Monday, August 9, 2010
THE ZOMBIE'S 101 FAVORITE SCREENPLAYS: #73
MALCOLM X (1992)
Spike Lee and Arnold Perl; based on the book The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley
Why It's Here
The merits of Spike Lee's landmark 1992 biopic Malcolm X were in many ways swallowed up by the tumultuous circumstances surrounding its production. Decades in development, the film was originally slated to be directed by Norman Jewison, a long-standing member of Hollywood's liberal elite whose directorial credits include such black-themed films as 1984's A Soldier's Story (co-starring Denzel Washington, who would subsequently play Malcolm in this film and go on to receive an Oscar nomination, under Jewison's direction, for 1999's The Hurricane) and In the Heat of the Night, which received the Academy Award as 1967's Best Picture. Upon hearing of Jewison's involvement, Lee, at that time America's most prominent black filmmaker and a provocateur par excellence, began making press statements suggesting that only a black man could properly present Malcolm's story onscreen. Jewison was eventually convinced of this and stepped down from the project, but the controversy didn't end there. Lee overran his $28 million budget (the highest ever given to a black-directed film at that time, but admittedly minuscule for a project of this ambition) and contributed most of his own salary to the production, but the powers at Warner Bros. nevertheless shut down post-production, and it wasn't until Lee solicited contributions from prominent black cultural figures such as Oprah Winfrey and Bill Cosby that he was able to regain control of his embattled project. Then, to cap off the media frenzy, Lee suggested that young African-Americans should cut school on the day of Malcolm X's release to attend a screening, claiming they would learn more from his film than they would in a day of studies (interestingly, no one who criticized Lee's statement bothered to ever suggest that the filmmaker might have been right). All of this hullabaloo more or less overwhelmed the film itself. Malcolm X grossed a modest $48 million, enough to recoup its budget but hardly qualifying it as a hit, and it only received two Academy Awards nominations, for Washington and for Ruth E. Carter's evocative period costumes. What was lost amidst all of this is the simple fact that Malcolm X is one of the finest biopics ever produced in America, and a large reason for the film's creative success is its screenplay, a virtual textbook on how to transfer a great man's life to the silver screen.
Malcolm X was looked upon as potential fodder for a film virtually from the moment of his assassination in 1965. Producer Marvin Worth acquired the rights to Malcolm's life story in 1967, and five years later released an Oscar-winning documentary feature named, like Lee's film, after its subject. Over the years, Worth also commissioned several screenplays for narrative features, and when Lee came on board as director, he was granted access to all of Worth's commissioned scripts. Lee particularly responded to two of these, one written by Arnold Perl (also a credited writer on Worth's documentary) and one by the great African-American novelist James Baldwin. Lee synthesized elements of these two screenplays into his own draft, eventually credited to Lee and Perl; Baldwin had requested that his name be left off of any film produced from his work. As is the case with many such screenplays, it is difficult to discern precisely whose narrative voice predominates within the finished film (though since Lee is also the film's director, co-producer and co-star, it's hard not to assume his vision would be primary), but what is undeniable is that the film itself tells Malcolm's story with a richness of detail and comprehensive sweep rare in biographical cinema.
Biopics have been traditionally hamstrung by the fact that most individuals' lives neither fall into a traditional three-act cinematic structure nor are small enough in scope that they can be reasonably contained within a feature-length motion picture. In Malcolm X, however, the writers found a man whose life, amazingly, more or less corresponded to the standard three-act Hollywood format. Also, Malcolm's tragically abbreviated lifespan (he was only 39 when he was gunned down at New York's Audubon Ballroom) allowed the writers to cover the entire sweep of Malcolm's years in a way almost unheard of in biographical film. Even a three-hour-plus biopic like Gandhi must often omit details and excise entire portions of their subjects' lives (when that film begins, Gandhi is already a prosperous Indian lawyer at work in South Africa), but Malcolm X is able to cover the complete spectrum of its subject time on this earth in its 201-minute running time. This is indeed not a short film, but this sort of running time for an epic-scale Hollywood biopic is practically par for the course, and Malcolm X uses that running time far more skillfully than most films of its type.
Malcolm X does not start at the very beginning of Malcolm's life, but instead at a point when it might as well have been over before it even really got started in the first place. When we first meet Malcolm Little, he's a Boston street tough getting his very first "conk", a hair-straightening treatment involving the application of a painful mixture of potatoes, water and lye. From this very first image, the writers deftly illustrate the pain inflicted on black Americans by white society, and the self-loathing that results and that causes otherwise sensible people to inflict even more pain on themselves just to attempt to assimilate into a culture that will never truly accept them anyway (Malcolm, upon seeing the results of his conk, declares, "Looks white, don't it?"). Throughout the film's first hour, which chronicles Malcolm's early career as a petty criminal in Boston and later New York City, the screenplay frequently reminds us just what Malcolm, and indeed all of black America, was up against in the first half of the twentieth century. We see razor-sharp images of Malcolm's childhood, which plays like a chronicle of indignity at the hands of white society. Klansmen burn down Malcolm's childhood home as revenge against the black-self-love preaching of his father, Earl Little (Tommy Hollis); Earl is later killed by these same men, his head bashed in with a hammer and run over by a streetcar in what the courts rule, ridiculously, to be an act of suicide. Throughout Malcolm's boyhood, he encounters "well-meaning" white people who nevertheless cause him harm. After the Littles' life insurance company denies payments to Malcolm's mother (Lonette McKee), the family is split up and Malcolm sent to a boys' home. While in school, he excels in his classes and even gets elected class president, but when he expresses ambitions to be a lawyer, his teacher, a prime practitioner of "the soft bigotry of low expectations", tells him, bluntly, that the law is no realistic career goal for "a nigger"(yes, the teacher actually says this word to the boy), and that he should consider looking into finding work as a manual laborer. Everything in Malcolm's boyhood was calculated to deliver one message: you are inferior. Even his own mother married a dark-skinned black man out of hatred for her own light complexion; her mother was impregnated after being raped by a white man, which might have also accounted for Malcolm's own light eyes and red hair.
The young Malcolm seems more than willing to meet society's low expectations of him. He runs numbers for West Indian Archie (Delroy Lindo), a dapper criminal who Malcolm declares might have been "a mathematical genius" had he lived in a country that would have given him a chance. He does some time as a Pullman porter, where his shuck-and-jiving belies his secret fantasies of smashing his condescending customers' faces with the food he serves them. He courts a decent, church-loving girl (Theresa Randle), but finds himself pulling away from her when her chastity, indeed perhaps her very goodness, proves too much for him. He finds a woman much more his style in Sophia (Kate Vernon), a decadent white woman with a taste for "colored stud". Malcolm declares in the narration that white women were often looked upon as the black man's prize, and that taking one away from the white man was a singular triumph...but Malcolm's relationship with Sophia seems to only fuel his conflicted feelings about his own identity and self-worth, exemplified in a tremendous scene where Malcolm makes Sophia kiss his feet and feed him breakfast, all the while asking when she's going to "wake up and holler rape". Back in Boston after a planned double-cross of Archie goes sour, Malcolm has been reduced to "animal" status; he's strung out on drugs and reduced to fencing burgled goods to make ends meet. His assimilationist drive comes full circle when, after the plumbing is turned off in their apartment, he's forced to wash off his burning conk treatment with toilet water...and it's with his head in this toilet that the cops find him and take him in for burglary, and for the unspoken but even worse "crime" of sleeping with white women.
Malcolm X's second act begins in prison, where the young hood is introduced to a new way of thinking by Baines (Albert Hall), a fiery-eyed convict who is a composite of several men Malcolm knew while in custody. Malcolm is taught the ways of the Nation of Islam and of its mystical but politically shrewd leader, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman, Jr.). He denounces liquor, drugs, pork and white women, and he begins to educate himself about the true depth of the indignities heaped upon his people by white America. In a striking scene illustrating Malcolm's newly emerging racial consciousness, he confronts the prison chaplain (Christopher Plummer) about the true race of Jesus Christ. By the time Malcolm emerges from prison and joins the Nation as a full-fledged Black Muslim, the formerly self-loathing small-time "boy" has been rebranded as an upright, morally unimpeachable man full of pride, self-respect...and hatred for the white "devils" who made him what he once was. Much of Malcolm X's middle hour is given over to scenes of Malcolm speechifying, winning converts, and spreading the message of Elijah Muhammad, "the black man's truth", to his brethren. Many of these speeches, such as Malcolm's TV-broadcast discourse on the difference between the "house Negro" and the "field Negro", and his famous exhortation from the entrance of Harlem's Apollo Theater, are taken from real speeches given by Malcolm X, a sensible move on the writers' part, as the main action of the second act is the transformation of Malcolm the man into Malcolm the icon, a figure who belonged as much to the public as to the Nation of Islam itself. The Nation has given Malcolm the strength to stand up to any injustice, whoever it comes from; in a powerful sequence, Malcolm leads a march of Black Muslims to secure medical care for a friend beaten up by white police (witnessing this demonstration, the white police chief, played by Peter Boyle, declares, "That's too much power for one man to have"). This is not to say, however, that Malcolm has completely neglected his own happiness. During this period of his life, he meets and marries Betty Shabazz (Angela Bassett) and builds a family with her. But his work for the Nation always comes first, and eventually causes tension in the marriage, when Betty begins to wonder why their home, car and clothing are so modest while Elijah Muhammad and "Brother Baines" live in comparative luxury.
Throughout the film's second hour, the writers give us glimpses of where Malcolm's old running buddies ended up, illustrating the corrosive effects of white social oppression from which Malcolm has extricated himself. Malcolm's church-loving girlfriend Laura has become a prostitute, servicing white johns in back alleys. Others have wound up dead or insane, and West Indian Archie, once so cool and well put-together, is a stroke victim living in squalor and babbling on about the importance of his "rep". Only Shorty (Lee), Malcolm's former partner in crime, seems relatively unscathed...but he's unchanged also, asking the now lily-pure Malcolm to join him for some cocaine and declaring that he could never be a Muslim because "I love pigs' feet and white women too much." Still, even Elijah Muhammad is eventually revealed to be not as untouched by social temptations as he seems, as Malcolm discovers that his spiritual father has sired several bastard children with young Muslim women who have since been ostracized from the church community. His confrontation with Baines about this lights an anti-Malcolm spark within the Nation, and it reaches conflagration status when he makes perhaps his most incendiary public statement, declaring that the assassination of John F. Kennedy was "justice", a prime example of the white man's "chickens coming home to roost". He is publicly silenced by Elijah Muhammad for ninety days, and he takes the opportunity for the pilgrimage to Mecca that begins Malcolm X's final act.
While in Mecca, Malcolm prays, marches and dines with white Muslims from all nations, and when he returns to the States, he formally breaks from the Nation of Islam to form his own church which will work in concert with any organizations willing to help the cause of black equality...even white ones. This public denouncement of the Nation of Islam's political philosophy is an explicit reversal of Malcolm's earlier stance on white involvement in the cause (in an earlier scene on a college campus, Malcolm is stopped by a white student who asks him what she can do to help his mission; "Nothing," he flatly declares, and walks by the clearly hurt girl with barely a glance in her direction), and it plants the seeds that eventually lead to Malcolm's death. While the film does not specifically state who gave the orders for Malcolm's execution, the identity of the killers as Muslims is never disputed; a scene of the assassins preparing their weapons ends with one declaring the traditional Muslim peace blessing "a salaam a lakum", and though the shooters' names are not given in the screenplay, they are named in the film's closing titles. (It is alleged that the film's original screenplay explicitly fingered the Nation's current leader, Louis Farrakhan, as one of the assassination conspirators, but that Lee, under threat from Farrakhan himself, removed all such references.) There is also some suggestion that the Nation of Islam may not have been working alone, as the CIA is clearly depicted as having their eye on Malcolm. He is followed everywhere in Mecca by two white men who film his every step, and when he moves to a hotel room in New York following the firebombing of his home, his room is bugged, his phone conversations recorded. In the final major sequence, following Malcolm en route to his date with destiny at the Audubon, it is strongly suggested that Malcolm more or less knew what was coming, and may even have welcomed it. After all, Jesus Christ has had more influence as a martyr than he ever did in life. Malcolm seems to understand this fact...regardless of what color Jesus may have been.
While the screenplay for Malcolm X is remarkably comprehensive in its scope and vision, there are several issues it stirs that are short-changed or under-addressed by the writing. Malcolm X has been frequently paired in the public imagination with Dr. Martin Luther King, the Southern civil rights leader who was seen as a more conciliatory, non-violent alternative to Malcolm's northern, urban "by any means necessary"philosophy. While we glimpse Dr. King in several newsreel clips following Malcolm's death, King is not really a character in the film; he and Malcolm share no scenes together, and we never really find out what Malcolm thought of his southern counterpart, or vice versa. Likewise, Malcolm X is notably callow on a subject of continued controversy within Islam: the faith's formal position on the role of women. It is wise that Malcolm turned away from his earlier view of women as primarily sexual objects for his gratification, but during his years with the Nation, he nevertheless seems to subscribe to the faith's overall positioning of women as an inferior subspecies. He sees no problem with the faith-proscribed modest dress and head veils women are required to wear, and when he speaks in public about male-female relations, it's usually with the man positioned as the caretaker of the nurturing, home-guarding woman. And even though he is married to a strong, educated woman who seems to share a somewhat equal partnership with him, there is no doubt who is the master of their home; in the most pointed moment of their most heated argument, Malcolm momentarily reverts to his forceful street persona when she shuts her down with a shouted "Woman, don't you raise your voice in my house!" All of this is perfectly encapsulated by a shot at one of Malcolm's speeches, where we see a banner declaring that the men of the Nation must protect their greatest gift from Allah, "Our Black Women". Seated behind this banner is a phalanx of applauding black womanhood, beautiful, exalted...and isolated, far from any potential influence. It is a slight failing that the film does not address this subject in greater detail, but really, the fault in this case more likely lies with the philosophy rather than the filmmaking.
One might wonder what possible relevance a film like Malcolm X could have to someone like me, or indeed to any non-African-American viewer. But all of the greatest stories have elements that make them universal, and for all its in-depth detail about the struggles of black Americans, Malcolm X is, as much as anything else, an inspirational story about man's capacity for self-reinvention. Malcolm Little is a man who should have, by any logical measure, lived a Hobbesian life, nasty, brutish and short, winding up like the crippled West Indian Archie at best, moldering in a criminal's shallow grave at worst. While there was plenty of nastiness and brutality in Malcolm's life, and though it was undeniably short, things didn't turn out the way white America, or fate, had planned for Malcolm. Through sheer self-will, education and strength, Malcolm built himself back up into a paragon of self-love, confidence and assertion, and became one of the most influential figures of the American twentieth century, of any race. Malcolm took on the "X" as a "last name" to remind himself that his identity had been taken from him by the slave masters who bought and sold his family, but by the end of the film, he has enough self-knowledge to provide himself with a new Muslim name, El-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz. Malcolm has reclaimed himself, and he's done it under his own power, his lesson a vivid one and well-illustrated in the final scene of the film by a group of black schoolchildren, American and African, rising from their classroom seats and proudly declaring "I am Malcolm X!" For anyone struggling with their sense of self or self-worth, Malcolm X is an invaluable illustration of what one person with willpower can truly achieve, and it should be required viewing for any screenwriter who wants to learn how a film can truly bring a man's life to life.
AWARD NOMINATIONS: USC Scripter Award (nomination shared with book authors Malcolm X and Alex Haley)