The documentary Where Angels Fear to Tread is an “atrocity” film that celebrates its subject, the black Malcolm X, as the anti-hero he most was, writes TALA HAASSER-LICHT
This is Who Scholars Believe Really Killed Malcolm X
Where Angels Fear to Tread is the unflinching ode to Malcolm X, and the radicalism he champions. If anything, it celebrates too much.
The film premieres on BET and will be screened as part of the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, a buzzy affair where artistic vision takes precedence over interest in facts. But where angels fear to tread does its utmost to dignify its subject by acknowledging the evil which befell him, both physically and psychologically.
In 1958, at the age of 34, Malcolm X, one of the greatest of the great black nationalists, was shot twice by a team of assassins. Watching this film feels like being plunged into a dark-room where the soul of the far-gone black leader is still recalled, but whose sharp shards are bereft of even some of its ragged edges.
Take Malcolm’s home life. There is no footage of an idyllic childhood here, and little if any sense of his family life in the outside world. His relationship with his mother was complicated, at best. He seemed to exist far more on the stage than the family home. He had a soft spot for serving food to poor White kids – at one point feeding kiddies stale bread – and was dismissive of his father’s reluctance to help him in his spiritual quest.
He’s a bit of a redneck, too. In his Long Island hometown of Ocean Hill, his family lived in an apartment while he commuted to federal offices in nearby Brooklyn. After a stint in jail, he took “jobs” in Manhattan – through which he put across his political message – but his Manhattan career was short-lived.
Shooting for their killings, Mark Clark and Ben Davis, two former Ku Klux Klan members, were later linked to the bombing of Philadelphia’s Jewish Center, which killed four girls on their way to school.
The film feels the most at its vibrant, lively best when it is at its most centred on Malcolm himself. Here we see a man who exuded charisma, and whose stately body still radiates nobility.
There is, of course, a darker side to him, and it sits all too uncomfortably with this hagiographic view. There is an overly intrusive voiceover and an unnecessarily cinematic framing device. His address to the Nation of Islam community, his syndicated radio show, his final pre-assassination phone call to George Washington Carver, are shown ad nauseam.
Woven here are interviews with people like Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver, and artist Chuck Close. There are portraits and handouts by legendary black surrealist Rene Magritte. And what there isn’t is any sense of Malcolm’s own actions.
Even his photographs, while beautifully posed, feel a bit confected. This is the very first documentary to feature images of Malcolm from the Communist Workers party, yet it is hard to discover any meaningful political insight from these frames.
As a black nationalist, Malcolm did not encounter a wall of doubt. He was fiercely loyal to those who supported him and those who “didn’t know the difference between [the Nation of Islam] and a cult”. Even his most ardent critics know that Malcolm X stood by them, too. But that’s about all there is to the documentary.
Where Angels Fear to Tread is not a biography, nor a homily on the life of a revolutionary. It is, above all, a tribute to a hero who deserves more credit than he is accorded. And with nothing there seems to be an urge to acknowledge its own veneration.
• This article was amended on 28 May 2019 to better reflect that the film premieres on BET.