By Peter Hummers on February 10, 2022
“Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.” (William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night)
Chicago mom Mamie Till’s 14-year-old son was killed on vacation in Mississippi in an isolated act of subsumed racism in 1955. She pushed past her fears and rubbed the country’s nose in it.
Petty criminal Malcolm Little converted to Islam in prison, taking the name Malcolm X. He became a Black leader and argued for segregation (framing it as racial separatism) until meeting Muslims of every race on pilgrimage to Mecca, afterwards aligning himself with Dr. Martin Luther King in his quest to bring the races together, in the face of deadly opposition from both white and black separatists.
“We didn’t come over here on the Nina, the Pinta or the whatchamacall it. We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock; Plymouth Rock landed on us!” (Malcolm X)
Journalist and writer Alex Haley (who served on the Outer Banks in the Coast Guard during WWII—PDF) collaborated with Malcolm X on the book The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965). At first regarded as a ghostwriter, Haley today is regarded as an essential collaborator (he interviewed Malcolm over three years), who muted his own voice in deference to his subject’s first-person narrative.
In 1992 director Spike Lee embarked on the project of a lifetime when he signed Denzel Washington (Fallen, Unstoppable) to play Malcolm in a film based on Haley’s book. James Baldwin and Arnold Perl (Naked City) had worked up a screenplay that Lee used with his own contributions. The resulting film was selected in 2010 for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
Malcolm X shuttles between moods and eras: Kinky-haired teenager Malcolm Little (Denzel) is getting his hair straightened before heading off with his friend Shorty (Lee) to a dance. They are wearing outrageous zoot suits; Malcolm in pastels and Shorty in a giant plaid. On their heads they have enourmous fedoras with a giant feather swaying over each hat. The racially mixed dance could be the Blues Brothers scene in the church where Jake gets his calling.
Interspersed with these light-hearted scenes is Denzel’s voice-over as Malcolm, narrating mostly black and white scenes of his pregnant mother being terrorized in Oklahoma, while her husband, a protege of Black Nationalist Marcus Garvey, was preaching in Milwaukee.
His mother was educated, strong, with a high-yellow complexion; that is, she could pass for white, “because her mother was raped by a white man.” One of the reasons she married Malcolm’s father was because he was ebony-black and she wanted her children to have some color. “She was ashamed of the white blood within her.”
Dualities continue: Malcolm is picked up by a white girl (Kate Vernon) at the dance; he takes his date home and returns to meet the blonde, and they make out in a car. The radio is playing The Ink Spots, a vocal group who were popular with all demographics at the time. Moving to Harlem, he becomes the protege of West Indian Archie (Delroy Lindo), a numbers racketeer, until a falling-out sends him back to Boston, where he’s busted with Shorty after a series of robberies.
“There were three things I was afraid of: a job, a bust, and jail. But I realized then that I wasn’t afraid of anything. I was an animal.”
So the stage is set for Malcolm’s arc—he, a thief, at odds with black and white society since his birth, societies that are already struggling to unite, finds common cause with white racists, furthered by his difficult prison conversion to The Nation of Islam (which, ironically, provided security on the shooting set of Malcolm X, why “ironically” I won’t say), until, on pilgrimage in Mecca, he meets Muslims of every race and has an epiphany about the shared racial construct that sets him at odds with The Nation. Martin Luther King Jr. delivers a eulogy to “Brother Malcolm” in a clip shown at the end of the movie.
Washington, who won his first Academy Award in 1989 for Glory, and who, in 2020, was declared “the greatest actor of the 21st century (so far)” by the New York Times, is compelling in his role, in a gangster flick-cum-spiritual journey that mirrors that of the United States during Malcolm’s last years. 89% critics’ score on Rotten Tomatoes.
“I wanted the world to see what they did to my boy.” (Mamie Till-Mobley)
True story: Mamie Till, a single mom in Chicago, sent her 14-tear-old son Emmett to spend a summer with his great-uncle and cousins in Money, Mississippi. Emmett was abducted and killed.
It was 1955, and Emmett was black.
The six episodes of Women of the Movement are heartbreaking, eye-opening, and a tribute to the heroism of perhaps the original tiger mom.
Emmett (Cedric Joe) was as cheerful and easy-going at home as Malcolm Little had been. His mother, Mamie Till (Adrienne Warren, Blue Bloods), had separated from Emmett’s father, but she provided a stable middle-class home, and they had a close network of relatives and friends, including his mother’s boyfriend Gene Mobley (Ray Fisher, True Detective), who had been a barber and a Cadillac salesmen, and a fine father-figure to Emmett.
But it was summer; school was out, and Emmett, along with every other teenaged student, was bored, and Mamie’s uncle Mose Wright (Glynn Turman, The Wire), offered to host Emmett at his home in Money, Mississippi, where his cousins also lived. Mamie worried, but tutored Emmett on his behavior. Mamie had been born in Mississippi, but had moved with her family to Illinois before she was three. Still, she had eyes in her head and knew the situation down South much better than Emmett did.
Her worst fears came close to realization when she received the news from Mississippi of her son’s disappearance. Emmett’s cousins felt as at-home in Money as Emmett had in Chicago, but they had strict boundaries. They were especially polite to whites, didn’t meet their gaze and called then “sir” and “ma’am.” His cousins assumed Emmett knew all this, but he was a cocky kid. In a small grocery they bought some sodas, and Emmett flirted a little with the checkout girl. He could have, and probably did, flirt with white girls in Chicago with no problem, but this was not Chicago. She was unnerved, went to the back and came out with a revolver, and the boys dispersed. But that night the girl’s husband and his half-brother came to Mose’s house and dragged an astonished Emmett away.
Not long after, his body was found in a bayou near the Tallahatchie River, and Roy Bryant (Carter Jenkins, House) and J.W. Milam (Chris Coy, True Blood) were arrested and tried for kidnapping and murder.
It was a local problem, but it threatened to attract national attention as the trial played out, and Mamie, with the help of a team from the NAACP including Medgar Evers (Tongayi Chirisa) and Ruby Hurley (Leslie Silva), pushed through her well-founded fears to publicize her son’s case to the world. The Till case became emblematic of the disparity of justice for blacks in the South, and could be considered ground zero for the American civil rights movement.
90% critics’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes. With Timothy Hutton (A Nero Wolfe Mystery) and Sean Bridgers (Deadwood).
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