For our film club this week, we decided to stick with the Spike Lee trajectory begun last week, and so we watched his terrific, uncompromising biopic Malcolm X (1992), which I'd not seen before.
On one level, the film is an extended examination of persuasion: specifically, it looks at the difference between persuasion and coercion.
Persuasion can be powerful, but when power itself is the means of persuasion we cross a line into coercion. The film is very interested in how people and institutions weild power, as it announces baldly in its opening juxtaposition:
The Rodney King tape is, of course, among some of the most iconic coercive footage ever shot, but the early portion of the film has no shortage of additional examples. For instance, here's someone making a point to Malcolm's mother:
And here's someone making a point to the young Malcolm himself:
These experiences are illuminating; they inform a person how power works, how to establish your place in hierarchies founded upon dominance. The young Malcolm learns this lesson well, as we can see from the way he settles a dispute early in the film:
So, on one level, the story of Malcolm's development is a story of renouncing coercion in favor of persuasion: doing work through lectures and argument, using the intellect as the tool rather than the body (or a club, or a gun):
The film is at its most interesting, however, when it blurs the dividing line between these two modes. The turning point in Malcolm's experience, as readers of the Autobiography will know, is his stint in prison and subsequent conversion to Islam. In the film, the catalyst for this is a mentor figure named Baines (invented for the film), who steers Malcolm, with a firm hand, to some tools of intellectual power:
The experience is undoubtedly positive for Malcolmbut as with any mentorship, it is not free of hierarchy, and it comes with its own dynamic of dominance and submission (the sequence culminates with a resistant Malcolm learning to kneel in submission before Allah). The difference would appear to be that the submission here, ultimately, is given voluntarily, without threat of force, but the territory is getting tricky all of a sudden.
Even more interesting is the sequence when one of the Nation of Islam brothers is injured by police and taken to prison without medical care. Malcolm goes to the police station and demands to be taken to see the injured party. The police consent, but it certainly helps that Malcolm has this force waiting outside:
Is this coercive? Is it the threat of violence that these ranked men (might) represent that causes the police to submit to Malcolm's request? Is it morally right to use coercion to save a man's life?
Further complicating this scene is the fact that the Nation of Islam members, in fact, act as a restraint on the even more coercive force represented by an inflamed crowd of people who gather outside of the hospital, demanding justice:
Cops, a black man wounded by those same cops, and an angry mob: this is the same formula we have at the conclusion of Do the Right Thing, and it is precisely the addition of the Nation of Islam members that allows the scenario to be reimagined as triumph rather than as tragedy. Whether this is because they represent reason instead of force or reason in addition to force is perhaps the key question involved with understanding Malcolm X, the figure. The film, to its credit, provides no easy answer.