There are two important turning points in Malcolm X, scenes that both introduce the elements that will structure the act they each begin and depict a pivotal moment in the development of Malcolm X’s thought. The first is the Malcolm’s prison sentence, which opens the film’s second act and shows its main character’s conversion to Islam and black nationalist thought. The second such scene, which opens the third act, is Malcolm’s hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca.
The scene is important because after Mecca, Malcolm X, both historically and as played by Denzel Washington in the film, re-evaluates aspects of his thought and activism. Having recently split from the Nation of Islam, the organization run by Elijah Muhammad that had overseen his post-prison rise to prominence, Malcolm discovers in Mecca a version of brotherhood that transcends the racial boundaries he knows from his experience in the United States. It inspires him to soften his strict anti-integrationism and enables him to imagine a future where racial boundaries have been eliminated. In the scene that follows, X announces to the press, regarding his new mosque-cum-civil rights organization, that “whites can help, but they can’t join.”
In Malcolm X, the pilgrimage is given weight not only as a shift in themes and characterization, but also introduces an important plot element, leading into the film’s tragic climax, revealing that the United States government is keeping tabs on Malcolm. This lays the groundwork for the eventual implied collaboration between government forces [implicitly, both the FBI and the CIA] and the resentful ministers within the Nation of Islam, who eventually—again, mostly implicitly—use information furnished by the government’s surveillance to make multiple attempts on Malcolm’s life.
At the scene’s opening, we are re-introduced to a motif that will appear throughout, and is a frequently formal device used in the film: the intermittent use of academy-ratio 16mm film that evokes either home movies or old news footage. As Malcolm steps off of his Egypt Air flight, we cut from Spike Lee’s low-angle, wide-angle camera to a more intimate, pseudo-documentary close-up of Malcolm deplaning. Lens flares and film grain simultaneously put us in the early 60s and remind us of the difference between it and the slick camera work of Lee and his cinematographer Ernest Dickerson.
At first, we assume the use of the footage in this scene to be driven by the the same postmodern, media-mixing play that Lee has exhibited elsewhere in the film. Soon, though, the footage is given an in-fiction motivation: after a pair of similarly grainy, partially obscured, anonymous shots of Malcolm browsing an Egyptian marketplace, we’re shown the men with the cameras. A few [very conspicuously Western] white men are tucked into corners of the marketplace, some holding cameras, others just staring in Malcolm’s direction.
As the documentary aesthetic finds a motivation within the fiction of the film, it transitions from a rather neutral device suggesting Malcolm’s growing fame to a threatening kind of vision—that is, surveillance. The third act will be about Malcolm’s visibility, his bold commitment to his own path in the struggle for racial equality, becoming a danger to himself and his family. In the pilgrimage scene, Lee introduces the tragic irony of Malcolm’s religious quest—the journey on which he finds his religion has opened his world—also being the moment a vise starts tightening around him that he will not manage to escape. Masterfully, the film presents us a scene driven primarily by its themes that nevertheless parlays those themes into the narrative thrust of the final portion of the film.