As Spike Lee's much-hyped film opens in Britain, Emmanuel
Oliver considers why Malcolm X has become the black icon of the nineties
The resurrection of Malcolm X
After completing Jungle Fever, director Spike Lee got in an early
plug for his next venture: 'All that we have done at Forty Acres and a Mule
[Lee's production company] has prepared us for our next film, certain to
be our biggest yet and the most important - Malcolm X.' Lee was right
to suggest that Malcolm X would be his most important film. But its
importance has less to do with Lee's considerable talents as a Hollywood
film-maker than with the current canonisation of Malcolm X.
Spike Lee's film is the culmination of the iconisation of Malcolm X in recent
years. At least a dozen new books on Malcolm X have appeared, while old
favourites are doing a roaring trade. Sales of Alex Haley's famous biography
of the black leader have increased three-fold in the past three years; editions
of Malcolm X's speeches are selling well. Malcolm X has become a hero to
the rap generation, hailed by artists as disparate as Public Enemy and Arrested
Development. Even Gerry in Eldorado has been seen sporting a colourful
Malcolm X number.
Why, 27 years after his death, has a man who was adored in the ghetto, but
hated and feared by the black middle class, and seen as an outsider by black
political groups, suddenly become the figure that everybody wants to claim
as their own? The current fixation with Malcolm X has little to do with
the man himself, and a lot to do with the times in which we live.
There was nothing particularly exceptional about Malcolm X, either personally
or in his politics. Much has been made about his journey of self-fulfilment
from Malcolm Little, a petty criminal, to Malcolm X, a feared and respected
black spokesman. But there were others, such as Adam Clayton Powell, who
came from equally humble beginnings to become charismatic political leaders.
He was certainly a great orator - but so were many black leaders of his day,
from Martin Luther King to Stokely Carmichael. As for Malcolm X's politics,
it was the usual mixture of nationalist rhetoric, religious fervour and
social aspirations that fuelled many militant black leaders in the sixties.
Malcolm X gave voice to black rage, particularly the anger of black working
class youth from the northern ghettos. Ignored by the leaders of the civil
rights movements, the anger of working class northern blacks erupted in
violent riots in cities across the USA. It was that anger and rage, and
the determination of blacks to challenge their oppression, which propelled
Malcolm X on to the national stage - and made him feared and hated by middle
class blacks and the political establishment. Today, ironically, it is the
absence of militant black struggles that has allowed for the resurrection
of Malcolm X.
The Los Angeles riots last April revealed that there is still plenty of
rage in the black ghettos. It is not hard to see why. There may be a few
more middle class black faces in Bill Clinton's administration, but American
society increasingly brands the majority of impoverished black people as
a criminal 'underclass', made up of 'street terrorists' (teenagers) and
'welfare queens' (single mothers). Blacks are bitter about being treated
as second class citizens. Unlike 30 years ago, however, there is little
belief that this anger will be transformed into a political movement.
Lacking effective leaders or 'role models' today, many within the black
community plunder the past to find their heroes. As a result, figures from
the past are assuming a religious status. Malcolm X's biggest qualification
for this role is that he is dead. Severed from reality, he has become a
symbol for black aspirations.
In her introduction to By Any Means Necessary, Spike Lee's account
of how the film was made, novelist Terry Macmillan writes of her fear that
her young son may become 'one of those young men...hitting the pipe or making
babies without bearing the responsibility'. Then she thinks of Malcolm X:
'I pray that when he grows up he has one-tenth of Malcolm's courage, insight,
wisdom.' The man who started life as a drug pusher, extortionist and gangster
has been reborn as a new black saint.
In the absence of the political ferment which pushed him to prominence in
the sixties, Malcolm has become a figurehead for many sections of black
America: the urban black youth with a personal survival strategy based on
the message 'by any means necessary'; the black businessman who feels legitimised
by Malcolm X's call to 'create our own employment'; the middle class black
who likes to berate the black male for failing his family, and for whom
the happy image of Malcolm and Betty (his wife) provide a positive role
model. All of them can invest in the mythical Malcolm their own prescription
for the contemporary black malaise.
It is ironic that even those who were openly hostile to Malcolm X when he
was alive now seek to claim his legacy. Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation
of Islam (the organisation which eventually assassinated Malcolm X), feels
no embarrassment in invoking the name of the man for whose death he campaigned
in the sixties. The conservative Bill Cosby, who was busy in the sixties
perfecting his 'Dr Huxtable' image, helped to fund Lee's film - as did that
other well-known black revolutionary, Michael Jackson.
Malcolm X appeals to white America too. Racists point to his early life
as a hood to damn all blacks as criminals. The more sophisticated conservative
is likely to emphasise the role of the family and self-help. If Malcolm
X, after such an unfortunate start in life, could drag himself up by the
bootstraps, then so can every other black person in the USA. The implicit
argument is that blacks who remain in the ghetto have only themselves to
Malcolm X has become for the black community what John F Kennedy is for
liberals - a figure who can transport them from the grim realities of today
to a mythical age whence hope springs eternal. It is testimony to the lack
of belief in contemporary America.
Malcolm X, the movie
Malcolm X stands in the tradition of the great Hollywood biopics.
In many ways it is Lee's safest film so far. He has taken no chances with
it, and sought to offend nobody. But Lee's strengths as a film-maker make
Malcolm X a very watchable epic.
Lee gives us the full range of Malcolm - the impish country boy getting his
first conk, the coked-up gangster and the towering figure of the spokesman
for the Nation of Islam. The one passage in the film that is difficult to
stomach is Malcolm's conversion to Islam, which Lee depicts with religious
Denzel Washington, fast becoming the black Kevin Costner, fits well into
the title role. At times he struggles with the sheer weight of portraying
his hero, but often you are left wondering whether you are watching the
actor or the real Malcolm.
The film opens with the videotape of the vicious police beating of Rodney
King in Los Angeles; it was the acquittal of these officers that sparked
the riots last year. It finishes with pictures of racist brutality from
the sixties, and finally a shot of Nelson Mandela repeating a famous Malcolm
X vow to carry on the fight for equality, although he couldn't bring himself
to say 'by any means necessary'. Lee's message is that little has changed
for blacks since the days of Malcolm X, but that the struggle continues.
Malcolm X opens in London on 5 March
Richard Stead on the rediscovery of Frank Lloyd Wright
A romantic modernist?
Frank Lloyd Wright is today ac-claimed as one of the foremost architects
and designers of the twentieth century, his stature con-firmed by the recent
opening of a new gallery in London's Victoria & Albert Museum dedicated
en-tirely to his work. When Wright was at the peak of his powers in the
interwar years, he was a relatively marginal figure. So why should his reputation
be revived a quarter of a century after his death?
At first sight Wright might seem an unusual architectural hero in an age
which fetes the postmodern aesthetic. Postmodern architecture plunders the
past willy-nilly, drawing upon different elements in an ad hoc fashion.
Wright, on the other hand, developed early in his life his concept of 'organic
architecture', in which all the elements were essential to the concept of
the overall whole. Yet this organicism grew out of an 'art and craft' philosophy,
a harking back to the romantic tradition, which is what appeals to the postmodern
architects of today.
Wright is a unique figure in that he straddled the pre-modern arts and crafts
tradition and the modern movement. In his use of contemporary material - such
as concrete - and in the way he used it, Wright was undoubtedly a
modernist. Emphasising the natural qualities of the materials he used, Wright
ensured that the grain in wood and the shape and colour of brick and stone
became essential elements of any work. Even when using concrete he preferred
to leave it uncoloured, so as to give it a rougher, earthier feel.
Much of the open interior brickwork and plain concrete columns of 1960s
houses and public spaces crudely drew its inspiration from Wright's ideas.
His stress on the natural qualities of materials gave his work a simplicity
that was echoed by the design structures themselves. He often limited the
number of rooms, even in his largest commissions, preferring to have rooms
overlapping or flowing into one another and only separated by screen-like
At the same time, however, Wright was also part of a much older folksy tradition.
He was a contemporary of the great modernist architect Le Corbusier. But
Le Corbusier's assertion that 'we claim in the name of the steamship, of
the airplane, and of the motorcar the right to health, logic, daring, harmony,
perfection', would have horrified Wright. Much of Wright's work was fuelled
by a distaste for urbanisation and what he considered to be the brutalisation
of the modern world. The rural landscape, and in particular the desert,
feature very strongly in Wright's oeuvre. While Le Corbusier often
used prefabricated buildings and repeated designs, much of Wright's work
was for one-off designs and as such recalls the age of the artisan. In this,
he was as much a traditionalist as Prince Charles.
The combination of modernism and romanticism can be seen in the Kaufmann
office, which forms the centrepiece of the V&A gallery. In 1934 Wright
was commissioned by Edgar Kaufmann to renovate his office. Trying Kaufmann's
patience to the limit with his 'artisan' approach, Wright finally completed
his commission four years later.
The office is a basic rectilinear shape with one corner jutting into the
room creating a recess, from which a large table protrudes. The recess wall
is decorated with an intricate mural of plywood with an inlaid light fitting.
Completely designed and decorated in cypress wood, the decoration, lighting
and furniture are an integral part of the room itself. They are used to
define and organise the space. It is a creative use of space that marks
Wright, for all his romantic sensibility, as an architect of a different
order from today's postmodern cut-and-paste merchants.
Not a novel idea among them
Alan Harding on the debate about new British novelists
'I would not want to be Bach, Mozart, Tolstoy, Gertrude Stein or Joe Hill.
They're all dead. The great books've been written. The great sayings have
all been said.' So wrote Bob Dylan in the sleeve notes for his 1965 album,
'Bringing it all back home'. I remembered Dylan's sneer at the pomposity
of the arts establishment as I looked on at the latest spat among British
The debate started in January when the booksellers Waterstones published
its list of Britain's 20 best young novelists (qualification: you must be
under 40). When Waterstones produced a similar list 10 years ago, among
the names were such luminaries as Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis and Julian
Barnes. This time the list, chosen by a panel which included Rushdie himself,
Booker prize-winner AS Byatt, and Bill Buford, editor of Granta magazine,
was made up largely of minor writers like Hanif Kureishi and Esther Freud
or complete unknowns such as Anne Billson, Adam Lively and Helen Simpson.
No sooner had the names been revealed than the backlash started. The Sunday
Times (which had been given an exclusive because the organisers naively
believed that it would be sympathetic) compared the new crop of novelists
unfavourably with Waterstones' previous list. The Guardian's James
Wood moaned that 'anybody can do anything' in today's novel and besides
'anything has already been done'. Established figures like Martin Amis and
Gilbert Adair proclaimed that they had never heard of, let alone read, many
of the authors.
Rushdie immediately retaliated in the pages of the Independent on Sunday,
calling the Sunday Times' article 'as supportive as a fatwa'.
He wrote an even more vitriolic letter to the Guardian dismissing
its literary editor, Richard Gott, as a 'superannuated foreign correspondent'.
The first thing to remember in making sense of this clash of tempers is
that the Waterstones' list is not a gauge of new talent, but a publicity
stunt and a marketing ploy. Even more than the Booker and Whitbread prizes,
the Waterstones list helps to hype the names and sales of a few authors,
putting more money into both their and Waterstones' pockets. Unlike the
prizes, however, the Waterstones list barely manages to cover its commercial
intent with literary aura. Publishers have to pay a fee to have their books
considered (supposedly to cover the cost of promoting them). When, in the
fifties, the radio DJ Alan Freed accepted money for playing certain records,
the authorities called it payola. When Waterstones receive payment to put
forward certain books, it is called literary promotion.
If literary promotion helps sell books, then controversy helps sell newspapers.
In the case of the Sunday Times it also helps to maintain its reputation
for philistinism and disdain for the liberal literary establishment. Not
so long ago the Murdoch paper launched a campaign against the 'literary
mafia', whose members it claimed reviewed each others' books in the national
press to mutual benefit. The Sunday Times has also attacked the Booker
Prize, most of whose winners and judges, it suggests, come from a small
cabal of writers associated with Malcolm Bradbury's creative writing course
at the University of East Anglia.
Both Rushdie and the Sunday Times miss the point. Waterstones' list
certainly demonstrates the dearth of new talent in Britain today - but so
it did a decade ago. The only author of unquestioned world stature on the
1983 list is Rushdie himself. Martin Amis, Julian Barnes and Kazuo Ishiguro
can be considered major talents. The rest are distinctly second rate.
The fact is that British novel-writing has been in decline for a long time.
In the wake of the Waterstones list many reviewers played a new parlour
game of imagining whom such a list might have contained 50 or a 100 years
ago. Kingsley Amis noted that in 1940 the list would have to include Graham
Greene, Elizabeth Bowen, Rosamund Lehmann, Henry Green, Christopher Isherwood
and Evelyn Waugh. Amis' list tends to confirm that even 50 years ago British
literary talent was pretty thin on the ground.
Nick Hornby took us back to 1850: 'Bill Buford and his judges would have
been arguing about the relative merits of Trollope, Disraeli, Charlotte
Bronte, Mrs Gaskell, Thackeray and Charles Dickens.' Now, you might say,
we are getting somewhere. Hornby's list seems to indicate both how far British
novel-writing has declined and how far back you have to go to reach the
golden age of British novels.
The novel no longer takes pride of place as a literary or expressive form - and
rightly so. The best and most imaginative British talent is to be found
elsewhere - television (Dennis Potter), short stories (Adam Mars-Jones),
travel writing (James Fenton) or journalism (Nick Hornby). More importantly
the best writing is not to be found in Britain at all - authors like Chinua
Achebe, Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Toni Morrison now dominate the imaginative
landscape. Far be it from me to sound politically correct, but I reckon
we would be better served by African poets and Latin American storytellers
than by second-rate British novelists.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 53, March 1993