On Wednesday, November 18th 1992, I was in school and mad about it. At that time, I attended a predominantly white, wealthy prep school, where I didn’t really identify with anyone. I didn’t belong there. I wasn’t supposed to be there. I was supposed to be at the movies watching Malcolm X. Spike Lee said so.
1992 was a hard year to be Black. The Rodney King verdict came down on April 29 and Los Angeles burned for it. 25 years ago, seeing footage of state-sanctioned brutality against Black people wasn’t as tragically common as it has become today. In 1992, the footage of King being beaten by 5 vicious, white, LAPD officers was so galling, shocking and gut-churning we actually had hope that finally, with proof of the everyday abuse we knew was happening being captured and replayed on screens across the world, the justice system at long last, would have to punish those who committed the egregious crimes against our humanity.
Instead, 1992 taught us the meaning of “justifiable force”. And in protest, in grief, in rage, we took that definition to the streets and ran with it. Blackness in America in the fall of ‘92 was anger, disillusionment and a constant search for something that could restore shattered hopes and reinvigorate an exhausted movement. In the wake of our disappointment over a second King denied justice, we were ready for X.
In 1992 Spike Lee was a hot, young director, whose 1989 effort Do The Right Thing had earned Hollywood clout for being an “important” film. The white-hot gaze of the industry still followed him in ’90 when he dropped Mo Betta Blues, a modestly successful film that featured Denzel Washington – the magnetic leading man whose name and face were seared onto the tongues and eyes of every person who saw him on the screen.
Spike was loud, and aggressive. Denzel was handsome and electric. They were two Black men Hollywood couldn’t ignore if they tried – and now these powerful, important Black men were coming together to tell the story of the 20th century’s most maligned, most misunderstood Black martyr.
Prior to the release of Spike Lee’s most important film, there was a flurry of conversation that stirred the air from Hollywood to your neighborhood. Black T-shirts and hats, emblazoned with the iconic monoglyph, “X” dominated the block, worn by everyone from the deacon to the weed-man and those who stood somewhere in the intersection. We rocked our “X” with pride while white people struggled to understand what the hell was going on. The geeks would ask “Is this about the X-Men?” while in Kentucky where I was from, reactionary tees reading “You Wear Your ‘X’, I’ll Wear Mine” juxtaposed the film’s logo with the symbol of the failed confederacy. Across the country “X” branded indicia was banned in public schools, the t-shirts were labled hate-speech, and kids wearing it were suspended. Spike Lee famously called for Black filmgoers to miss work and school to see this film. It was to be one of the first modern examples of cinema-patronage as a movement.
X was an ENTIRELY BLACK phenomenon that white people couldn’t ignore, or participate in. They could see the film, but they couldn’t have it. It would not apologize to them. It would not coddle them. It would not placate them with a major role. Posters for X had one Black face on them. Denzel – who by films-end had so convincingly embodied Malcolm X that he became the visage of our “shining Black prince” for a generation despite looking nothing like him. Malcom X was everywhere and white people couldn’t ignore him – except at the box office.
Warner Bros. released Malcolm X the same box office weekend as the Whitney Houston/Kevin Costner vehicle The Bodyguard, a romantic drama that fit America’s idea of acceptability for a mainstream, Black-led film: the undeniable, taboo and unfulfilled love of a Black woman irresistibly drawn to a white man, a dramatic, scene-stealing kiss, and a poster and title that reassured everyone the white man was still the hero. Even the film’s breakout song was a cover of a hit written and performed by Dolly Parton, so – depending on how her publishing was set up – every time we swooned over how Whitney just owned that song, Dolly got paid – because she owned that song. Costner got the second most-successful film of his entire career, and Houston, in her very first role, became a bankable film star overnight. Everything about that movie was a fairytale, and it absolutely crushed Malcolm X at the box-office.
The eclipsing of Malcolm X by another Warner Bros. property with a strong, Black presence was no accident. The studio smartly hedged its bets and made sure to capture all the Black dollars by splitting them. The Bodyguard had the perfect formula to woo both Black and white audiences – and it closed 1992 as the 2nd highest grossing film worldwide; Aladdin took #1 and Malcolm X, for all the cultural buzz it had, didn’t rank globally but finished at a respectable 32nd* domestic – just after The Mighty Ducks.
25 years later, the black and silver flag of The Clan of Malcolm has long faded into pop-culture obscurity, while the X of the failed confederacy continues to encourage their Klan. And though the footage has only become more galling, more gut-wrenching, more damning; the country is numb to our suffering and consumes these clips with the same detached sense of pity afforded natural disasters that happen to those brown people over there. We’ve been denied justice so many times in the face of powerful and undeniable evidence that we no longer dare to hope. It is in this climate, in this era of injustice, in this shadow of X, that a new, promising king emerges – and he is T’Challa.
You may laugh when I tell you I am seriously seeking a date for the premiere of the Black Panther movie. I’m dieting and working out because I want my Wakandan ‘fit to be on point. I’m trying to see if it makes sense to rent a limo to this thing. I might hire some ladies to sprinkle rose petals in front of the theater, and I got my eye on this dope lion head joint on eBay…I think it’s velvet – and it’s all perfectly appropriate for the occasion. Because this is not a movie. This is Black Culture Prom. This is Juneteenth in February, This is the cookout from when Cousin Dookie’s appeal came through and he came home. It’s a celebration, BITCHES. And it’s one 25 years in the making.
There hasn’t been film in the collective living memory of our culture as lit or anticipated as Marvel’s upcoming Black Panther. The mere mention of it makes blerds and thugs alike gush with unabashed glee; and draws smiles and exclamations across the Diaspora. This is OUR movie. It features a Black director, is based on the work of Black writers, and boasts a cast Blacker than Wesley Snipes eating licorice in a tire swing at midnight. It doesn’t matter that it comes from a white studio. This is our shit. And Lord knows we need it.
In recent years we’ve tried to recreate the magic that surrounded the pre-release of Malcolm X. We were excited a full year before the release of Birth of a Nation until we learned the unrepentant writer & director had collaborated previously in an unspeakably heinous act. Their dirty hands poisoned the film entirely killing any hopes of commercial success or celebration.
Our spirits rebounded with the release of three amazing films rooted in true-to-life experiences and historical fact. But even as we approached the threshold of celebration Hollywood showed up like a drunk frat boy to commit a gross party foul, mashing together two stand-out films and rendering them invisible as “Hidden Fences.” And then for an encore, they stole the spotlight from Moonlight and tried to leave us in the dark. Hollywood won’t let us be great.
It’s with bittersweet pain that we realize it takes a super heroic effort to lift our people up to the space whites get to walk everyday. For years we presented powerful, compelling stories about our people, our history, our culture, or lived experiences and they were dismissed, ignored, suppressed or marginalized by mainstream. The revitalization of Black cinema that dominated the 90’s declined sharply in the 2000’s and only now as the millennium hits it awkward teen years is Hollywood starting to have some of those necessary difficult conversations in full THX surround sound.
The Hollywood machine persists in sorting and boxing our truth as specialty films and limited releases. Our stories get made but we’re told that nobody identifies with them. We’re in the industry but we’re constantly reminded we don’t belong. So there’s something remarkable about a major studio folding a Black movie prominently into white, wealthy, cinematic universe and putting real money, real talent, and apparently, real thought into producing a movie that from all appearances is as unapologetically Black and as responsive to the times as Spike intended Malcolm X to be.
25 years after our shining black prince bowed out of the box office, we’ve been starved for some representation of us that finally served as proof that the everyday excellence we know we are dipped in could be captured and replayed on screens across the world without capitulating to the white cinematic gaze. It’s just a damn shame we had to step outside reality and walk all the way to Wakanda to find our king.
*(out of 235 films released that year)