The Cultural and Mythical Meanings of the Depiction of the Character of Malcolm X in Spike Lee’s Film (1992)


spike lee

In 1992, Spike Lee presented his film “Malcolm X,” which describes the life of the leader and thinker who was one of the most prominent members of the African-American community in the twentieth century. Spike Lee was exposed to the “autobiography” of Malcolm X as written by the renowned author Alex Haley and published immediately after the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965. This is one of the canonical Black American autobiographies, and although it was not written by Malcolm X, it is nevertheless recognized as an autobiography.

Alex Haley, a Republican journalist and writer, described the life of the radical Black American leader Malcolm X on the basis of his protracted dialogue with the leader during his latter years. In examining Spike Lee’s film on the character of Malcolm X, we must isolate the manner in which Spike Lee and the author of the autobiography, Alex Haley, “read” the story of Malcolm X. Moreover, even Malcolm X himself perceived his life in different ways, and created different self images that evolved during the writing of the autobiography, and particularly after he left the Nation of Islam movement on (March 1964).

Spike Lee began his career in the independent Black cinema. He secured global recognition for five films he wrote and directed, and in which he appeared as an actor, prior to “Malcolm X.” In 1991, after a protracted struggle, he finally secured the right to direct the epic cinematographic biography of Malcolm X, receiving some $ 33 million from Warner Brothers and other production companies. Through his production company 40 Acres and a Mule, Spike Lee wrote, directed, and enjoyed exclusive control of the first Hollywood adaptation of the life of a radical African-American leader produced on such a large scale. During the course of the production, Spike Lee leveled charges of racism against White Hollywood. I examined these charges not only with regard to Hollywood, but also in the other spheres of knowledge in which Lee was involved. For example, I sought to examine how the expropriation of the character of Malcolm X by Lee was received in the Black community. A further example shows how Lee fought for control against White cinematographers, using the character of Malcolm X as cultural capital. The transition of the character of Malcolm X to the Hollywood screen created a new complexity, featuring, on the one hand, the professionalism of the Hollywood industry and the manner in which it creates broad cinematic history; and, on the other – the radical theme examined by Spike Lee, which was (and still is) sometimes opposed to the liberal White vision of Hollywood.

The manner in which Spike Lee directed the character of Malcolm X reflected the memory of the generation born in the 1960s – a generation that did not participate in the fierce struggles to secure full equal rights for Black people. In his film, Spike Lee also reflected the manner in which his own consciousness as a representative of his generation was shaped, after he had observed during his adolescence the decline of the Black man (as the result of the Reaganist policies of the 1980s). Accordingly, we must distinguish between the manner in which Spike Lee sought to recreate the historical past and the manner in which he sought to establish a new identity through Malcolm X.

In 1981, the cultural researcher Fredric Jameson published his book “The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act.” In this work, he sought to present a theory of new political and cultural interpretation. He searched for the cracks and social contradiction between text and reality. The question of the interpretation of these cracks and contradictions delineates the development of a historical or ideological subtext that draws concrete events into the fabric of the text. In order to create a new and comprehensive form of historical/literary interpretation, he developed a model based on three concentric horizons:

1.       Narrative

2.       Class

3.       Myth

According to Jameson, the examination of the cultural fault lines along each of these concentric interpretative horizons will be expanded through both synchronic and diachronic analysis. Jameson’s model seeks to avoid the reification of history, offering a radical restructuring of the political unconscious that is revealed and concretized through the three above-mentioned layers of interpretation. In this study, I have adopted a methodology based on the use of Jameson’s sociohistorical model in order to examine three specific social contradictions in Spike Lee’s film on the character of Malcolm X, through two interpretative horizons – the narrative and the mythical. I am aware of the problematic nature of attempts to subject historical questions to the prisms of cultural research in general, and sociology in particular. However, a cautious application of these interpretative horizons may enable the reweaving of the political unconscious into the various strata of the text.

As a myth, Malcolm X no longer lives on the streets of Harlem or meets with world figures and the leaders of anticolonialist movements in Asia and Africa. On the other hand, he has now become a symbol, an image, and the arena for a broad-based cultural struggle. I distinguish and examine the manner in which the cinematic, literary, cultural, economic, and political spheres of discourse emerge and are shaped as spheres of the objective relations between individuals or institutions competing over a common target – the way in which Malcolm X is depicted. I sought to examine and reveal the place of Spike Lee by reference to the African-American community and to the historical, social, and mythical movements of Black Liberation in the past and the present, and the manner in which he perceives himself, through the production of this film.

I examined the manner in which the African-American community perceives, in its collective memory of the 1990s, the past struggles of the 1960s and the current struggles; how it perceives both its leaders and itself. I examined the fashioning and positioning of Black memory within American society and society’s attitude to this memory, on the assumption that remembrance has become a historical object. I examined the struggles of various groups, such as the Black community, the leaders of the struggle in the 1960s, Spike Lee and production team of the film, Hollywood production companies, and other groups, relating to the manner in which collective American memory has been processed. Image, memory, the manner in which different groups in society were identified, and the question of the distribution of resources and power found their place in various fields of discourse as arenas for the struggle to shape patterns of collective remembrance.

Although over fourteen years have passed since the film appeared, and forty one years since the assassination of Malcolm X, much of the material concerning his life remains obscure. Many FBI files relating to Malcolm X remain unpublished, and additional material on his life is inaccessible since his late wife (and the Nation of Islam) did not permit its disclosure. No comprehensive archive has yet been developed, and disparate sources or details relating to his life may be found in dozens of locations around the US (particularly in universities).

Malcolm X: The Movie

The character of Malcolm X combined and united in one figure the history of the struggles that preceded the stormy period of the 1960s, such as Marcus Mosiah Garvey’s Back-to-Africa movement, which was active during the period 1912-1940, the Black Panther movement, active from 1966, and other groupings. When we encounter references to the character of Malcolm X, we must decipher their code and employ today’s terms in order to ascertain which aspects of his activities are referred to and which language is used to present his political and cultural actions.

As I listen to the speeches of Malcolm X, read his autobiography, watch Spike Lee’s film, or read the tests of Black intellectuals from various periods, I can never forget my own identity and position within cultural research. I am a heterosexual Mizrachi Jewish Israeli man seeking to examine the dynamic narrative of the African-American community. My attempt to read experiences of Blackness from my starting point and perspective here in Israel sometimes creates associations for me with the Mizrachi experience, which often helps me consider issues of multiculturalism. The Mizrachi Jews in Israel certainly did not experience slavery, but they share a collective experience of the historical marginalization of one group (the Jews of the Arab countries) within national history. Moreover, the ethnic category in Israel is still largely denied, despite the fact that it creates distinctions, variance, and considerable gaps. I am aware that I am examining externally historical questions relating to a group to which I am not directly connected; nevertheless, I have done my best to study cultural, class, gender, racial, and political aspects of race tension in the United States, while fully acknowledging that the manner in which I understand this tension is related to my own local concepts and conscience.

I examined the genealogy of these both in order to consider questions of fiction and truth, and in order to examine the ways in which the individual, the collective, and society perceive themselves at specific points in time. In order to understand the myth of Malcolm X as it emerged in the 1990s, I needed to structure an appropriate context from which I could derive new meanings.