Malcolm X biopics -- A review of three documentaries as well as Spike Lee's recent ''Malcolm X''

By Ty Burr
Updated July 23, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT

Malcolm X biopics

It often seems as though America’s famous corpses work harder in death than in life. Whether they’re politicians like the Kennedys or stars like Marilyn Monroe, our martyrs’ meanings change to fit the yearnings of the moment. We make and remake them into victims, and we hold them dear.

But the process has rarely accelerated as quickly as with Malcolm X, who has become both politician and pop star. And it’s not merely Spike Lee who’s responsible for the Malcolm revival. Lee’s Malcolm X is only a visible manifestation of the pop-culture wheel’s inexorable turning. For years, Martin Luther King Jr. served as focal icon of the black struggle in this country. Now it’s Malcolm’s turn; in a world of Public Enemy and Rodney King, the image of his articulate impatience fits hard and naturally. The proliferation of ”X” caps may be testimony to Spike Lee’s marketing savvy, but only to a point: If everybody who wore the hat had gone to see the movie, Malcolm X wouldn’t have been the $48 million ”failure” the media seems content to have judged it. No, the popular zeitgeist was primed for Malcolm to be dredged up from history’s underground and reinvented as ”Malcolm,” a stern visage staring out from T-shirts and making official the wearer’s enlightenment.

Is it Lee’s fault that people rarely go beyond the T-shirt? He made as entertaining and meaty a film as his considerable gifts allowed; he shouldn’t be blamed if moviegoers persisted in seeing Malcolm X as homework along the lines of Ghandi. (On the other hand, Lee can be faulted for overplaying the media provocateur this time around.)

Malcolm X doesn’t entirely avoid Great Man pieties. After a first half that puts Malcolm’s hellacious early years into vivid perspective, the movie moves into too-tight focus, skipping along the salient points of the black leader’s life. It’s a conscious tactic — the movie trades in high spirits for spirituality, as Malcolm himself did — but by sacrificing the wider historical picture Lee goes against the intelligent, impassioned flash that’s his strong suit as a director.

To an extent, the film’s virtues and flaws are reversed by home video — the epic dazzle of Malcolm’s bad-boy days loses power on TV, whereas the more muted later sections befit a medium made for talking heads. Still, by robbing Malcolm X of the ”event” status that big-screen theatrical run lent it, video does the movie a disservice. Simply put, it makes clear that there’s no substitute for the real thing.

That’s inevitable with biopics: All the talent and padding in Hollywood won’t make Jack Nicholson into Jimmy Hoffa, really. But it hurts when you’re dealing with one of the most charismatic figures in American history. To see what’s missing, all you have to do is rent any of three documentaries also available on tape: The Real Malcom X: An Intimate Portrait of the Man, Malcolm X: Highlights and Speeches, and El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.

The Real Malcolm X is the most dispensable of the three. Aired on CBS, it’s a slick primer built on recent interviews and hosted by Dan Rather. And while it’s a treat hearing reminiscences by everyone from Andrew Young to Malcolm ”Shorty” Jarvis (the character Lee himself plays in the movie), there’s one voice that mostly goes unheard: Malcolm’s.

The other two tapes right that wrong. While older and more crudely put together than the CBS tape, both the 90-minute Highlights and Speeches and the 60-minute El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz let Malcolm’s public speeches roll comparatively uninterrupted. If you’ve never really listened to him, this footage may be a revelation: Where King’s speaking style embraced you in exhortatory rhetoric, Malcolm engaged your mind. Nimble, funny, increasingly self-aware, the Malcolm of these documentaries has a presence that’s far more dangerous than the ideas he was constantly evolving.

The documentaries also expose areas where Lee’s movie bends fact. Both of the older films include the entire ”house negro/field negro” speech in which Malcolm metaphorically allied himself with slaves’ hatred of their white masters (by using only the first half of that speech in Malcolm X, Lee removes the sting). And all three tapes pay more attention to Malcolm’s attempts to move the racial struggle to an international arena after his break with the Nation of Islam. Lee shows how Malcolm X came to personally reject strict black separatism, but he doesn’t show us how his hero planned to use that realization politically. Instead, Malcolm X‘s final half hour busies itself with a slow, stylish buildup to martyrdom — and that’s really just a fancier form of T-shirt.

Intriguingly, Lee’s movie, the CBS documentary, and Highlights and Speeches all end the same way: with Ossie Davis’ shiveringly beautiful eulogy followed by a film clip of the infamous ”By any means necessary” speech. The implication is that Malcolm’s legacy is one of threated violence: the fire next time. By contrast, El-Hajj Malike El-Shabazz (the name Malcolm X took after his 1964 pilgrimage to Mecca) ends with a sound bite that truly explains why this man was different from other black leaders then and why he seems even more vital today. ”Freedom,” Malcolm says, just before the screen goes dark, ”is something you have to do for yourself.”

Malcolm X: B+
The Real Malcolm X: B
Malcolm X: Highlights and Speeches: B
El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz: B+