Malcolm X (1992)

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Food:

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Melba’s Restaurant
https://www.melbasrestaurant.com/

Reviews:

“We got their candied yams, spinach, onion rings, mac and cheese, and the smothered chicken. We were silent the whole time and practically inhale everything.”
“The chicken was sumptuous- crispy, tasty, absolutely delicious. The waffle was so fluffy and rich.”
“I was born and raised in New Orleans. I recently moved to Harlem. When I am homesick, I order food from Melba’s. They get soul food. It’s authentic deliciousness. They have the best collard greens in Harlem. I HIGHLY recommend.”

The cook behind Melba’s Restaurant also has a book:

https://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1476795282?tag=simonsayscom

 

Black Stories Film Series #6: 

“Malcolm X” (1992) is one of Spike Lee’s most sprawling and informative dramas, an autobiography based off of of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a book co-written by journalist Alex Haley after a series of interview with the activist himself between 1963 and 1965 (up until his assassination). El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, but better known as Malcolm X, was a complicated figure, whose life trajectory allowed him to dive into several ideologies full-heartedly and his experiences made him cannot be easily summarized. Lee faithfully uses the lengthy 3 hour screen time fully, to exhibit X’s life in with nuance, primarily focusing on the twenty years leading up to his murder.

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The only appropriate way to describe the one of the first introductory scenes of the film is iconic. We’ve got Denzel Washington (who plays Malcolm X – at this time, named Malcolm Little) and his best friend Shorty (played by director and writer Spike Lee!) as they walk in a synchronized manner in brightly colored zoot suits!! Are you kidding me? How have I never seen this before?!

The audacity and exuberance of the zoot suit is something to behold. According to an article from Ciad.org.uk (Full Article Here), the zoot suit came into popular culture in the African American community amongst young males in the 1930’s until the mid 1940s (halfway through WWII). The male silhouette in terms of fashion has rarely changed, so this was a form of attire that grabs attention, even 80 years later. It was characterized by “high waisted baggy trousers that could reach 30 inches or more in circumference around the knee and then tapered sharply into cuffs around the ankles.” They are the original balloon, parachute or harem pant that is now sneaking its way back into a modicum of fashion today. “They are paired with a “long jacket or coat that hugged the waist and sometimes reached to or past the knee… the shoulders of the jacket were equipped with large shoulder pads which gave the wearer a square boxy body shape that had the advantage of making him look larger than he was.” The look is truly wild. Except that wasn’t all. “Finishing this ensemble would be a wide brimmed hat often with a feather stuck in the band and an extraordinarily long key chain that could be seen swinging from underneath the jacket. All this may seem spectacular enough, but the outrageousness didn’t stop there. The suits would often be in bright or unusual colors and worn with the greatest aplomb and pride. Truly a man in a zoot suit was a man who was looking sharp!” You may also recognize this look from “The Mask” which came out two years after this one, in which Jim Carrey dons a zoot suit for portions of the film.

Besides the fact that the visuals of these two strutting around town is cinematic-ally fantastic, the inclusion of the zoot suit in this story is important because of the last part of the description: “a man in a zoot suit was a man who was looking sharp!” Malcolm Little was a self-described hustler at this point in his life, spending the bulk of his time at nightclubs, chasing after women, including white women, and relaxing his natural Afro hair, so that it would appear slicked back in the style worn by white men at that time. This was a regiment called “conking.” In an article in Litcharts.com (Full Article Here) a breakdown of this practice is found. In his early years, Malcolm “maintained a “conk” hairstyle, which was a way of chemically relaxing naturally kinky hair. The style was popular among African American men from the 1920s to the 1960s, despite the risk of chemical burns and the high amount of care necessary to maintain it.” In chapter three of the autobiography in which this film is based, Malcolm X reflects on this part of his life saying, “I spent the first month in town with my mouth hanging open. The sharp dressed young “cats” who hung on the corners and in the poolrooms, bars and restaurants, and who obviously didn’t work anywhere, completely entranced me. I couldn’t get over marveling at how their hair was straight and shiny like white men’s hair; Ella told me this was called a ‘conk.'” There is so much history, especially in America, about the beauty standards that were held upon black people to appear more “white-looking” in order to be accepted in mainstream society, even when it requires a great deal of effort and is often painful. The “conk” is a prime example of something that is often overlooked and unappreciated by white individuals.

Lastly, it is an honest depiction of what Malcolm’s priorities were at this time. He spent most of time at seedy nightclubs, drug dealing, and gambling, until, eventually, in 1946, he ended up getting arrested with Shorty, and two white women, for larceny and breaking and entering. Though, it becomes clear that his court conviction for stealing is as much to do with his sexual relationship with a woman as it is the burglary. During a cross-examination (more detailed in the book), most of the questions had to do with the origin and nature of his relationship with Sophia, the novelty-seeking white woman who he had been seeing for several months (played excellently by Kate Vernon). She is jailed for a few months to a year, while he is sentenced to ten years in state prison.

It is while he is in prison, depressed, angry and trying to maintain his conk hairstyle, when a black worker at the prison reprimands him for denying his blackness. Through multiple conversations, Malcolm discovers the definitions of the terms ‘black’ and ‘white’ in the dictionary, understanding immediately the effect that these words have on society’s view of black people. He begins reading tirelessly and becomes absorbed in the teaching’s of Muslim leader, Elijah Muhammad, and when released from prison on parole, quickly becomes a leader for the Nation of Islam, speaking with strong indignation about the way that blacks are treated in America.

This is where some of his controversy came into play: he was an avid supporter of segregation in the interest of giving black communities the power and freedom that they lost when integration occurred, because instead of gaining equality, the black communities were assimilated and their resources dispersed. While opting for segregation feels extreme and many people called this ideology racist (for its antisemitic views) or misguidedly “reverse racist” (from white people) – many of the sentiments are still ringing true today in the plight of black Americans. His provocative, incendiary, and often vengeful speeches challenged white authority, which was a necessary albeit risky offense. His bravery proceeded him. The solution being asked for is different, but the systemic problem is the same today.

The Nation of Islam was established in 1930, and “its bizarre theology of innate black superiority over whites – a belief system vehemently and consistently rejected by mainstream Muslims – and the deeply racist, antisemitic and anti-gay rhetoric of its leaders” solidified its position in society as one of the most powerful organized hate groups. Malcolm X began to understand this, and became disillusioned with the group in the early 1960’s when he learned of Elijah Muhammad’s many adulteries and when he disagreed with the groups stance on the killing of Ronald Stokes in 1962 and the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963.

Malcolm X participated in Hajj (the Islamic annual pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia – the holiest Muslim city), where he converted to Orthodox Islam and embraced people of every color. Upon returning to the United States, he became an avid supporter of Dr. King (Martin Luther King Jr.) and the Civil Rights Movement.

The landscape of his cultivated views is important because through them, we are able to see a mans journey to self-discovery, self-acceptance, and the incredibly complicated world of activism and finding solutions for injustice. No pun intended, but racism in America has never been as simple as a “black and white issue” and his multifaceted outlook illustrates just that. After the assassination of Malcolm X, his legacy powerfully lived on. Throughout the 1960’s, many radical black groups, such as the Black Power Movement, Black Arts Movement and Black Panthers developed slogans from quotes of his, like “Black is beautiful.” The release of this film in 1992, sparked a resurgence of Malcolm X’s legacy – especially in hip hop groups such as “Public Enemy” – and his name and picture were found on memorabilia in schools, flags, t-shirts and jackets.

Spike Lee, in doing what he does best, makes a film that serves as a three hour punch in the gut, especially for white folks who continually avoid confronting their own racism. He makes sure to juxtapose many of the historical events happening on screen with commentary that feels modern and resonates with the current audience, so that no one can ever walk away with the comfort of knowing that the past is the past. He makes sure that viewers understand that the issues presented on-screen are still fully at play in the early nineties – thirty years later. Unfortunately, it has been another thirty years since then, and these problems are no closer to being solved.

The words expressed through many speeches and monologues in the film might even sound like lip service because it mirrors so precisely the plight of the Black Lives Matter movement happening this year. The Black community is still attempting to explain to white people that racism is a problem that needs to be fixed by them, the ones that hold the power to oppress black people in this country, and exhausting the point that black communities are underprivileged because they are not given the same resources, healthcare, education, and support as white communities as the system sets them up to fail.

For those who are rioting, it was Malcolm X who first said, “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.” By any means necessary. On fighting police brutality, “Concerning nonviolence, it is criminal to teach a man not to defend himself when he is the constant victim of brutal attacks.” He says,“You can’t separate peace from freedom because no one can be at peace unless he has his freedom” and “we are oppressed. We are exploited. We are denied not only civil rights, but human rights.” On protests being anti-American (which calls to mind the criticism Colin Kaepernick received for peacefully protesting from his position in the NFL): “You’re not to be so blind with patriotism that you can’t face reality. Wrong is wrong, no matter who does it or says it.” On the media coverage of the looting and rioting, protecting the image of the police forces and attacking the Black Lives Matter movement: “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.” It is safe to say that he predicted what is happening today: “I believe that there will ultimately be a clash between the oppressed and those that do the oppressing. I believe that there will be a clash between those who want freedom, justice and equality for everyone and those who want to continue the systems of exploitation.” 

Spike Lee makes a point to not tell the story of Malcolm X alone, but to make clear to viewers the work that still needs to be done. He brings us a film that is as complex as its subject. It is as inspiring as it is educational. It is as entertaining as it is powerful. This is a must-see film, as Malcolm X is a figure who must be taught and understood.

 

 

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