The tension in the last half an hour of Malcolm X is palpable. There’s a certain dread about this part of the film, and the anticipation of Malcolm’s death seeps off the screen. Much of this is from the wonderful acting in these final scenes, but I wanted in this post to pick up some of the ways that Spike Lee foreshadows Malcolm’s assassination through film form, especially through the repetition of image-types, sound, and camera movement.
Death – violent death – enters the film as a major theme in an early scene of Malcolm and Shorty playacting cops and gangsters.
Close-up shot of a “dead” Malcolm.
Immediate, jarring cut to his father in his own moment of horrific, impending death:
Compare these shots, where the camera is close to the ground to the shot of Malcolm’s dead body after his assassination, where the camera looks vertically down at him (from heaven?):
We’ve raised a lot of interesting points in discussing the famous “Good and Bad Hair” scene from School Daze. We’ve considered the technicalities of the dance styles being used as well as what these differences communicate regarding the larger themes of the scene. We raised questions surrounding exclusion and inclusion within the scene and how these moments of belonging and non-belonging function. We also discussed, among many other things, the elements that make the scene appear as seemingly disjointed from the rest of the film. It has a dreamlike quality, with the cuts between the scenes occurring in the hallway but is also largely a product of the move to the hair salon. We’ve moved off the college campus now into this distinct and different space. There remained lingering ambiguity surrounding the effect of putting the scene in the hair salon, and I think that it’s important to consider the heterotopic nature of this space to help resolve (or possibly intensify?) some of this ambiguity. The heterotopic nature of the salon highlights power dynamics between men and women in the film as well as between women and the women that they view as “other”.
While the scene clearly evokes tensions between women, it also serves somewhat as a stand for agency; the voices of women have been largely silenced or mediated by a man throughout the film. This is where the function of the hair salon as a heterotopic space becomes important. The salon serves as a break away from the male-dominated campus. Geographically, it might be right around the corner, but it is the first transition away from the bubble of the campus thus far in the film. The heterotopic space renders the voice of the women more powerful by effectively silencing men within the scene. By bringing the viewer to a space traditionally dominated by women the subsequent actions and effects of this actions are further validated. Hair salons might function as a space of sanctuary for women, and thus allow this claim for agency to occur. This isn’t an attempt dismiss the other problematic themes present in the scene, but to underscore the effect of devoting this large chunk of time to portraying solely women in this film, but outside of the college campus.
While, to me, the inherent heterotopia of the space between men and women and its implications are clear, the effect on the divisiveness of the women remains ambiguous. Alex made a point in class that the women with different types of hair within the scene would not all be served within the same hair salon. How does this translate to power dynamics? When I first watched the scene I found the interaction through movement of the W’s and J’s to be really interesting. Despite the apparent tension, the women moved across the screen and seemed to be moving fluidly. The closing shot shows the women standing with W’s and J’s scattered throughout instead of standing separated as I originally expected. These few visual cues have an equalling effect, but other elements of the scene point to tension and the hierarchal nature of these differences. The effect of the heterotopic hair salon seems to be multi-layered, simultaneously providing power but also forcing it to be relinquished.
I pulled this image from a scene that begins at time 49:11. This is the first moment where both Manray and his show partner depicted here, Womack, put on black face. I was initially struck by the juxtaposition of their deliberate, calculated actions throughout the scene with the apparent complicated emotions they experience as they put on black face.
It’s interesting that Sloane’s voice is the one we hear giving the actors instructions throughout this scene, given how complex her character is. She is careful to consider the past, offering the ways of creating black face that have been utilized throughout its long, complicated history. This element of the scene speaks to a consideration of the passage of time. We see how black face (and its relevant problems) persists, but its interesting that these actors still play a sort of homage to those who came before them by being so careful in their creation. The actions are strikingly precise, but this shot details the internal dilemma the actors experience, specifically Womack here. The pairing throughout this scene with Womack and Manray helps to foreshadow some of what’s to come with Womack’s hesitation being more apparent.
The actual composition of the scene highlights these complications. The soundtrack that enters is the same one that plays over Manray’s final decision not to perform in black face. In this scene, the music connects to a lack of agency, a sign of giving in. The signification of this music later flips and connects to an empowering moment in Manray’s final stand. In terms of visuals, this shot and scene are dimly lit. The light focuses solely on Manray and Womack’s hands, highlighting the careful act but also their emotions as they carry it out. In this particular shot, the light focuses on Womack’s eyes. We see him gazing back at himself, and how apprehensive and troubled he is by his own actions. This scene hearkens back to the question of what it means to participate in a system that degrades you. Womack and Manray are hesitant to do so, but nonetheless still do perform, and in a way that strangely commemorates this troubled history. I think that the coupling of apprehension and deliberateness in this scene poses the internal chaos inherent in participation in a degrading system.