Spike Lee’s career has been driven by the tension between black masculinity and black patriarchy – between black male pride and patriarchal pitfalls that it can produce. To date, Lee has enacted that tension most comprehensively in Malcolm X, partly because he has room and scope to do so (the film is over three hours long) and partly because of the complexity of Malcolm X himself, who is far more nuanced than many of Lee’s normal alpha males. Malcolm X never resolves this tension between masculinity and patriarchy, but it keeps the tension alive, as a question, more than any of Lee’s other films. In that sense, it anticipates his work in the present – the third act of the film anticipates the third act of his career, and his more recent soul-searching about how black liberation appears outside of his trademark machismo.
For those reasons, Malcolm X was the film Lee always had to make, just as Malcolm X was the character that Denzel Washington always had to play. Time and again, Lee’s fixation on black machismo has come down to the black male voice, while few actors have such consummate command of their voice as Washington. On top of that The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the film’s source material, was itself an oral document, dictated by Malcolm X to journalist Alex Haley. Throughout Malcolm X, Lee tries to translate those words, that lived vocal presence, straight onto the screen, starting with the credit sequence, the first of many of Malcolm’s speeches that we hear. Whereas Do the Right Thing was driven by the tension between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.’s outlooks, Malcolm X makes it clear which figure has been the main propulsion for Lee’s oeuvre – and the best embodiment of its ambivalences.
On top of all that, Malcolm X is also Lee’s bid for widescreen cinematic glory, his attempt to craft a grand American epic – and he succeeds. This is an incredible systems movie, detailing the birth of a movement and the evolution of a philosophy, and fully deserves its three plus running length, despite criticisms at the time (and now) that it’s too long. In fact, many of Lee’s shorter films feel far more bloated, since the expanded length takes the onus off his more expository and didactic tendencies here. In their place, Lee looks back to the epics of New Hollywood, or of New Hollywood directors in the present, quoting from The Deer Hunter, Goodfellas and (above all) the swagger, sweep and poise of Coppola’s two Godfather films.
The film opens by foregrounding Malcolm’s voice and vision, while reminding us of its ongoing relevance in the presence. As an American flag burns, and Lee cuts to excerpts of the Rodney King beatings, we hear Malcolm intone that “we experience only the American nightmare” as he issues a direct challenge to the audience: “I charge the white man with being murderers.” From there, we shift to Malcolm as a teenager in 1940s Boston, as Lee introduces an immediate distinction between black pride and white servitude. In the first tracking-shot, Malcolm heads to a barber shop, led by his friend Shorty, played by Lee himself. As soon as Lee establishes this barber shop as an epicentre of black male camaraderie, Malcolm requests an agonising hair-straightening procedure that will render it easier for him to pass for white.
This sets up the first part of the film, which critiques white patriarchy as an instrument of racism and colonialism. Through flashback and voiceover, we learn that Malcolm’s father, Earl Little, played by Tommy Hollis, was a black separatist who believed that “freedom, independence and self-respect could never be achieved by the Negro in America.” We only glimpse Earl, but he immediately evokes a crisis in black patriarchy as well – especially during a sequence when he is harassed by Klan members in Malcolm’s childhood home in Michigan. As the Klan members retreat from his house, Earl insists to them that “I’m a man,” but they prove him wrong, at least in the film’s vision, by tying him down in front of a train a few nights later. Malcolm’s mother Louise, played by Lonette McKee, is also a legacy of white patriarchy – a light-skinned black woman whose mother (Malcolm’s grandfather) was raped by a white man. Malcolm, then, is the product of white genocide, white rape and white patriarchy – and he’s eventually sent to a white foster home when his mother is deemed unfit to parent him.
The film that unfolds follows Malcolm as he tries to come to terms with white patriarchy, while the rhythm of the film is driven by the evolving ways in which he opposes white patriarchy. During the scenes in Boston, he falls back upon the most basic response – mirroring the worst parts of white patriarchy. In a kind of patriarchal reparations, he reflects that black men can’t wait to get their hands on white women because white men stole so many black woman. Accordingly, he enters a toxic relationship with Sophia, a young white woman played by Kate Vernon, who he meets at a Boston nightclub. Sophia quickly becomes Malcolm’s confidante, and his partner in crime, but he can never treat her as an equal, just because he never believes that she, or white folk, can ever properly see him as equal either.
It’s hard to tell, from the film, how right Malcolm is about this. It’s clear that Sophia exoticises him up to a point, but it also seems like she’s with him for the long run until he discards her. In either case, this is Malcolm at his least sympathetic, as he simply mirrors the worst that white men have shown of themselves to him. On their first date, he tells Sophia “I don’t like women that talk too much, OK” and in a later scene, he instructs her to make him breakfast in bed, then instructs her to “feed me,” before questioning her intentions, making her kiss his foot, and then asking cynically when she’s planning to “holler rape.” In essence, he treats her like a whore, then berates her for not taking the bait: “I wish your mother could see you now.”
This is Malcolm’s crudest response to white patriarchy – so crude it barely deserves to be called assimilationist. Instead, it’s aspirational, as Malcolm over-identifies with precisely those toxic white traits that placed him in this situation to begin with. As a result, this is when Lee’s film is most aspirational as well. By the early 90s, prestige period pieces had become all about scale – the more space, the more prestige – and these early scenes in Malcolm X offer a kind of conspicuous spatiality just as Malcolm specialises in a kind of conspicuous toxicity. Nearly every scene traces characters as they move through space, and yet the spaces are so big, and the trajectories go so far, that movement gets swallowed up before it’s even enacted.
That produces a curious interia – the same cold space you see in the big-budget musicals of the 60s. As if to capture the contrivance of Malcolm aspiring to whiteness, Lee excessively situates and choreographs him in space, while space grows more cavernous with each passing scene, leaving more scope for the camera to zoom, loop and engage in conspicuous mobility too. In other words, Lee offers auteurism as a kind of whiteface, mimicking and even parodying the signifiers of seriousness to clear up space for a new kind of epic in the second and third acts. Lee literally clears this space himself, in the form of Shorty, who anchors the two most emphatic passages through space during this opening act. In the first tracking-shot, he leans forward, shoulders hunched, gazing comically at the middle distance, dragging the camera (and Malcolm) with him until we arrive at the barber shop. Then, in the first set piece, he concludes a Cotton Club-esque dance scene by sliding across the floor, staring at the camera, and inviting the viewer to revel in the spaces these black dancers have just occupied.
In both these scenes, Lee, through Shorty, over-situates the camera in space in a hokey and cheesy way, drawing a connection between Malcolm’s aspiration to whiteness, and his own aspiration to auteurism, even as he reflexively renders those aspirations impotent in the very same breath. Despite (and because of) these enormous spaces and elaborate set pieces, this opening act is the one point where Malcolm X genuinely (and intentionally) doesn’t breathe, suffocating us with the same prestige period pedantry as The Cotton Club itself. The more that Malcolm tries to mimic white patriatchy at its worst, and the more that Lee parodically mirrors Hollywood auteurism at its most overt, the more these opening scenes feel like the first part of a telemovie that’s designed to screen over several nights, rather than a cohesive film, let alone the epic cinematic masterwork that Lee recovers in the second and third acts.
In fact, the most fluid and compelling movement that we see in these opening scenes comes in flashback, from the Klan, who make a habit of riding round and round Malcolm’s childhood home at night, as if to remind his family that they have total control of space in all directions. As that scene suggests, space is the enemy here, at some level – space is inherently antagonistic to black men in 1940s America – and this suspicion of space extends to a broader scepticism around mise-en-scene in the opening scenes of the film. Accordingly, as these scenes proceed, Lee subliminally shifts from using space to craft mise-en-scene, to using space to pre-empt and foreclose mise-en-scene, taking us so far back from the action that the mise-en-scene can never congeal. In the unlikely event that the mise-en-scene does congeal, Lee’s camera still has room to build up enough momentum to accelerate through it before it all has a chance to settle. By contrast, the Klan construct a perfect mise-en-scene when they tie Earl to the tracks, which Lee can only counteract by presenting it all in traumatic close-up.
By midway through the first act, then, it’s clear that Malcolm cannot adopt an aspirational response to white patriarchy, so he turns to an assimilationist approach instead. Rather than importing the worst of white patriarchy, he tries to find a more comprehensive place for himself within white patriarchy. In doing so, he starts to tentatively envisage a complementary black patriarchy, but he’s unable to find any role models to assist him in his quest. First, he encounters older black men, when he gets a job on a train, but he’s frustrated by how quickly they capitulate to their white boss. Then, he encounters urban black men, but finds them lacking too, following a bar fight in which a local patron insults his mother. At the same time, he treats black women even worse than he treats white women – especially his brief love interest Laura, played by Theresa Randall, who he almost strikes in a bar after telling her that “You don’t ask me no questions – I ask you the goddamn questions, understand?”
The only reason that Malcolm doesn’t strike Laura is that he’s stopped by West Indian Archie, a gangster played by Delroy Lindo. Over time, Malcolm becomes involved in Archie’s crew, and yet Lee doesn’t see this as breaking the assimilationist cycle. Just the opposite in fact, since Lee frames this gangster lifestyle as an archetype of modern gangsta culture, both of which he presents as form of assimilation in and of themselves – a way of turning blackness into a lurid spectacle for white folk. Lee was highly critical of gangsta rap at this point in time, especially its remediation of the word “nigga,” and Malcolm’s evolution in the second act reflects Lee’s own preference for the Public Enemy school of hip hop as social commentary, although this connection grows murkier as Malcolm and Lee’s projects reach their third acts.
For the moment, these converging assimilationist tendencies reach their logical and literal conclusion when Malcolm attempts to import an entire white mise-en-scene wholesale into his house. In combination with Archie and Sophia, he robs an old white “fag,” presumably because gay men are experts at mise-en-scene. Malcolm takes so much of his furniture that Lee has to resort to his most elaborate camera movement yet – a full 360-degree pan – to capture it. This is the tipping-point between the first and second act of the film – the point at which Malcolm exhausts the aspirational and assimilationist repsonses to white patriarchy that drive his earlier life. For no sooner has he claimed white space, than he is relegated back to black space in the most profound way – to space as the primal enemy of blackness, and to blackness as an illegibility in the face of space as the white patriarchal system has framed it.
Before Malcolm has a chance to bask in his imported white mise-en-scene, he’s apprehended and thrown into prison, and before he can acclimatise himself to prison, he’s segregated in solitary confinement for weeks. This is solitary confinement at its most brutal – Malcolm is kept entirely in the dark, forcing him into a primal encounter with blackness that primes him to encounter the most significant mentor of his life when he returns to the general prison population. That mentor is Baines, another inmate, played Albert Hall, who has found a way to experience freedom within imprisonment, and enourages Malcolm to do the same, by teaching him that “even if you get out, you’re still in prison.” His first step is convincing Malcolm to stop fixing his hair, and stop trying to assimilate to the spaces of white patriarchy, since these spaces quickly lose their coherence, their meaning and their very spatiality whenever they encounter blackness, resulting in the blank blackness of solitary confinement.
Instead, Baines suggests that Malcolm draws upon established models of black patriarchy – both those that predate the United States, such as the Islamic religion, and those that have arisen as loci of resistance within and tothe United States, such as the Nation of Islam, the American Muslim organisation founded by Wallace Fard Muhammad in 1930. Baines teaches Malcolm that “God is Black,” and that blackness precedes every American institution, meaning that “long after America has passed… there will still be black people.” This is the central revelation of the film, and transforms Malcolm’s outlook so thoroughly that it’s tantamount to him learning a new language. Baines encourages him to scrutinise the way “white” and “black” are defined in the dictionary, and then work his word through every word, starting with “aardvark” and “abacus” to discover how racism is embedded in language.
This is a remarkably progressive sequence for a Hollywood film, as Lee effectively suggests that the language of American cinema is as inextricably emedded in racism as that of American English. Baines’ words feel like Lee’s words, as he recommends that Malcolm “take everything the white man sees and use it against him,” while refraining from the gangsta lifestyle that reduces black men to spectacles for white entertainment. Baines identifies pimping and hustling as cornerstones of gangstadom, but the ultimate gangsta sin is swearing – especially the use of the word “nigga,” which was anathema to Lee at this point in time too. If God is black, the film suggests, than using the word “nigga,” even in a remediated and reparative form, is tantamount to taking God’s name in vain. One can only achieve a black patriarchy, Baines insists, by never taking blackness, or the name of black men, in vain – and this means starting with those words and names that white patriarchy has used for black men.
In order to completely identify with Baines’ project, then, it’s not enough for Malcolm to stop using the word “nigga” – he has to eschew his own surname, since it’s a legacy of slavery, foisted on to him as part of the same patriarchal structure that raped his mother. For Africans to use surnames at all is tantamount to using the word “nigga,” since that word is embedded in white patrilinearity itself, so Malcolm doesn’t give himself a substitute surname, let alone another white surname, but instead signals his surname as a productive absence, a resonant aporia, only conceding one letter to the white alphabet – the letter that is most iconographic, and so most iconoclastic, recalling the crucifixion and Christian apparatus that Malcolm rejects when he christens himself Malcolm X, as if announcing himself as a new black messiah.
This transformation from Malcolm to Malcolm X makes it clear that Baines’ project, and Malcolm X’s new project, isn’t just about citing older models of black patriarchy. Rather, these are the blueprints for a new patriarchal nation of Africans, in Africa, as well as a radically anti-assimilationist period of Malcolm X’s career. As Lee’s camera pans across the faces of the black men in the prison yard to an escalating soulful refrain, Malcolm envisages the raw material for a new black nation state, as Baines encourages him not to be deceived by token gestures of assimilation any more: “Letting one Negro into the Majors doesn’t cancel out the biggest crime in history.” The Koran becomes a revelation of the inherent righteousness of black men, and the natural righteousness of black men, arming Malcolm with a vocabulary and a mission to combat white patriarchy at its most moralistic, complacent and delusional.
In the process, Lee presents the prison as the logical conclusion of the Christian American state. We never really see any guards – just Chaplain Gill, played by Christopher Plummer, who seems to be the one who decides how long Malcolm spends in solitary confinement, since he peremptorily closes the small hatch, and condemns Malcolm to another week of darkness, the moment he challenges his teachings. Plummer effectively inverts his role in The Sound of Music here, playing the fascist presence that Malcolm is trying to elude. In one of the critical prison moments, Malcolm forces Gill to concede that Jesus Christ and his disciples weren’t necessarily white. While even conservative audiences might have been prepared to concede that this was historically true in 1992, there’s something more deeply provocative about how deftly Malcolm dissociates religious righteousness from whiteness in this scene.
This radicalisation ends with a conversion, and while this requires a moment of absolute submission to Allah, it immediately restores Malcolm’s (and Lee’s) control over physical space. No sooner has Malcolm converted than he has a vision of Elijah Muhammad, the current leader of the Nation of Islam, in his cell. Elijah, played by Al Freeman Jr., extols Malcolm to work with him when he is released from prison, leading Malcolm to compare this conversion to that of the Apostle Paul on the Road to Damascus. Rather than exactly rejecting Christianity, or unilaterally embracing Islam, Malcolm feels poised on the brink of a third testament, a new dispensation that will converge Islam and Christianity, and bring Africans back to Africa, after hundreds of years of being “lost in this wilderness called North America.”
This ushers in the second act proper, which sees Malcolm leave prison, and work for Elijah, who is only the third man (after his father and Baines) that he has ever looked up to, but the “first man I ever feared – not as in the fear of a gun, but fear of the power of the sun.” During this time, Malcolm completes his newfound control of mise-en-scene, while space stabilises around him more generally as well. His first public appearances occurs in a space that initially seems conducive to the looming perspectives of the first act – pairing with another speaker to address a huge Harlem crowd that eddies and swirls somewhere near 110th Street. Yet both the crowd and the space are highly contained and controlled, while Lee’s camera pans quite serenely between the two speakers without ever being overwhelmed by the gap between them. At the very moment when Malcolm channels his volatility into a true sense of his vocation, Lee opts for the single calmest and most assured camera movement we’ve yet seen.
As time goes by, Malcolm becomes confident enough to express this newfound control over space by calling for demarcation and segregation as the hallmarks of his campaign. In particular, he thrives when drawing spatial distinctions between Africa and America, and insisting that Africans have a relationship with the African continent that predates all American boundaries. In one scene, he reminds the crowd that “You’re not an American – you’re an African who happens to be in America. You need to understand the difference.” In another, he turns this distinction back upon himself: “If I was an American, the problems that confront you all today wouldn’t exist.” While these pronouncements are all delivered from podiums, it’s not long before he takes control of space in a more mobile fashion, starting a march down 110th Street that ends with half of Harlem following him to the steps of a local hospital to enquire about the health of a young black man who has suffered police brutality.
This scene couldn’t be more different from the tracking-shot that opened the film. There, Lee, in the guise of Shorty, carved out space in a parodic manner, almost adopting a blackface gait as he tried to make his way through a space that was inherently inimical to his presence. Here, Malcolm’s stride is much prouder, and the sheer mass of bodies prevents him ever feeling gimmicky in the space – and prevents the space ever overwhelming him too, meaning that Lee doesn’t resort to the conspicuous gimmickry of the opening camera mobility either. In a nice small touch, Peter Boyle turns up as one of the cops trying to calm the crowd, recalling the casually psychotic racism of Taxi Driver, and framing Malcolm’s project as parallel, in some ways, to Travis Bickle’s efforts to enact a mobile space for his escalating rage and frustration.
Yet that similarity to Bickle also encapsulates the growing paradox of Malcolm’s work with the Nation of Islam – a paradox that grows until it transitions us into the third act of the film. For much of this second act, Malcolm, like Lee, is very rigorous in his criticism of gangsta culture, going so far as to condemn gospel music, and black Christianity, as being part of the same pantomime continuum. Being a gangsta is tantamount to having a “slave mind,” while drugs, alcohol and prostitution – the future syntax of gangsta rap – are all dismissed as so many forms of pacification. Despite all that, we probably wouldn’t have gangsta rap without Malcolm’s militant masculinity, as Lee acknowledges more explicitly later in the film, when he shoots (pun intended) Malcolm with a rifle looking out his bedroom window. This is a double quote, alluding to an iconic photograph of Malcolm, but also the front cover of the album “By Any Means Necessary,” (itself a Malcolm X quote) by Boogie Down Productions, who established the formula for gangsta rap before N.W.A. brought it into the mainstream.
In other words, Malcolm X’s actions eventually fed back into the gangsta culture that he despised – a gangsta culture that was peaking in 1992, when the film was released. This speaks to the conflict at the heart of creating a new black patriarchy – by definition, any patriarchal system has to include a quota of misogyny. No surprise, then, that this is a particular obsession for Elijah, who notes that “I’m a hard man on the women – we have to be careful when it comes to the women.” Apparently, one of the biggest issues with black women is “talking too much,” although there aren’t too many black women talking in this second act, or in the film as a whole – just Angela Bassett as Betty Shabazz, the nurse who eventually married Malcolm. She may bring up Harriet Tubman when she first meets him, and she may be the one who first alerts him to the problems with the Nation of Islam, but she’s largely a non-character here, present largely to make the absence of black women less glaring.
Here, as in any patriarchal system, the logical conclusion of misogyny is a desire to do away with women altogether. When asked about the question of marriage, Elijah cautiously advocates it, only to provide such a restrictive list of criteria for appropriate femininity that it’s impossible to see how any woman could conceivably live up to it. As a result, this list feels like a gesture of bad faith, a way of excluding women from the building of a new black nation before the brotherhood have even broken ground. It’s also disturbingly (and literally) infantilising, since one of Elijah’s key criteria is that a woman should be half the age, plus seven, of her prospective husband – too young, in other words, to conceive him as an equal.
This produces a kind of cognitive dissonance for Malcolm that climaxes with his most expansive address to the Nation of Islam, against a banner that reads “we must protect our most valuable property – our women.” There’s a circular logic at play here – the Nation of Islam are resisting the American state because it treated black men as property by recovering black women as property. In doing so, they suggest that slavery was only a category error when it came to black women – that slaveowners weren’t wrong, per se, to see black women as property, but simply mistaken in claiming them as their property, as part of their allotment.
It’s no coincidence that this dissonance emerges during Malcolm’s most vigorous speech for segregation, or against Lee’s most segregated composition – all the women in the Nation of Islam wearing white, and all the men wearing black. Whiteness often connotes purity, but that can’t be the meaning of it here, at least not for Malcolm, who converted to Islam after his eyes were opened to precisely these ways that the English language represents whiteness. Instead, the black women’s white garb suggests that they have not (and cannot) achieve the blackness of black men without submitting to them first. Blackness becomes a kind of gift that black men bestow upon black women, as Malcolm’s call for the segregation of races turns out to veil an even more foundational call for the segregation of sexes. A hierarchy thus emerges in which African men are at the top, white folk at the bottom, and black women somewhere in between, although that also means black women stand to be the most abject, by letting whiteness in the door and so preventing their black male masters from their nation-building.
The film, and Malcolm, both reach a kind of ideological bind here, as do the black women in the film, who only have two choices – to “receive” blackness from black men, or “betray” blackness by aligning with white men. Malcolm thus realises that he can’t fight the patriarchal institution of slavery through yet another patriarchal system, and that patriarchy can’t be understood apart from race, even or especially as it provides the mechanisms of racism. His fears coalesce around two paternity suits arising from two of Elijah’s younger secretaries, both of whom calmly confirm their relations to Malcolm, but might be more inclined to press assault charges if the action was occurring half a century later. When Malcolm confronts Elijah, he justifies himself with pure patriarchal ideology, prescribing purity for women, but permitting impurity for men of his stature: “the deeds of a great man far outweigh his vices.”
To his credit, Malcolm recongises this is disingenuous, and leaves Elijah’s enclave, ushering in the third act, and the most interesting part of the film. This is where Malcolm and Lee work hardest to dissociate masculinity from patriarchy, and yearn to build a healthy male pride without the pitfalls of regressive masculinity. For a brief moment, Malcolm doubles down on his segregationist approach, culminating with his infamously insensitive comments about the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Yet this turns out to be an exhaustion point, as Malcolm now pulls back. He continues to advocate for black nationalism, but adopts a more provisional approach to segregation, claiming there can’t be black-white unity until there is black unity.
During this part of the film, Malcolm and Lee are trying to envisage masculinity without patriarchy – a figurative bind that lies outside the reach of the film. It doesn’t have to, though, since there’s one simple way to address this black patriarchal puzzle – include some black female activists, or black queer activists, some of whom were just as instrumental as Malcolm at this moment in time. While no film can achieve everything, it’s remarkable that a three hour plus release that spans several decades of race activism can’t factor in a single compelling female activist here. This third act is thus Lee reckoning with his own blind spots, anticipating shifts in his outlook that have only been partly formalised in the last decade. In that sense, the length of Malcolm X provides him with the luxury of an extended third act that projects him into and pre-empts the third act of his career before he’s articulated it to himself.
In lieu of compelling female characters, Lee spends much of this third act following Malcolm as he travels to Cairo and Mecca in an attempt to conceive of a new figurative lexicon for black nationalism and repatriation. These scenes are the conceptual peak of the film, but also the peak of Lee’s own bid for a bona fide cinematic epic. They recall great sword-and-sandal epics like Lawrence of Arabia, along with prestige period pieces like Gandhi, but the main point of reference continues to be the first two Godfather films – especially those moments when the action strays from America (Italy in the first film, Cuba in the second). It’s during these languorous asides that Coppola really insists on the novelistic scope of his project, and the same goes for Lee, who luxuriates in the location shots of the Pyramids and Mecca, with all the romanticism of a director transporting his audience to a world they have never seen.
This isn’t just spectacle either, since the revelatory novelty of the Middle East provides Malcolm and Lee with a provisional if paradoxical vocabulary for envisaging the future of black masculinity. Only in Mecca can Malcolm imagine a genuinely desegregated future, when he sees men of all races, including white men, coming together to worship Islam. He has a second conversion here, one that means he can “no longer subscribe to sweeping indictments of one race,” causing him to leave behind his “sweeping generalisations of white people” in an instant. Through this conversion, his understands Islam, Mecca and the Middle East as the only site where a post-racial America can be properly formulated and adequately imagined.
This is a utopian vision, and yet it’s a pretty qualified utopia, since for all the general reflections on “people” and “race,” Malcolm only discovers a diversity of men in the highly gender segregated Middle East. He discovers a diversity at the heart of monotheism, a paradox that produces his somewhat jarring pronouncement that only Islam can promise the American values of “life, liberty and the pursuit of justice for all people.” From the perspective of the present, it’s especially dissonant to see Saudi Arabia offered as a beacon of inclusivity.
Yet Malcolm, and Lee, are both aware of this paradox, and spend the last part of the film allowing it to resonate – not disavowing patriarchy, but not quite espousing it either. Malcolm’s vision of the black future becomes more figurative here, and tends to be defined cryptically or negatively, by way of the failure of the Nation of Islam, which necessitates a “mental and cultural migration” to his imaginary Mecca. The failure of the Nation of Islam comes full circle in one of the later scenes, when Elijah’s emissaries firebomb Malcolm’s house in the same way that the Klan set his family’s house on fire. Malcolm makes the connection explicitly, and at that moment has to concede the exhaustion of black patriarchy as a mechanism of social change – the same exhaustion that led women and queers to form BLM and other broader collectivist and coalitions to fight racial injustice in our own present day.
This leads on to an introspective closing sequence, starting with Malcolm bunkering down in a hotel room as he prepares for the next onslaught from the Nation of Islam. Again, this recalls the Godfather films, as Malcolm’s pronouncements become looser, more elastic and provisional: “We have to change our way of thinking.” A hush settles over the film, and Malcolm’s silence speaks louder than his words, as Lee and Malcolm both seem to grow sceptical of the patriarchal pronouncements they validated so heavily early on. Finally, it all comes together in Malcolm’s hotel room, where he calls Betty, and tells her that he’s going to stop publically denouncing the Nation of Islam, since he is only just starting to intuit how far their power extends. The camera follows his gaze across the room, and towards the curtains, as if evoking this surveillant space that Malcolm can’t quite envisage, before honing in on a bug on a lampshade, before Lee cuts to a group of FBI agents listening to the dialogue. The last step in this elastic space occupied by the Nation of Islam now turns out to be the FBI.
The film comes full circle (again) at this point, segueing into the era of epics that Lee aims to rival, by way of the New Hollywood surveillance mode. But more importantly, Lee allows us to glimpse a shadow alliance between the Nation of Islam and the FBI, a convergence of white and black surveillant patriarchy that propels the last scene in the film into a strangely emergent post-patriarchal space. Neither Lee nor Malcolm can quite shed the idea of women as supplements to male hubris, but this fantasy feels much more contrived and artificial now. Hence the generic black “mammy” who appears out of nowhere to encourage Malcolm before his last ever speaking engagement. Vanishing as soon as she appears, she reminded me of the floating heads in BlacKkKlansman, and the way they evoked Lee in a point of transition, on the cusp of acknowledging something his patriarchy hasn’t normally permitted.
From here, the spaces of the film dissolve further, starting with one of the longest scenes in which Malcolm doesn’t talk, which turns into the quietest scene in which he does talk, culminating with him apologising to a black woman for raising his voice at her. When he leaves this dressing room for the stage of the Audubon Ballroom, his voice has changed, been displaced, or displaced itself, as he’s gunned down by the Nation of Islam, the black patriarchal system he once espoused, now murdering him as brutally as the white patriarchs who tortured his family. To some extent, Lee’s commemorative ending seems like an effort to disavow this post-patriarchal space that Malcolm briefly glimpses and inhabits, but the sheer length of his epilogue, which ends with a Nelson Mandela cameo, has the opposite effect. Malcolm X lives here, in the space between the need for black male pride and the pitfalls of black patriarchy, and his power, like the film’s, lies in articulating just that tension.