Can the opening moments of Spike Lee’s provocative and radical magnum opus Malcolm X ever really be discussed enough? Has there ever been an opening scene so completely earnest in its upsetting and unsettling imagery?
A grainy VHS-quality video plays. A group of cops take turns as they beat a man beyond submission. It’s a mistake to say “into” submission, because we never see any cause for this attack. He is submitting before they ever land a punch. It’s obvious either instantly or after some reflection (depending on when you were born and whether you’re old enough to remember) that it’s Rodney King’s body we’re seeing beaten to a pulp. It’s clear it’s not a re-enactment. The only other thing we see to break up the brutality? An American flag, slowly and steadily burning until all that’s left is the hard shape on an “X”. Malcolm’s famous “I Have a Nightmare” speech provides the righteous soundtrack.
Spike Lee is many things, but “subtle” is not one of them, a fact this intense opening sequence makes abundantly clear. In just a few minutes, he tells his audience what to expect, but more specifically, he’s giving his white audience a direct message. Everything about the opening credits seems specifically designed to make white America profoundly uncomfortable. If contemporary right-wingers can’t stand the sight of a kneeling football player, one can only imagine what they’d think of this.
In these opening moments, Malcolm’s incendiary speech rails against the violent history of the white race: “I charge the White man with being the greatest murderer on earth. I charge the White man with being the greatest kidnapper on earth. There is no place in this world that that man can go and say he created peace and harmony.”
As Malcolm charges the white man, Lee dares him to listen. It’s as if he’s saying, “You think you can handle this? Well, okay, then buckle up.” Malcolm X is already one of this country’s most polarizing figures, and so it feels both apt and utterly bold for Lee to refuse to pull any punches. After all, Hollywood loves to sanitize its history even when it’s not someone so controversial. In fact, it was only the private donations of a host of influential black Americans (including Janet Jackson, Michael Jordan, and Prince to name a few) that even made Lee’s vision of the film possible.
These first few minutes set the tone for everything that follows. Lee continues to challenge his audience throughout the course of the film. The runtime itself, a walloping 202 minutes, is perhaps the next most blatant example of this. Three-and-a-half hours is a length typically reserved for only the most sweeping of epics, but the decision feels born out of Lee’s refusal to over simplify Malcolm in any way.
He wants to show us more than just the Malcolm radicalized after a prison stint. He wants us to see the young, cocksure boy he was before then and the family man he became after. He wants us to see someone who’s so much more than his death or his most famous quotes.
But who “we” are and what he want us to get out of the film varies. In Malcolm X, Spike Lee has crafted a story that’s simultaneously mandatory viewing for white audiences without being intended for them at all. The film goes beyond merely using shocking imagery by nearly erasing white people from the cast completely. The only white person that can be argued to be a character at all is Sophia (Kate Vernon), Malcolm’s girlfriend from his youth. But Lee is completely uninterested in her or her motivations for being with Malcolm. We see so little of their dynamic play out on screen (and Sophia is never on screen without Malcolm) that she may as well be a cardboard cutout.
Though to be perfectly clear, this is not to say she needed to be anything else for Lee’s purposes. I wish women across the board had meatier parts to play in the film, but I appreciate Lee’s minimization of white voices.
By limiting the roles whites in the film to bullying cops, incredulous reporters, and Klansmen, Lee forces his white audiences to reconcile with their worst selves and darkest histories. That said, Lee doesn’t linger over scenes of racist violence, either, which is in sharp contrast to something like Tarantino’s Django Unchained [a film that Spike Lee notably hated], which delights in it. This means it can force this confrontation without needlessly upsetting or alienating his black audience, which needs no gratuitous reminder that racism in America exists and always has.
Lee rides this fine line for the entirety of the film. Though I can obviously speak with no certainty that a black audience never felt alienated by Lee’s approach, I can still see the ways he seems to prioritize speaking to that audience, whether he succeeds in communicating his message or not. It’s easy to imagine a far less celebratory version of the story Lee tells in the name of a less inflammatory narrative.
What matters about this decision and about the way Lee’s film speaks so clearly to its two distinct audiences is it puts a figure who’s often celebrated by one community while being ignored by the other into a glorious center spotlight. There, it asks people to do the difficult work of considering or reconsidering where Malcolm X fits in the whole of history.
And just in case there was any doubt in the audience’s mind about where that place in history should be, the film’s coda makes it crystal clear. Children in classrooms from Harlem to Soweto, South Africa are framed in closeups as they proudly proclaim one after another after another, “I am Malcolm X!” Nelson Mandela himself then speaks a portion of another of Malcolm’s most famous speeches: “We declare our right on this earth to be a man, to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.”
In this light, with one of the world’s most beloved activists just a year before he’d win the Nobel Peace Prize surrounded by the beautiful smiling faces of children, we can’t help but feel like Malcolm is a hero, that his voice belongs in the schools alongside King’s. This is Lee’s triumph here. Instead of standard biopic fare, we get the solidification of a legacy.