stations solely because of my name. My mother has faced discrimination in her work. She can only obtain agricultural work due to the fact that she is undocumented. Also, my mother has told me several scenarios in which the manager has told her, along with the other employers, that if they can’t handle the working conditions, they can leave at anytime because they know another Hispanic will come along quickly and replace them. They take advantage of the fact that the people have no legal recourse. The goal of ending discrimination and segregation – which Malcolm X was pursuing on so – is still relevant and applicable in todays society as Hispanics, dependent on agriculture work, are being subjugated to discrimination every day.
The Film Malcolm X was made and released to the public in 1992. However, the period during which Malcolm X played a role in the African-American Civil Rights Movement was thirty years earlier. During the Civil Rights Movement, Malcolm X became a prominent activist along with Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks in the fight against discrimination and segregation of African Americans in the United States. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln had abolished slavery, which theoretically led to the freedom of African American. However, the majority of African Americans were still working on farms or plantations as this was the only work they could find. These were also the jobs that the majority of African Americans knew how to do. Also no white man who had a business would want to employ an African American because their business would be affected negatively. At the same time, whites didn’t like the fact that African Americans were getting paid to work on their land when they once had worked for free. This led to the implementation of black codes – restricting African American’s freedom and compelling them to work in low wage or debt jobs. As a result, many African Americans found themselves in debt peonage – jobs where they were provided with housing but would accumulate debt daily. African Americans who were tied to agriculture work were likely to find themselves as sharecroppers. Landowners allowed the African Americans to have some of his land in return for some of the product produced on the land.
As white violence increased in the South, African Americans decided to flee to the North in hope of finding freedom. The movement of 6.5 million African Americans to the North, from 1910 to 1970, has been referred to as the Great Migration. In the North, African Americans were able to find jobs outside of agriculture work, a chance for education, and voting opportunities. According to the article “Nation of Islam” by John Gordon Melton, “Islam was brought to the United States by African Muslims slaves, and it retained a real if minuscule presence in the country throughout the 19th Century” (Melton 1). However, with the establishment of the Moonrish Science Temple of America in Newark, New Jersey, in 1913, and Wallace D Fard founded the Nation of Islam in Detroit, Michigan, in 1930 (Melton 1). Wallace D. Fard designated “his able assistant, Elijah Muhammad, originally Elijah Poole, to establish the Nation’s second centre in Chicago” (Melton 1). However, Elijah Muhammad took control of the NOI when problems arose in Newark, New Jersey, and he started teaching the “basic tenets of Islam, including monotheism, submission to Allah, and a strong family life” (Melton 1). When Malcolm X joined the Nation of Islam in 1948, he helped the NOI membership increase from 500 in 1952 to 30,000 in 1963 according to “An Abridged biography of Malcolm X” (malcolmx.com). Six years after Malcolm X joined the NOI, the Brown v. Board of Education case arose in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court, in 1954, declared that state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students was unconstitutional. This overturned the Plessy v. Ferguson case decision of 1896 where “separate but equal” allowed for state-sponsored segregation. This was a big achievement for the black community during the Civil Rights Era. However, whites in both the North and South refused to follow through with the Supreme Courts decision to desegregate schools. Therefore, in 1968, the Supreme Court addressed the Brown v. Board of Education demanding for an immediate end to segregated schools.
In 1963, Malcolm X’s negative remark about President John F. Kennedy, resulted in him being “silenced” by Elijah Muhammad – leading to Malcolm X’s depart from the NOI in 1964. He then created the Muslim Mosque Corporation. Malcolm X still had a large group of followers who fought against discrimination and segregation – making him a powerful man in the eyes of the FBI and the American government. After his assassination on February 14, 1965, “the movement was increasingly plagued by violence between members and former members” according to the article “Nation of Islam” (Melton 1). Malcolm X’s presence in the Nation of Islam and Muslim Mosque Corporation kept both groups from using violence against each other. Overall Malcolm X illustrates that Malcolm X played a significant role in this country’s journey toward racial equality.
Works Cited Page
“ABOUT US.” 40 Acres. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2015. <https://www.40acres.com/about-us/>.
Biography.com Editors. “Spike Lee Biography.” Bio.com. A&E Networks Television, n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2015. <http://www.biography.com/people/spike-lee-9377207#related-video-gallery>.
“Biography.” Malcolm X. N.p., 10 Feb. 2015. Web. 10 Dec. 2015. <http://malcolmx.com/biography/>.
“Malcolm X.” nytimes.com. Web. 11 Dec. 2015. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.nytimes.com/movies/movie/31012/Malcolm-X/awards>.
Malcolm X (1992 Film). Digital image. Wikipedia. N.p., 27 May 2015. Web. 11 Dec. 2015. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Malcolmxdvdset.jpg>.
Melton, John Gordon. “Nation of Islam | Religious Organization.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, 7 Aug. 2014. Web. 10 Dec. 2015. <http://www.britannica.com/topic/Nation-of-Islam>.