The Black Kino Fist: Black life as depicted in film history

Malcolm X (1992)

"In 1992, 22 years before Ava DuVernay’s Selma – which is, amazingly, the first major cinema release to feature Dr Martin Luther King Jr as a central character – came another Hollywood study of a key 1960s African American political figure. Malcolm X was Spike Lee’s sixth movie. Based on the 1965 autobiography co-written by Malcolm and future Roots creator Alex Haley, it’s a 202-minute, continent-hopping epic boasting a superbly charismatic, Oscar-nominated performance by Denzel Washington as the eponymous activist and orator.
Malcolm X performed solidly at the box office (taking in $48m against a budget of $33m), and was the first major black-authored studio film to offer a three-dimensional portrait of a black leader whose views and actions clashed vigorously with white America. Lee’s film was also a powerful statement against an entertainment culture which routinely prioritised the experience of white saviours in civil rights narratives (see: Cry Freedom, Mississippi Burning), or sweetened the bitter pill with soothing depictions of interracial friendships (The Long Walk Home). Although pernicious white saviour narratives persist today (The Blind Side, The Help, Django Unchained), Malcolm X’s influence does finally appear to be taking hold. 
Lee Daniels’ idiosyncratic The Butler is one example of an epic, black-focused story which doesn’t rely on the crutch of a white interlocutor, even if its oddly triumphal conclusion comes perilously close to suggesting America’s racial problems were solved by the 2008 election of Barack Obama. Selma, meanwhile, steadfastly refuses to overstate the role of President Lyndon Johnson in the struggle for voting rights, preferring instead to focus on the grassroots campaigners who forced the issue. The scolding response of some commentators to DuVernay’s nuanced portrayal of Johnson indicates how uncomfortable many remain at the idea of a Hollywood treatment of race relations which portrays whites as anything other than straightforward heroes."
- Ashley Clark
Status: Available for purchase
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