In Malcolm X, Lee’s portrayal of women coincides with el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz’s legacy as a symbol of black manhood. The film portrays Malcolm’s spiritual journey in the Nation of Islam. As he grows, his conceptions of manhood shift with him. Still, Lee’s portrayal of his beliefs does not allow for the characterization of independent women. This actually diverges from the material from which the film was based from, Alex Haley’s autobiography of X, in this way. In the book, one of the most central characters throughout Malcolm’s life is his Aunt Ella. Ella Collins was his half sister who he first lived with when he moved to Boston, and would remain a pivotal figure. In his words, Malcolm characterized her as “the first really proud black woman I had ever met.” Later in his life, while Malcolm was experiencing financial troubles from splitting with the Nation of Islam, Ella would finance his pilgrimage to Mecca. I found it perplexing that this important detail was neglected in the film. It is crucial to acknowledge that the most transformative experience of Malcolm X’s life would not have been possible without the support of a black woman. It’s unclear if this was a conscious decision or a result of production limitations. It could be possible this was ignored because it would have shattered the conception of Malcolm X we have as a figure of black manhood and independence. Collins would leave the Nation of Islam, around the same time Malcolm did, to become an orthodox Sunni Muslim. After Malcolm’s death, she took the reigns of his organization and continued advocating for the civil rights of Afro-Americans. She died in 1996, in a nursing home.
Here is the NY Times’ tribute to her.
Spike Lee originally wanted to name “Mo’ Better Blues,” “A Love Supreme” after John Coltrane’s most celebrated album. However, Coltrane’s widow Alice wasn’t in favor, so Lee found a different name. Still, Lee employs the prolific album in a powerful montage towards the end of the film. The scene chronicles the marriage of Bleek and Indigo, the birth of their child, and his early adolescence. Both the montage and record were greatly condensed. Although only the first suite of the album was used, the album itself was fairly short as well. It clocks in at around thirty minutes, which is surprising given Coltrane regularly played solos longer than that. It marks Bleek’s gradual redemption from a dark period of depression and isolation following his injury. Similarly, Coltrane recorded A Love Supreme following a tortured period of heroin addiction and alcoholism. Coltrane writes in the album liner notes, that “during the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life.” Its fitting that A Love Supreme should be introduced in the film at the time Bleek finally finds something he loves more than himself. Lee described the movie as “a love story between couples, between friends, between father and son, between generations.” Coltrane’s masterpiece exists as a statement of love and thanks for redemption from spiritual enslavement. He frequently gives thanks to a God, generally understood as the monotheistic Judeo-Christian entity, that he never specifies. His collection of books included The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Autobiography of a Yogi, and his wife Alice would later become a devotee of the Hindu guru Sathya Sai Baba. Coltrane doesn’t specify because he speaks of love and spiritualism in a broader sense, entailing anything that motivates individuals to strive for deeper meaning. A Love Supreme is relevant to the scene because Bleek’s shocking revelation, despite not involving drug addiction, points to the significance Coltrane’s spiritual awakening.
I found this scene interesting because of Lee’s inclusion of an actual fraternity. Alpha Phi Alpha was founded at Cornell University as the first African-American fraternity. The Alpha’s perform a well known step routine, to loud applause from the audience. This scene is significant because its one of the only ones where black Greek life is portrayed lovingly. The Gamma’s later emerge to perform a dance routine filled with sexual references and crude choreography. Black colleges generally responded negatively to School Daze, which is understandable given the film’s dysfunctional portrayal. Still, this seems like somewhat of a misinterpretation. The Gammas can in some ways be understood as a characterization of some of the negative aspects of black fraternities, such as sexism and elitism. I don’t think the satire of School Daze is meant to suggest that all black fraternities are as misogynistic, violent and problematic as the Gammas. Instead it’s more feasible that Lee was highlighting some of the problems that they all have, albeit in an exaggerated fashion. This dance routine serves as a wink and a head nod from Lee to black audiences. It’s his assurance that black fraternities can still be a place of unity and love for each other.
How does the concept of black solidarity affect conversations of gender and sexual violence? Within the black community there is an expectation that black women stand in support of black men for the greater good of the race. Spike Lee portrays this dynamic in School Daze through the Gammas and their sister fraternity. Even Mission College’s motto, “uplift the race,” is indicative of this relationship. Throughout the film, the interests of black women are frequently silenced. When Rachel confesses to Dap she intends to pledge to a sorority the next semester, he immediately objects. An even more jarring example is the relationship between Gammas and their sister fraternity. Jane and her sisters spend the entirety of the film supporting, and even cleaning after the Gammas. Still, Julian treats her as a piece of property. When he begins contemplating a split, he believes he has the authority to “give” her to another brother. Though the movie ends shortly after, this assault likely goes unreported. A recent BuzzFeed article by Anita Badejo explores the lack dialogue about sexual violence on HBCU (Historically Black Colleges & Universities) campuses. She highlights the Morehouse and Spelman’s inadequate responses to sexual assaults on campuses, and one student’s experience with a Title IX coordinator. The article frequently questions how the concept of brotherhood and preservation of image interferes with discussions about sexual violence. Spike Lee actually began filming School Daze on Morehouse’s campus, but was forced to leave due to administrator’s disapproval his portrayal. Lee explores many difficult issues within the black community in this film, such as sexual violence, that still have not been adequately reckoned with.
In this scene of the first filming of the minstrel show (50:49 – 51:10), Manray and Womack describe their fictional journey from New York city back down to their home in the south. They characterize themselves as “Sho nuff ‘Bamas.” In my understanding, I’ve heard the term Bama used to describe a southern black, particularly in a northern setting, as uneducated and confused. The term has race and class implications, and was used in the context of the great migration to describe working class blacks arriving from the south. “Bama” was also used mostly by African-Americans, not whites, as opposed to other derogatory words. It invokes respectability politics, by excluding blacks deemed as too embarrassing from the larger black community. In this particular scene the term has obvious negative implications and is used to highlight Mantan and Sleep ‘n Eat’s stupidity. I found this scene interesting in a larger cultural context, in relation to Beyonce’s song formation. She sings, “My daddy Alabama, Momma Louisiana You mix that negro with that Creole make a Texas bama.” In this setting, Beyonce uses the term with a sense of pride in her southern heritage. This also exemplifies how Beyonce’s song is intended for a black audience, seeing as how the word “Bama” has generally been used by only black folk. This reclaiming of a derogatory term as a symbol of empowerment speaks to the resilient nature of black culture.