Malcolm X story deserves dignity, not designer wear

MIKE LITTWIN

November 18, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

Question for today: What do the San Jose Sharks and Malcolm X have in common? The answer: Probably too much.

I'll explain.

The Malcolm X movie, as you must know, finally opens tonight. The reviews are generally wonderful, meaning Spike Lee may have actually pulled off the daring trick of bringing to life one of the truly compelling and important -- but also complex -- figures of those tortured years.

What the movie doesn't do, I'm sure, is trivialize Malcolm's life.

But maybe X caps do.

And if X caps don't, maybe X baseball shirts ($52 at Macy's for the Spike Lee version) do.

And if X baseball shirts don't, maybe X potato chips do.

And if X potato chips don't, I'm sure X automobile air fresheners do. (The maker of the air freshener, which sells for under $2, told the New York Times: "A lot of Afro-Americans can't afford hats and shirts . . . We will sell in the millions.")

What's next? Malcolm X World, the theme park? A tie-in with McDonald's where, if you purchase a Happy Meal, you can also buy an X-mobile?

When Malcolm X lay dead on the Harlem auditorium stage, his chest full of buckshot, the last thing anyone could have guessed was that 27 years later he would become a marketing vehicle for what some are calling a $100 million industry.

And so, today we are presented with Malcolm X: the man, the myth, the movie, the fashion statement.

How do you figure that an ascetic revolutionary has been turned into streetwise-chic, and what does that say about our life and times? Which brings us back to the original question. Are X caps any different from Raiders caps or Sox caps or Sharks cap? I'm waiting for someone to show me the X cap is less an accessory (goes great with baggy pants and Jordans) than a political declaration.

Malcolm X stood for many things. As far as I know, clothing wasn't among them.

That isn't to say that the movie can't be important. It is, at last, a significant movie about a black man and black issues, written by a black man, directed by a black man and offered to a mainstream audience from a black point of view. For black people, it represents a rare opportunity to shape and define their own culture. That certainly beats such revisionist garbage as "Mississippi Burning," in which, according to the script, the FBI brings justice and civil rights to the South. And it beats "Glory," a sensitive rendering of black soldiers in the Civil War but for some reason seen through the blue eyes of Matthew Broderick, who plays a white officer leading the black troops.

Spike Lee fought for this movie, arguing that a white person couldn't do justice to Malcolm X. I'm not sure that's true. But history makes clear that without pressure from Lee, no black director would have been given the opportunity.

Lee is a gifted director, perhaps the best of his generation. I think "Do the Right Thing" was among the 10 best movies of the '80s. He is a provocateur, and I think that's good, too. He tells us race is the single, overriding social issue in America at a time when many don't want to listen. When Lee suggests to newspaper editors that they send black reporters to interview him, he is accused of racism. But maybe he's simply putting forth his own small affirmative-action program for the media where minorities are seriously underrepresented.

The problem with Lee is he wants it both ways. He wants us to pay serious attention to his movies and his issues, and at the same he sells X caps and X shirts at his own boutique, Spike's Joint, suggesting that marketing is the message.

It's the same Spike Lee who works for Nike, directing and starring in commercials that attempt to sell overpriced, designer sneakers to poor children in the inner cities who should be using that money to buy books -- maybe even books about Malcolm X -- instead.

There's nothing wrong with hyping a movie, but there are certain subjects that demand care. The Malcolm X story is that of a man who grew up in a racist society, turned to crime, went to prison, educated himself, became an advocate simultaneously of black pride and hatred of whites and finally, in his last years, rejected racism and began working to bring people together. It was his final conversion that led to his murder.

It's a remarkable story that should be treated with dignity, not with designer wear. I can't help wondering what Malcolm, were he alive, would think of it all.

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