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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 blame.

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 fervour.

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 dividers.

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 literati.

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

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