Celebration of Black cinema and civil rights in America: ‘Malcolm X’ turns 30

Three decades ago since its release, the Brooklyn Academy of Music hosted a screening for Spike Lee’s “Malcom X” to commemorate the legacy of the film and the enduring memory of the civil rights activist. 

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Aaliya Luthra

(Illustration by Aaliya Luthra)

Mick Gaw, Staff Writer

Over one thousand New Yorkers gathered at the opulent Howard Gilman Opera House to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X”  biopic on Nov. 22. The Brooklyn Academy of Music hosted a celebration of filmmaking, the civil rights movement and Black culture, filling the evening with a palpable sense of excitement and somber reflection on the state of contemporary American politics. 

At times, the screening of this restored 202 minute cinematic masterpiece felt more like a community gathering than a film premiere. Introducing the event was none other than the film’s writer-director and NYU Tisch artistic director of the Graduate Film Program Spike Lee, who brought on stage the likes of Reverend Alfred “Al” Sharpton, Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso and Malcolm X’s own daughter Ilyasah Shabazz. Despite its over three hour runtime, which is unusual by today’s standards, this film was able to bring audience members together and enshrine the memory of Malcolm X in contemporary culture. 

Starring Denzel Washington in a career-defining performance, the film depicts the genesis and demise of America’s most iconic political leader — a man forged in the flames of a violent culture and molded by the crushing weight of systemic oppression. Over the course of the film, Washington embodies the multitude of dramatic changes in Malcolm X’s life; he convincingly takes viewers from Malcolm’s time in prison as a brash young man to his pilgrimage to Mecca in the final stages of his life. 

Malcolm X is portrayed as an authentic maverick in American history, refusing to compromise on his beliefs as a Muslim and an advocate for Black rights, despite being beset by enemies on all sides. Lee and Washington also emphasize Malcolm X’s humanity; he is more than a symbol of revolution. Instead of reducing his memory to that of a political martyr, the film spends a considerable amount of time fleshing out his relationships as a husband, a father and a community leader. While in public Malcolm X is a powerful and confident orator, Washington gives glimpses into his vulnerability as a man who is desperately trying to protect his family and navigate his faith — ultimately, he illustrates Malcolm X coming to terms with his own mortality. While some biopics, like the recent “Harriet,” choose to indulge in nostalgia-fueled visions of history, “Malcolm X” gives agency and dignity to its subject. 

Almost as inspiring as the film itself was Lee’s struggle to get this film made. When the film was initially announced for production in 1991, the project was attached to Canadian director Norman Jewison, most famous for films like “Moonstruck” (1987). Lee was opposed to having the film in the hands of a white director and successfully campaigned to take over the project. 

Although Lee took over the project, there was still no guarantee that he would be able to finish the film he sought out to make. During the introduction of the screening, Lee reflected on the time when the studio withdrew funding for the movie after they discovered how long the film would end up being. In order to finish the project, Lee made a plea for donations from Black celebrities like Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Tracy Chapman, Prince, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. 

“Malcolm X” is a story of unwavering resistance, cultural unity and strength of character. Even 30 years after its release, it remains all the more relevant in the current cultural landscape. It is a triumph in the art of filmmaking as well as its groundbreaking portrayal of a Black icon — it preserves the spirit of a real life Black hero in the canon of cinematic history and pop culture. 

Contact Mick Gaw at [email protected]