Denzel Washington and Angela Bassett in <i>Malcolm X</i>. CREDIT: <a href="">Warner Bros.</a>
Denzel Washington and Angela Bassett in Malcolm X. CREDIT: Warner Bros.

Ethics on Film: Discussion of "Malcolm X"

Aug 29, 2017


Over 50 years after his assassination, Malcolm X remains one of the most polarizing figures in American history. To many, he is a symbol of the enduring struggle for equal rights for all human beings; for others, his legacy is tainted by his association with the Nation of Islam (NOI) and his remarks about "white devils" and President Kennedy's death. Any film that does his story justice would have to be complex and controversial, and Spike Lee's eponymous 1992 film, based on The Autobiography of Malcolm X and clocking in at 202 minutes, does not disappoint.

Much like the man himself, Malcolm X has distinct phases. Through an extraordinary performance from Denzel Washington, Lee presents his subject at different points of his life, going in varying directions. The Malcolm Little we meet in early-1940s Boston is a completely different character than the Malcolm X who emerges from prison in 1952 or the el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz who dies in Harlem in 1965. But to Lee's credit, Malcolm's evolution is portrayed organically and considers how thoughtful, sensitive, and troubled the icon always was, despite how he portrayed himself to the outside world.

Malcolm's Journey

The first part of the film illustrates the contradictions in Malcolm's life that were probably there for most African-American men in his era. He struts around in an almost comical zoot suit, straightens his reddish hair, and even dates a white woman; but this belies the fact that white people have terrorized him emotionally and physically for his whole life. Malcolm's outspoken preacher father was most likely murdered by white supremacists in Michigan after his family was run out of Nebraska and Wisconsin. His mother was committed to a mental institution and his siblings were scattered to foster homes. Malcolm, though he excels at school, is called "n*gger" so many times that he almost becomes immune to it and willingly takes his teacher's advice when he tells him that as a Black kid, he should learn to work with his hands.

So, Malcolm Little ends up working as a porter on a train, which leads him to Harlem where he falls in with gangsters and becomes addicted to cocaine. He eventually ends up in jail for burglary and the Malcolm X that we all recognize is slowly born. After enduring nightmarish beatings, solitary confinement, and drug withdrawal, he converts to the NOI with the help of a prisoner named Baines (a composite character made up for the film played by Albert Hall). Malcolm begins to see his interactions with white people in a new light, and sheds the name of the family who enslaved his ancestors. He comes to believe that "the true nature of a white man is wickedness" and the races should be separate. His convictions are hardened when he leaves jail after six-and-a-half years and becomes one of NOI leader Elijah Muhammad's (Al Freeman, Jr.) favorite ministers.

Under the tenets of his new religion, this Malcolm disavows drugs, alcohol, pork, and white women. He eventually marries Betty Shabazz (Angela Bassett) and has six daughters. He seemingly has no time for anything fun or frivolous and single-mindedly preaches Elijah Muhammad's teachings, opening mosques across the country. Washington's Malcolm is reserved and methodical as his profile grows, but he overflows with charisma and intelligence. He advocates for a separate Black state, the right to self-defense, and viciously attacks other, more "mainstream" civil rights leaders (e.g. Martin Luther King, Jr.), calling them "Uncle Toms." You may disagree vehemently with what Malcolm is preaching in these scenes, but you can't look away.

The narrative changes again after Malcolm X proclaims that he is "glad" after the assassination of John Kennedy. This is too radical for even the NOI and he is suspended from speaking publicly on behalf of the organization. Around the same time he realizes that Elijah Muhammad has had a series of affairs with his young secretaries. He breaks from the group, enraging Muhammad and the other ministers; embraces Sunni Islam; and travels to Mecca for his Hajj where he prays alongside white Muslims, people he once considered wicked.

Malcolm returns to America and, with the FBI following him and the NOI plotting his downfall, it is clear he doesn't have much time left. Still, he speaks of reconciliation with white people and says, "The true practice of Islam can destroy the cancer of racism." But the NOI is relentless, as the film tells it, and with his family in attendance, Malcolm is murdered by multiple assailants while on stage at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City.

The film ends on a hopeful note with a cameo from the newly free Nelson Mandela in front of a class of kids repeating Malcolm's words: "We declare our right on this earth to be a man, to be a human being, to be given the rights of a human being . . ." The real Malcolm, though, pointedly finishes the speech with his incendiary tagline: "by any means necessary."

The Lure of Black Nationalism

Behind Malcolm's fiery rhetoric before his conversion to Sunni Islam was his earnest belief that integration was dangerous for Black people in America. In prison, Baines asks Malcolm to think of all the white people he had ever known and reflect on their inherent wickedness. Out of prison, Malcolm quips, "The only thing I like integrated is my coffee," but he also says this in more intellectual terms. Perhaps the most famous line from the film is, "We didn't land on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock landed on us." Malcolm's point is that Africans did not come willingly to the United States, so this nation can never truly be a land of opportunity for them as it is for white people. "You're not an American; you're an African in America," he explains.

With injustice and brutality an everyday occurrence for Black Americans, it is easy to see the appeal of separate nations, separate businesses, separate destinies. Of course, the irony was that the Jim Crow laws had already made this somewhat of a reality in the South, with horrific outcomes for all. As Mandela would say of apartheid, the white people being sold the lie of white supremacy were oppressed ideologically alongside the physical oppression of Black people. This was something that King understood as well, realizing that the Civil Rights Movement would only be successful if progressive white people were involved in the struggle.

Malcolm, though, had a different view. One scene, based on a real-life encounter, clearly illustrates the limits of separatism. On his way to a talk at a university in Boston, a young white woman approaches Malcolm and his entourage. She earnestly asks what a white person who isn't bigoted can do to further his cause. Malcolm barely even breaks his stride as he says, "Nothing," leaving the woman behind, who in reality broke into tears after being brushed off. After his awakening in Mecca, though, Malcolm thought back on this encounter. "I've lived to regret that incident," he said. "Something like this kills a lot of arguments." It is clear that in America the races will never be separate and the conversation, however difficult, must continue on all sides.

The Cult of Personality

As a minister for the NOI, Malcolm X said indefensible things. He habitually branded an entire race as "devils" and said of President Kennedy's assassination that the United States would "reap what it sows" and that "chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad; they've always made me glad." But to actor Denzel Washington's great credit, even as his Malcolm is saying these vicious words, there is always a vulnerability, or even an innocence, to him. Despite his transgressions before his prison stint, he emerged from custody a loyal and pious man, arguably to a fault. In the film, Betty had to scream and explicitly spell out the fact that his idol Elijah Muhammad had been engaged in scandalous affairs. Furthermore, Malcolm lived as he preached. FBI agents listening in to his phone calls say at one point, referencing another religious civil rights leader's well-known and exploitable infidelities, "Compared to King, this guy's a monk." He also lived frugally, as Betty pointed out, while Muhammad literally sat on a throne during his rallies.

Still, it can be dangerous to build up any human, even one as exceptional as Malcolm, into a living symbol. In one scene, Malcolm leads a group of NOI adherents to a hospital to support a Black man who had been beaten unconscious by the police. When he finally hears what he wants to hear, Malcolm simply lifts his hand up and the group marches away in lockstep. As a policeman says, "That's too much power for one man to have."

This power is further shown with the cult of personality surrounding Elijah Muhammad. At a rally celebrating him, the mood turns cult-like as thousands of his followers chant his name as he sits on his throne. Indeed, Muhammad had been abusing his power in the worst way: impregnating his young secretaries because he believed it was his divine right. Baines attempts to explain away his leaders' sins, telling Malcolm, "The deeds of a great man far outweigh his personal weaknesses."

But that was not nearly good enough for Malcolm as he soon left the NOI and never looked back. Sadly, by most accounts (there are still some who question when the NOI was fully or party to blame for his murder), this would be the one battle that he would lose completely.

Malcolm in 2017

Writing this less than a month after the Charlottesville rally and terrorist attack, it is tempting to look at Malcolm X's legacy in a different light and remark upon how much work America still needs to fix its racial issues. But Malcolm probably would not be at all surprised that structural racism still exists and that there has been a resurgence in outright bigotry in the last two years. While King was working, in a straight line, toward a future where Black people and white people had the same opportunities, Malcolm, as the film told it, was focused on the present and making sure his brothers and sisters had opportunities, by any means necessary.

What is clear, after watching the film, is that el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, Malcolm's last incarnation, would want to talk and learn in 2017. As someone who experienced hatred from all sides, he would not have been shocked by the rise of the "alt-right." Instead, he would have gotten right back to work and been in Emancipation Park in Charlottesville praying for the souls of white supremacists alongside other clergy; he would be speaking to young people, on all sides, at universities; and he might even be looking for ways to engage with the president, even though Trump built his political career by embracing a racist conspiracy theory and a majority of the country has already written him off. This is a moment that calls for Malcolm's open mind and thoughtful nature, the version he settled on after decades of struggle, as a way to make sense of the hate and vitriol that has taken far too many of us by surprise.

Discussion Questions

1. Was there any justification for Malcolm X calling white people "devils" and advocating for a separate Black state during his NOI days? How about his comments about President Kennedy?

2. What did Malcolm X mean when he compared Kennedy's assassination to "chickens coming home to roost"?

3. Knowing how Malcolm X felt in his heart at the time, what should have been his reaction to the white woman when she asked if he could help?

4. Was the policeman right when he said that nobody should have as much power as Malcolm X? Was Elijah Muhammad too powerful?

5. Although his words might have been offensive to many, was Malcolm X right to criticize Martin Luther King, Jr. and his approach to fighting for civil rights?

6. Should we be willing to look past a leader's misdeeds if they are working towards a positive goal?

7. What should the be the role of religion in civil society movements? Did Malcolm X, or even King or Gandhi, rely too much on spiritual arguments in their movements?

8. Why did the young Malcolm Little want to straighten his hair to "look white"?

9. What would Malcolm X say about President Trump and his views on race? How about the "alt-right"?

Selected Carnegie Council Resources

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media Cass R. Sunstein, Havard Law School How is today's Internet driving political fragmentation, polarization, and even extremism—and what can be done about it? Legal scholar Cass Sunstein shares the results of his research. (Public Affairs, May 2017. Video, audio, transcript.)

Local Politics and Criminal Justice Reform with Mohammed Alam Mohammed Alam, Center for Court Innovation; Manhattan & New York State Young Democrats; Alex Woodson, Carnegie Council With his roles at Center for Court Innovation, focusing on criminal justice reform, and with the Young Democrats, working to find the next generation of progressive New York politicians, Mohammed Alam is at the center of some of America's most pressing debates. As the federal government goes in a different direction, what can be done at the local level? (Carnegie New Leaders Podcast, April 2017)

Human Rights Narratives and Active Resistance with Sujata Gadka-Wilcox Sujata Gadkar-Wilcox, Quinnipiac University; Alex Woodson, Carnegie Council Gadkar-Wilcox says that when it comes to human rights, we need to ask more questions about systems and origins. This is especially important now, as Americans confront a powerful executive branch pushing simplistic narratives and "alternative facts." What are the responsibilities of individuals? How can we start these challenging discussions? (Carnegie New Leaders Podcast, February 2017)

A New Sense of Direction (1968) Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King gave this speech just a few months before his assassination and it is his last thorough evaluation of the movement. Still sadly relevant, he discusses U.S. racism, injustice, and militarism, and despite all, reaffirms his commitment to non-violence. (100 for 100: From our Archives, republished January, 2014)

Three Worksheets for students, based on MLK's Speech, "A New Sense of Direction"Relevant excerpts from the speech that can help students learn more about MLK and the Civil Rights movement. All materials are in .doc form so that teachers can create modifications for their classroom.

A World History of Political Violence Rachel Kleinfeld, Truman National Security Project; Devin Stewart, Carnegie Council Rachel Kleinfeld discusses with Devin Stewart her research—which took her to five continents over the past three years—and forthcoming book on how violence is perpetuated and curtailed in societies around the world. Kleinfeld discusses the role of political power, corruption, law enforcement, leadership, and grassroots movements. (Carnegie Council Podcast, June 2016)

Sujata Gadkar-Wilcox on Political Responsibility in India and the United States Sujata Gadkar-Wilcox, Quinnipiac University; Alex Woodson, Carnegie Council What do citizens living in a democracy owe their country in terms of upholding its values and laws? Both Gandhi and Obama emphasize the importance of individual responsibility, which has to go beyond just voting, says Gadkar-Wilcox. Don't miss this fascinating discussion on Indian and U.S. perspectives, both historically and in today's fraught politics. (Carnegie New Leaders Podcast, May 2016)

Examining the Potential for an American Truth and Reconciliation Commission Bennet Collins, University of St Andrews; Alison M. S. Watson, University of St Andrews The deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner catalyzed discussions nationwide over race relations in the United States. Surely it's time for some kind of Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). But how would it work? This essay examines other TRCs—including two in the U.S.—and proposes a solution tailored to fit America in all its diversity. (Carnegie Ethics Online, February 2015)

The Secret of Political Jiu-Jitsu Srdja Popovic, CANVAS; Mladen Joksic, Carnegie Council "While oppression may appear to be a display of the government's power, skilled activists know that it's actually a sign of weakness." (Foreign Policy/Carnegie Council article, March 2014)

From Dehumanization to Rehumanization Laura Rediehs, St. Lawrence University "Rehumanization is the restoration of human dignity and the reassertion of the priority of humans above the systems originally intended to serve humanity. If we are to achieve rehumanization, we need to domesticate the techno-economic complex and quell its divisive forces," writes philosophy professor Laura Rediehs. (Carnegie Ethics Online, February 2014)

1st Prize High School Category, "Moral Leadership" Essay Contest, 2013 Gabriel Rosen, Stuyvesant High School, New York City "Moral leadership is the transcendence of political realities by a person of conscience in the pursuit of a grand ideal. I define moral leadership as such because the annals of history, though saturated with the exploits of leaders seeking fame or power, are shaped by the work of those who defiantly held onto their ideals, no matter the political cost." (Prize-winning student essay, January 2014)

Book Review: Colored Cosmopolitanism: The Shared Struggle for Freedom in the United States and India Andreas Rekdal, Carnegie Council "South Asians and African Americans learned from each other in ways that not only advanced their respective struggles for freedom but helped define what freedom could and should mean," argues historian Nico Slate in his debut book. (Book review, July 2013)

Ethics Matter: Srdja Popovic on Creating Successful Nonviolent Movements Srdja Popovic, CANVAS; Marlene Spoerri, Carnegie Council Successful nonviolent movements need three things: the cool factor, memorable branding, and humor, says Popovic. He cofounded the Serbian youth movement Otpor!, which played a major role in toppling Milosevic, and his work training activists in Egypt and Tunisia is widely credited for inspiring Arab Spring protesters. (Ethics Matter, December 2012. Video, audio, transcript, TV show)

Civil Resistance and Power Politics: The Experience of Non-violent Action from Gandhi to the Present Adam Roberts, Oxford University Should civil resistance be seen as potentially replacing violence completely, or as a phenomenon that operates in conjunction with, and as a modification of, power politics? (Public Affairs, November 2009. Video, audio, transcript)

Works Cited

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Alex Haley and Malcolm X, Grove Press. 1965.

"'Malcolm X,' as Complex as Its Subject", The New York Times, Vincent Canby, November 18, 1992.

"Malcolm X: Spike Lee's biopic is still absolutely necessary", The Guardian. Ashley Clark. February 19, 2015.

"Malcolm X - Trivia", IMDB.

"Release government files on Malcolm X assassination", The Boston Globe, January 10, 2015.

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