Denzel Washington: X Factor
At daybreak Spike Lee was barking Arabic, and the eleven-dollar-a-day extras were shuffling on cue, and the white boys playing CIA agents were lurking behind the children. The medina was appropriately busy for the cameras, but afterward, at lunch time’s end, our corner of Cairo was all shadows and ancient buildings, as still as a Sunday in Georgia. We’d filled our bellies with lunch, then watched as most of the crew packed and went on to the next location. Left to ourselves under the tent, bunched at the end of a long table, we talked barbershop style about the persecution of our people and the insanity of the world today and about the things we let our hearts believe. We were Denzel Washington, novelist John Edgar Wideman, journalist Ralph Wiley and me. One actor and three writers: four Americans, four black men, four brothers, putting our knives – our thoughts, voices, eyes – on the table. Cutting heads.
Denzel was chief barber; we had come to observe him so that we could go back home and tell the story – it was his house, and we were only scribes. When I was a boy, my father would take me after church to get the peas cut off my head, and I would wait in the chair with tears at the ready, fearing the barber’s clippers and listening with the extra clarity fear gives you. Hair, tears, fell, and Dad and the barber and the preacher would blur. Barbershop became church, church became barbershop, and in this way, minute by minute, Denzel the barber became Denzel the preacher and, more gradually, like the man he’d played earlier in the day, Malcolm, flexing knowledge about some of the hard rocks in the Nation of Islam.
“That Philadelphia mosque, they was gangstas,” said Denzel.
“That’s what I heard.”
“They weren’t playing.”
“They were serious.”
Denzel assured us: “We talked to some of those brothers.” He had studied up on Malcolm, and now he was teaching, and I listened, then joined in the talk: about the Nation, the state of black America, faith. “It’s spiritual warfare,” he was saying. “On every level. Good and evil … I have faith in God and hope in man.” The driver came, and Denzel offered us a ride in his yellow limousine. After we got to the hotel, someone said, “Denzel was sure weird when he got on that spirit number, boy, he’s got some strange ideas.” I thought: “Yeah, maybe, but so what? At least he knows he isn’t the point.”
NEXT DAY THE SHOOTING IS IN the desert. Some buildings – the city – are close behind us. The desert ahead is a road, some tents, some production vehicles, a bumpy plain of sand for miles, empty as a chalkboard. I write and try to make sense of how a black star and a black director and a black cinematographer and a black producer have managed to bring millions of dollars and a bunch of black crew members to Africa to make a Lawrence of Arabia-size epic about a dead black man most Americans reviled in life. This puzzle hangs in the air, and the writers try fighting it off. We talk, play brothers with each other, switch and play fathers, too, speak from the places we know. Test each other with fakes like basketball players do.
Someone tosses out the idea of doing one united piece, a sort of unified black voice to mess with the white publications that paid for our flights here. Ha, ha, ha, yeah, we should. I laugh —– it’s a joke, but I kind of like the idea. Spike insisted on black writers, and our talks with him and Denzel have been made easier by our blackness. We also share maleness: Sometimes our discussions include women crew members, but we never talk about what they feel as women. We share assumptions —– the worth of black struggle, for instance —– and experiences: nasty white cops, cabdrivers et cetera. We share community – our belonging had brought us to Africa, the desert, to see Spike try to see us through.
THE DESERT IS COLD IN THE MORNING, and the extras have been asked to wear the skimpy white frocks Muslims wear on the hajj, the pilgrimage, to Mecca. The people who’ve shown up are brown, black, yellow, white, to represent the faithful Malcolm encountered when he made his trip to Cairo in 1964 and began, he said, to rethink the Nation’s teachings about white devilishness. Malcolm wrote: “Throngs of people, obviously Muslims from everywhere, bound on the pilgrimage, were hugging and embracing. They were of all complexions, the whole atmosphere was of warmth and friendliness. The feeling hit me that there really wasn’t any color problem here. The effect was as though I had just stepped out of a prison.”
The sun rises and fades as we watch Denzel’s Malcolm dining alongside his white Muslim brothers, chanting praises to Allah with his black African brothers, throwing rocks at a replica of Islam’s Devil’s Stone. We observers take photos of each other with each other, with the crew, with Spike. At first Denzel, his white pilgrim’s garment dangling from underneath a long tweed overcoat, stands off to the side, looking straight as a general into the desert, oblivious to our cameras, looking for something else. Soon he comes and joins us.
ULTIMATELY, I THINK, WE ALL CAME to Africa looking for Malcolm. He had gone to Egypt to experience a rebirth; we followed, scouting, hoping to see his latest reincarnation – to see our Egyptian scarab, our black symbol of rebirth, return.
Born in 1925, Malcolm Little was a child of the Depression. His father’s premature death and his mother’s subsequent breakdown destroyed the family; Malcolm and his siblings were ushered off to separate foster homes. After being told by a white teacher that he shouldn’t aspire to being a lawyer, Malcolm slid into a life of drug dealing, pimping and petty thievery. These activities landed him, at twenty, a six-and-a-half-year stay in Massachusetts’s prisons.
Prison was the stage for Malcolm’s most dramatic metamorphosis. Once locked away, Malcolm read everything he could get in his hands, kicked his drug habits and converted to Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam. By 1959 he was the organization’s most visible and effective spokesman and had become one of Elijah’s closest advisers, almost a son. Yet his evolution didn’t end: No longer a public enemy, a young black man behind bars, no longer a zealous convert to the Nation of Islam and its narrow brand of black nationalism, the Malcolm who ventured to Cairo in 1964 was moving toward a vision of America capable of blurring the racial borders he had taken for granted as long as he cared to remember.
I’d gotten off my flight hoping to be greeted by the Egypt Malcolm had seen when he traveled here. North Africa, I knew, isn’t innocent of racism: I’d been to the region before, and I’d seen that. Still, this time I came with Malcolm’s eyes. Thirty minutes into Cairo, I was at my hotel and noticing that the bellhops were the only Arabs I’d seen as dark as me. I felt a dull anger: home, its madness, a familiar contempt. The bellhop asked to take my bags, but I shook my head and hauled them to the elevator alone, thinking Malcolm hadn’t told the whole story.
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