The Iconography of Malcolm X. Graeme Abernethy. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2013. 293 pp. $35.95 Christopher Tucker

J Pop Cult


Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous) / History / Literature and Literary Theory


Book Reviews

The Iconography of Malcolm X. Graeme Abernethy. Lawrence: University

Press of Kansas, 2013. 293 pp. $35.95 cloth.

In the year 2014, it is almost a cliche to argue that no figure of the Black Freedom

Struggle is more controversial yet perhaps as beloved as Malcolm X. From his coming-ofage as a Boston criminal, to his prison-conversion and his untimely assassination at the hands of his former organization, the story of Malcolm X has been told countless times through a variety of mediums. The immediate aftermath of his death saw The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965); the 1990s begot the acclaimed Spike Lee film Malcolm X (1992); and recently, scholars and critics have simultaneously praised and lambasted Manning

Marable’s Pulitzer-winning biography Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (2011). Now, in his succinct yet informative monograph, The Iconography of Malcolm X, Graeme Abernethy argues that Malcolm X is no longer simply a product of the Freedom Struggle, but rather a cultural and economic artifact of post-Civil Rights America.

In a book that is as enlightening as it is entertaining, Abernethy brilliantly encapsulates not only what made Malcolm X—born as Malcolm Little, died as El-Hajj Malik

El-Shabazz—an important figure in the movement, but in the minds, hearts, and even pocketbooks of activists, educators, and merchants. The “narrative [of Malcolm’s life] has been invoked repeatedly since Malcolm’s death—in books, photographs, painting, films —often cast as a tale of powerful personal transformation culminating in a tragic, even biblically inflected, assassination,” Abernethy writes in his introduction. “The iconography of Malcolm X, from its inception in the late 1950s, has shifted profoundly as the

American racial landscape itself. . . The murder of Malcolm X. . . set in motion a series of tugs-of-war. . . over the interpretation of his cultural meaning” (3-4). Abernethy argues that in the five decades since his death, Malcolm X has been transformed into an icon; this transformation has become even more prominent, he claims, in the ages of hip-hop, global media, and the internet.

Abernethy’s narrative is divided into four equally impressive—and convincing— parts: early photographs of Malcolm taken during his life; the reaction and response to The Autobiography of Malcolm X; his posthumous presence in visual media, especially art and drama; and the reinvention of Malcolm as a hero of hip-hop and Hollywood.

As expected in a book dedicated to cultural representations of Malcolm X, Abernethy devotes much attention to Spike Lee’s biopic Malcolm X. Most significantly, he explores the timing of the film’s release and the commercial byproducts of the film itself. Calling the film “the most influential text to date in shaping perceptions of

The Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 47, No. 6, 2014 © 2015 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. 1327

Malcolm,” he writes that the film’s debut, “in the wake of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and the Los Angeles riots,” was “met with much criticism, particularly from an elder generation of black commentators.” The brunt of this criticism emerged from the commercialization of the film’s subject, “with the ubiquitous X functioning as a kind of dollar sign on posters, T-shirts, key chains, and baseball caps” (186).

Beyond Spike Lee, Abernethy argues that celebrity superstars such as Kanye West and the Chicago Bull’s Derrick Rose have propagated the iconography of Malcolm X in order to serve their own interests and images.

Abernethy closes his text with a strong comparison of the iconography of Malcolm

X to that of Barack Obama during the 2008 American presidential campaign.

Obama’s autobiography Dreams from My Father, Abernethy claims, was born in the same vein of “racial narrative” as Malcolm’s Autobiography, and his early political campaigns echoed Black Power rhetoric. Finally, Abernethy explores the role of

Malcolm’s Islamic faith on his iconography, arguing that his “faith has always been among the aspects of his life least embraced and understood by many American interpreters” (227). Both of these discussions put a fine finishing touch on what truly is an all-inclusive examination of Malcolm X’s impact that is still felt today, well beyond the boundaries of history.

Christopher Tucker

Clark University

Men’s Cinema: Masculinity and Mise-en-Scene in Hollywood. Stella Bruzzi.

Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013. 160 pp. Cloth and paper.

Bruzzi’s book on men’s cinema and masculinity analyzes the performance of masculinity in different film genres, using evidence and examples from classical Hollywood films, such as It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), to more current films like Sherlock Holmes (2011) and Django Unchained (2012). She references over a hundred films and conducts an in-depth analysis of approximately twenty-six, including Dirty Harry (1971), The

Deer Hunter (1978), Raging Bull (1980), Top Gun (1986), Gladiator (2000), and Mission

Impossible-Ghost Protocol (2011). Bruzzi successfully attempts to discuss the way in which classical Hollywood films in America use mise-en-scene to portray masculinity via stylistic effects of production, film angles, music, and other visual elements. As stated in her introduction, she attempts to “interweave selected moments from film theory, gender studies, queer theory, psychoanalysis and sociology in order to establish the critical framework for one way of looking at ‘men’s cinema’ and understand how, within Hollywood, masculinity is interpreted, understood and conveyed via aesthetics” (5). Bruzzi argues that there are various means through which the male aesthetic is presented in cinema, and this presentation changes as both gender roles and the film industry evolve in society. She also argues that the male aesthetic in films is often times portrayed in parallel to notions of hegemonic masculinity with actors maintaining a certain type of physicality, adhering to heterosexuality, and experiencing or repressing some form of perversion, such as homoerotic desires. 1328 Book Reviews